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Vetiver – What lies beneath.

November 12, 2018

Sometimes I wonder what is to become of us…

Vetiver grass is hard-working and enduring, much like the people who grow it. It is tough and strong, grows fast and tall and can be used for thatching buildings and preventing soil erosion around river banks and water courses but we don’t need it for that.  Here in Australia, we don’t really think about those attributes when the word vetiver is mentioned, we are only hungry for what lies beneath.

Beneath the soil Vetiver hides its treasure in its roots. These roots contain an aromatic oil that helps fix a fragrance through its dusty, woody, dry and often smoky base notes.  Vetiver is key to natural perfumery and it has been claimed that it is present in around 1/5th of all fragrances created although I’ve no data to validate that other than the fact that International fragrance giant  Givaudan is involved enough to be investing in on-the-ground works to improve supply chain dynamics and secure a slice of this brown ‘gold’.  Another Swiss perfume giant, Firmenich are also involved in a farming co-operative to improve the livelihoods of farmers.

I found myself wondering about this oil the other day when a client asked after it for a natural perfume blend she was making. On discovering that Haiti produces around 50% of the world’s supply of oil (around 70MT-100MT) my curiosity was roused.  I had only really thought about Haiti after having my attention drawn to it through its natural disasters – the terrible earthquake of 2010 that killed up to 316,000 people, the resulting Cholera epidemic followed by a hurricane and then, in 2016 another hurricane.  To me Haiti was a sorrowful lucked-out place facing more than its fair share of chaos and despair.  I didn’t (and still don’t) really understand its colonial history, its politics or its work dynamics – never really had to I guess, it just plods along in the background quietly struggling while I just get on with my life.  Only now do I see how intimately we are connected, connected through roots, soil and of course, oil.

If we allow ourselves for one minute to be transported to  Haiti and into a small rural village, often located in hilly, marginal land where we will be residing on a small holding farm typical of this area.  The farm houses a family who derive their main source of income from Vetiver grass, just like another 30,000 families around them all farming their plots of roughly 3 hectares.  Families also grow other crops which they can trade and use to feed themselves but its the vetiver that’s bankable, the real cash crop.  Vetiver grows pretty quickly taking between 18-24 months to grow enough root to warrant a harvest. The roots grow straight down to a depth of between 2-4 metres, sometimes growing up to 3 metres in only a year!   Harvesting the plant involves digging out the roots then chopping off the grassy tops before cleaning up the roots then taking them to an intermediary which then takes the roots off to the distillery.  As a farmer you can expect no more than 10% of the total money exchanged from field to oil to come your way and you lose sight of your crops early on often because of the cost of and difficulty in accessing transportation. Fuel prices have recently gone through the roof in Haiti and that has been the trigger for rioting as this has also squeezed margins (disproportionately so at the bottom of the supply chain).  Things like fuel prices and access to your own transportation plus a decent road network all serve to keep you, the farmer at arms length from the profit.  The intermediary network that you rely on to get your product to the distiller makes around 13% of the market share of income but they have to use that to cover the trucks and often the wages of the field workers they bring in to help with your harvest.  The real money is made at and after the distillery with oil distillers taking around 32% of the wholesale price and exporters taking 45%. Once the oil leaves the country prices can soar even further. The current price for Vetiver oil is from $700-$1000 per Kg (AUD). In 2011 the export price leaving Haiti was around $300AUD  per Kg so there is a LOT of money not getting back to the farmers.  This isn’t unusual but is it in any way ethical given that farmers often can’t afford to feed and school their families?

While the dynamics of supply chain income distribution are one problem facing the farmer, another is the long-term viability of the industry.  Demand is growing and oil quality is currently high but it may not always be so.  In harvesting the crop the top soil is disturbed and in some cases permanently washed away, especially when harvesting coincides with heavy rains or storms.  Vetivers ability to ‘fix’ soil and prevent erosion is only relevant is the crop is NOT constantly plucked out from its roots.  Some efforts by large multinational fragrance houses such as Firminiche and Givaudan have gone in to help improve farming methods and protect top soil but it is likely that more will need to be done, especially in light of what we now know about soil microbes and the ramifications of aerating delicate soil structures.

Panning back out I see a country that is highly vulnerable and very exposed to both human exploitation and environmental disasters.   While it is pleasing to see big multinationals and NGO’s coming in and looking at ways to invest in and support the local communities within Haiti but there is a big part of me that can see the exploitative side of some of these practices.  Sure they all help but they also help themselves.  Who performs the checks and balances especially when the farmers are vulnerable both from lack of formal education and lack of financial might?   With that in mind I found this project of interest.   This group is looking at using the left-over carbon mass from Vetiver production to produce ‘green coal’ – basically creating briquettes from the biomass to use as a source of energy.  I’m not sure how burning green stuff make ‘green’ energy  to be honest – wouldn’t it be better rotted back into the soil as compost? That’s apparently what happens to the green stuff in other Vetiver countries.

There is just so much more digging (very apt) to do around this subject but I’m still left with more questions than answers when it comes to Vetiver.

If these incoming companies are there to do good then why are these figures still so bad in 2018 after many multinationals have been on the ground for a number of years?

  • 85% of the population live in poverty
  • literacy levels are 61% which is well below average for the region
  • 90% of schools are privately run either by companies or churches.
  • 88% of children attend primary school but only 20% make it through to secondary.

On the plus side it looks like the people of Haiti are not short on feistiness and fight as thousands recently demonstrated when they took to the streets to demand an enquiry into missing government funds.   I think that those of us that value the products that countries like Haiti produce need to take some time to understand the conditions that we are buying into, the lives that are being compromised for our luxury and the inequalities that are being perpetuated.  As I mentioned in the beginning, I had no idea of what life was like to a Vetiver farmer in Haiti until last week but now I’m aware I want to make sure we show them that we hear them and we care and the first step towards us doing that is to understand.

So please, take the time to think on the plight of the Vetiver farmers and their environment a little so that we may at last come up with a solution of how to all profit sustainably from these gifts of nature.

 

 

4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 13, 2018 12:33 am

    Another amazingly educating and interesting post! Thank you 🙂

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      November 14, 2018 7:26 am

      You are most welcome.

  2. Kelly permalink
    November 19, 2018 11:25 am

    Absolutely fascinating article, thank you!!

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      November 19, 2018 4:48 pm

      There’s just so much to uncover with cosmetic chemistry and aromatics. It keeps me busy for hours.

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