PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — The sharp tang of varnish hangs in the air as a dozen women and a few men cut and scrape logs into bowls destined for U.S. department stores. In other workshops, vases sparkle with sequins of pink, green and blue and dragonflies leap from picture frames cut from recycled steel drums.
Three years after a devastating earthquake, there’s still not much economic traction in this long impoverished Caribbean country but one small niche has taken off: arts and crafts.
The artisan industry is enjoying a boost from advocacy groups that are helping to organize workers and improve quality. Big retailers Macy’s and Anthropologie and three high-end designers are among those working with at least five artisan groups to export Haitian arts and craft works.
“We saw an increase in (our) purchases soon after the disaster,” said Michele Loeper, a spokeswoman for Ten Thousand Villages, one of the few U.S. retailers to purchase Haitian handicraft before the quake. “In a way, it was our way to provide much-needed assistance.”
The number of artisans has increased and more workshops have opened, thanks in part to more than $3 million from groups such as the Inter-American Development Bank and the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, a pro-business nonprofit set up by former U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
The number of regularly employed artisans jumped from 450 in September 2011 to 2,100 this July, says the Artisan Business Network, a newly formed advocacy group based in Port-au-Prince.
But, in all, an estimated 400,000 Haitians engage in at least some craft work, with roughly one million people directly supported by artisan producers, according to a 2010 report financed by the Canadian artisan advocacy group BRANDAID Project and CHF International, a U.S. group now known as Global Communities that helps foster sustainable development.
“We want people to come buy from Haiti not because they have pity for the Haitians but because the product is well-made, it’s well-priced and it’s something they can use,” said Nathalie Tancrede, co-founder of the Artisans Business Network.
Macy’s is the biggest U.S. retailer selling handmade Haitian goods, followed by the West Elm and Anthropologie chains, along with stores such as MI OSSA in Charlottesville, Va., and online boutique shops such as Noonday Collection and Maiden Nation.
Designers including Rachel Roy, Chan Luu and Donna Karan have also become big post-quake boosters, purchasing and selling jewelry designed by Haitian women.
There are no solid figures on how much Haiti’s arts and craft contribute to its exports but they rank far behind clothing. The garment sector accounted for 93 percent of the $768 million worth of exports last year, which were up from $563 million the year of the quake, according to Haiti’s Central Bank.
Haitian craft work peaked in the early 1980s, when thousands of artisans were employed. But the industry, and the rest of the economy, collapsed following a United Nations-imposed embargo in 1993 that sought to restore constitutional rule after a military junta ousted then President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Artisans are again seeing their craft compete on the international market and create jobs in a country where steady employment is elusive. There are no official figures on unemployment since the quake but the jobless rate was around 60 percent from 2007 to 2010, according to the World Bank.
The money made at Haiti’s end can seem far removed from what the craft brings at a U.S. retailer, where the final price is pushed up by shipping, stocking, marketing and other costs.
Craftsman Felix Calixte said he earns $6.50 for a metal picture frame in a style similar to one selling at Macy’s for about $40. Still, Calixte can make three in a day and the total income of nearly $20 is five times the daily minimum wage.