A Sea of Salvaged Materials: Ayiti Pèpè
Lide timoun pèpè
Pati politik pèpè
Plan devlopman pèpè
Premye minis pèpè
Pwojè devlopman pèpè
Rèv moun pèpè
Tout bagay pèpè…
Ayiti ap viv nan pèpèrizasyon!
Kilè l va depèpèrize?
Emmanuel W. Vedrine
Collection Kri pou liberasyon, 2005
In 2017, as a visiting scholar at l’Université Francophone de Cap-Haïtien, I gave a research paper on Haiti’s secondhand clothing and garment assembly industries in Haitian Kreyòl. In my critique of the secondhand clothing system in Haiti, I cited the poem ‘Ayiti pèpèrize’ by the Haitian American writer and scholar Emmanuel W. Vedrine. Pèpè is the Kreyòl term for used clothing in Haiti that has been arriving in tightly-bound bales from the United States since the 1960s, under President John F. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress Latin American assistance programme (Shell 2006, 154). As I recited Vedrine’s critique of Haiti’s increased dependency on foreign ‘hand-me-downs’ and external interventions to the detriment of local industry and entrepreneurship, audience members began to accompany me in my reading, prompting a call and response participatory performance. Vedrine’s accusations were all too familiar to a Haitian people, who since defeating Napoleon’s troops to gain independence from France in 1804, have been forced to pay for their ‘exceptional’ freedom. The French colony of Saint-Domingue boasted the most prosperous sugar plantation economy of the New World in the eighteenth century. When France finally recognized Haitian independence in 1825, they burdened the fledgling Black republic with a crippling indemnity payment (of 150 million francs) to cover losses incurred by plantation owners. Fearing the spread of Haitian revolt amongst slaves throughout its southern states, the US imposed a trade embargo which shunned and isolated the new nation, preventing its participation in international commerce. The US only recognized Haitian independence in 1862. This global ostracization and exclusion of Haiti has persisted to the present day, a legacy not only of the Haitian Revolution and its aftermath, but also of US imperialism (solidified most notably during the US occupation of Haiti from 1915-1934) and postcolonial authoritarian regimes that have mimicked the racialised colonial ideologies of the oppressor.
In the wake of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti on 12 January 2010, killing over 200 000 people and leaving more than 1.5 million people homeless, a ‘humanitarian occupation’ of Haiti (Schuller 2016, 228) has resurfaced, prompting Haiti’s recent nickname as the ‘republic of NGOs’. The aftershocks of the earthquake, the collective trauma and destruction, provided what Naomi Klein (2007) has conceived, in her writing on Hurricane Katrina, as a blank slate, a tabula rasa, onto which a nexus of international donors (NGOs, US policymakers, the Inter-American Development Bank [IDB]) could impose their plans to expand low-wage textile and garment production sites under the pretext of ‘development’ (Shamsie 2014, 82). If, for Paul Gilroy, plantation slavery was ‘capitalism with its clothes off’ (1993, 15), the economic success of which was based on commodity production for export, Haiti continues to be viewed an atelier of external capitalist development today. Since Haiti’s inception as an independent post-slavery state in the nineteenth century, Western powers have ensured Haiti’s economic dependence and enduring servitude to global capitalism.
This short essay will imagine the global itinerary of a T-shirt assembled at one of Haiti’s export processing zones, the Caracol Industrial Park, located in the north of the country. Under the pretext of post-earthquake ‘development’, this low-wage textile and garment production site, built on fertile farming soil and financed by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the US government, opened in 2012. The t-shirt, once discarded by the US consumer, will eventually end up washed up on the shores of Cap-Haïtien port in northern Haiti to be resold as pèpè in the global export trade of used clothing. The second part of the essay will consider how visual artists from Haiti have used secondhand clothing or textile fatras (waste) in their work to critique the disposability of Haitian lives within an unequal capitalist and racialised world system.
Itinerary of a T-shirt Fè an Ayiti (Made in Haiti)
At the Caracol industrial park, the South Korean textile and clothing manufacturer, SAE-A under its Haitian subsidiary S&H Global currently employ approximately 10 600 workers. The fabric used in their factories is spun in China and imported to Haiti to be cut and sewn1. The minimum wage for garment workers in Haiti is currently 350 Gourdes per day, which is approximately 5 US dollars. A basic cotton t-shirt assembled by a Haitian worker is then shipped to the US to one of their retail outlets that include Walmart, Target and Old Navy. The t-shirt is purchased for around 10 US dollars and its practical service life (how long it is worn) will be much shorter than its technical service life (how long it could be worn) (Zamani, Sandin and Peters 2017: 1368). Once discarded, the garment will either end up in landfill or enter one of the other reuse channels, such as charitable donation. If the unwanted t-shirt ends up in a clothing donation bin in Miami, it is highly likely that it will be taken to a sorting depot to be sold for export to Haiti. The clothing is sorted according to style (baby clothing and underwear from abroad are particularly sought after items as thought to be superior to local choice) and quality and then sold in bales to Haitian traders (often members of the diaspora who have migrated to the US) who pay approximately 3000 US dollars for a container which fits between 35-40 bales of used clothing. The shipment takes a week to arrive in the northern port of Cap-Haïtien and then a further two weeks to clear Haitian customs. A team of local transporters use large wooden trolleys to deliver the bales of clothing to central depots in the city.
Women traders then buy the bales paying between 8000-9000 Gourdes (125-140 US dollars) for high quality, pèpè bon grenn, and 3000-4000 Gourdes (47-62 US dollars) for lower quality, pèpè mwen bon. The traders pay a man with a wheelbarrow to transport the bale to the pèpè market. As the bundle is opened, and its contents revealed, the event usually attracts a crowd of anticipant customers.
At this stage the t-shirt may be bought by kliyan (customers) or other women traders who plan to resell the garment. In both cases, the kliyan may then require the services of marketside tailors and seamstresses who set up their sewing machines every day under canopies (made with pèpè) and charge between 70-100 Gourdes to alter the fit, or mend a damaged piece of clothing. Women traders may buy a much smaller bundle for around 100-200 Gourdes, selling each piece for around 50 Gourdes on the streets of oKap (as the regional capital is known). Alternatively, on Tuesdays and Saturdays, many traders arrive at the pèpè market from the Haitian border town of Ouanaminthe to replenish their stock. If selected for resale, the t-shirt is rerouted eastwards aboard a taptap minibus and sold in the binational market in Dajabón on the Dominican side. Twice a week on Mondays and Fridays, Haitian traders are permitted entry to the Dominican Republic to sell used clothing, US-grown rice, beans and garlic, imported from Miami. If bought for resale in Dajabón, the t-shirt could eventually end up in a bundle, transported by Dominican or Haitian pepeceras to the market of Santiago on the eastern side of the island (Shoaff 2017).
If, however, the t-shirt does not make it this far, and after two weeks has not been sold, it will most likely be discarded on the streets of oKap and end up as textile waste or fatras, sedimented amongst the banana skins, coconut hulls, spaghetti packets and styrofoam containers that you find lining the streets of the city. Swept outside people’s homes in small piles, washed into the drainage gullies, in the sea and piled in drifts on the beaches: this is fatras. As Haitian conservation scholar Florence Sergile points out, manufactured goods discarded in this fashion are not counted as rubbish by the Haitian authorities, and so left to pollute the environment.2 They are often left to compact into the earth or burnt, emitting polluting gases into the environment, which can be dangerous to public health. Although the t-shirt has been destined for reuse in a Haitian market, it also must be discarded at some point and enters a Haitian waste management system without the resources to enable its ecological disposal. Even in the US, ‘only 15% of textile waste is diverted from landfills even though most of it is 100% reusable or recyclable in some form’ (Lewis, 2015: 233).
Earlier in the chain, textile offcuts or rejected garments are disposed of at the site of manufacture. At Caracol, SAE-A have an incinerator and burn their scrap fabric to produce steam for their iron presses. The fabrics used in production are predominantly made from synthetic fibres which have been criticised for their higher greenhouse gas emissions during manufacture, their non-biodegradability and toxic pollutant emissions during waste management (Muthu, 2014: 14). Sergile points out the contradiction in this textile disposal cycle when she problematises the received notion that ‘tout le monde a besoin de la nourriture en Haïti, mais pas l’environnement’ (everyone needs food in Haiti, but not the environment). Climate vulnerability and the impact of disasters does not help the problem of food insecurity in Haiti. In 2012 Hurricane Isaac destroyed crops across the country. In 2016, the grade 4 storm, Hurricane Matthew, killed over 800 people, decimating homes, crops and livelihoods for thousands of Haiti’s rural population in the southern provinces considered to be Haiti’s ‘breadbasket’. The onomatopoeic goudougoudou – used to refer to the 2010 earthquake in imitation of the sound of the earth shaking – is now used to denote the rumbling of empty stomachs.3 However, a decline in Haitian agriculture must also be attributed to transnational economic deals and foreign trade interests. The increase in women’s factory work in export processing zones such as Caracol correlates with a decline in food production networks that, as Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote, relied on women as the ‘backbone of the Haitian marketing system for local food crops’ (1990). Farmers grew plaintain, beans, corn and manioc on the rich agricultural land of the Caracol valley before they were displaced to make way for the garment assembly plant.4 An even clearer example is that of subsidised rice imports from the US (diri Myami or Miami Rice), which since the 1980s has led to the collapse of domestic Haitian rice production. Instead of increased dependence on cheap imports (manje pèpè), Haitian farmers are demanding food sovereignty.
Layers of Lives Lived on the Periphery
Haitian performance artist, Barbara Prézeau Stephenson, in her critique of rad pèpè (imported secondhand clothing) and homofobi pèpè (imported homophobias), has intervened in the lifecycle of pèpè goods using these castoff garments to contest bodies rendered castoff or disposable in Haitian society. Prézeau’s performance entitled ‘Lakansyèl’, meaning rainbow in Haitian Kreyòl took place as part of the ‘Atis nan Kay la’ series in October 2013. The organisers, Akoustik Prod, selected traditional gingerbread houses in the Pacot neighbourhood of Port-au-Prince for the staging of artistic interventions in an attempt to promote the preservation of this unique Creole architectural heritage. Prézeau’s performance, lasting 25 minutes, took place on the liminal veranda space of the famous Viviane Gauthier Dance School. Dressed in white, the colour worn by ‘servers’ of the Haitian Vodou religion, Prézeau knots together pèpè garments, sorted according to the seven colours of a rainbow. Adopting ritual postures and gestures inspired by Vodou dance forms, the artist knots together a lifeline of used clothing that can be said to represent the dependency of one small nation on a much more powerful other. As the colour-coded clothing entangles the performer, there is a sense of suffocation, mimicking the drowning of local industry by US exports of secondhand clothing.5 The staging of the performance in the threshold space of the veranda, at the intersection between inside and outside, also evokes the in-between yet peripheral status of same-sex loving individuals in Haiti, who are both accepted within the religion of Vodou and largely ostracized in a wider Haitian society that remains heteropatriarchal and homophobic. This performance in the space of the in-between is furthermore a reminder of Haiti’s externally-imposed status on the periphery of the periphery, recently recycled in demeaning and dehumanising terms by the Trump administration.6
Prézeau’s performance recalls the work of Cuban American artists Alain Guerra and Neraldo de la Paz who source materials for their sculptural installations from the waste bins of secondhand clothing shipping companies in Miami’s Little Haiti. Known collectively as Guerra de la Paz since 1996, the artists would scavenge through the sea of castoff clothing discarded outside their studio by export businesses and create work using the pre-worn manufactured garment as a starting point.7 Tribute (2002) is a heap of clothing collected and sorted into a rainbow spectrum, while Indradhanush (2008) forms a physical rainbow that you can walk through. Both pieces are concerned with refashioning the unity of a diverse community as well as exploring the footprint of these objects not only in the physical environment but also in the psychosocial environment. As the artists describe ‘used clothing is charged with layers of history’.8 In revealing these layers of past lives, the sculptures of Guerra de la Paz and performance of Prézeau intervene in the chain of the secondhand clothing trade between the US and Haiti, evoking a history of dependency and secondhand colonial ideologies.
Haitian artist, Céleur Jean Hérard, one of the founding members of the Port-au-Prince based Grand Rue collective, has used pèpè in his work to send a message to the international community. His sculptural relief made with secondhand shoes that have been sent to Haiti as in-kind donations from the US draws attention to the recipient of these unwanted items. The sculpture questions the performance of giving, a hypervisible participation in global aid, which involves the disposal of unsolicited and often useless goods on the doorstep of those deemed in need, who are rarely consulted in the process. Following the 2010 earthquake, Haiti was flooded with international donations, a post-disaster phenomenon known as ‘material convergence’ (Holguín-Veras et al. 2013). The amount of goods arriving was unmanageable and ‘about 80% of clothing donations were useless’ (6). This logic of giving at the heart of post-disaster development narratives tends to maintain inequalities between the helper and the helpless, echoing colonial binaries between the white ‘saviour’ and the black ‘primitive’ in need of saving.
In the context of Haiti, Colin Dayan reminds us that Haitians themselves have often been thought of as disposable, when she points to a racism ‘that depends for its power on the conceptual force of the “superfluous”, what can be rendered as “remnants” or “waste” or “dirt”… to be “disposable” is not having the capacity to be dispossessed, to be nothing more than dispensable stuff’ (2015: 93). The art of salvaging (as performed in the work of Prézeau and Hérard) becomes therefore an important means to highlight the persistence of a racialized global order and question the ongoing pèpèrizasyon of Haiti and its people, who do not necessarily want or need a hand-me-down t-shirt from the West. In 2017, Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, announced that Rwanda plans to ban imports of secondhand clothing by 2019, despite threats from the United States, currently the largest exporter of used clothing, that they will withdraw preferential trade benefits for Rwandan goods in the event of a ban. Proponents of the secondhand clothing industry, facilitated by economic liberalisation agreements between the US and Haiti over the past sixty years, have foregrounded its potential to generate employment, stymy the environmental impact of textile consumption, and ‘help’ people who cannot afford locally made new clothing (Gasseling 2017: 1282; Lewis & Pringle 2015). While officially prohibited in Haiti, the secondhand clothing industry continues to thrive as domestic textile production dwindles.9 In one boutique of Cap-Haïtien that sells new clothing, a rare find in the city, the owner explains to me that, due to high import tariffs on new goods, he must hide stock that he wishes to import from Miami within larger bales of secondhand clothing. While this is a prime example of an innovative management of a trade system that privileges a unidirectional flow of US imports and castoffs into Haiti, this case demonstrates how open borders remain firmly in the interest of the dominant global players, not the local community.
¹The company will benefit from the US trade agreements, the Haitian HOPE (Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement) Act and HELP (Haiti Economic Lift Program), till 2025. These agreements allow manufacturers in the garment assembly sector in Haiti to profit from duty-free exports to the US market. Together with reduced transport costs due to the proximity of Haiti to the US, this is currently the main advantage of working in Haiti for firms such as SAE-A.
²Sergile discussed the problem of fatras in Haiti during her keynote address entitled ‘Vision 2020: reconnaissance, réflexions et chantiers’ at the Haitian Studies Association 28th Annual Conference in Cap Haïtien, Haiti, 2016.
³See ‘The Haiti Support Group Briefing’, October 2012: file:///F:/Cardiff%202/2016-17/Haiti%20Support%20Group%20Textiles/Haiti_Briefing_72.pdf
5School uniforms remain some of the only garments that independent Haitian tailors are still regularly asked to sew and are a reminder of how existing textile manufacturing has been displaced with donations from the US or garment assembly development models that largely serve North American economic interests. See Leah Gordon’s photography series The Tailors of Port-au-Prince: http://leahgordon.co.uk/index.php/project/tailors-of-port-au-prince/.
6See Haitian author Edwidge Danticat’s response to Donald Trump’s racist labelling of Haiti as a “shithole country”, Miami Herald, “Haitians are used to insults. Friday, we mourned. Today, we fight”, January 12, 2018. http://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/op-ed/article194492199.html.
7See the artists’ website: http://guerradelapaz.com/.
8Reference to interview with Guerra de la Paz by Lindsey Davis for the March/April 2016 issue of Art 21 magazine on the theme of renewal: http://magazine.art21.org/2016/03/18/material-renewal-four-artists-turning-trash-into-art/#.WwwAnXovzIV.
9In an effort to redress this imbalance, the Chambre de Métier et de l’Artisanat d’Haïti (CMAH) has set up an initiative (together with Oxfam and the Groupe d’appui aux repatriés et refugiés (GARR)) to support and offer training to tailors and seamstresses working in marginalised rural communities of Haiti.
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Zamani, Bahareh, Sandin, Gustav, and Greg M. Peters. 2017. ‘Life cycle assessment of clothing libraries: can collaborative consumption reduce the environmental impact of fast fashion?’. Journal of Cleaner Production 162: 1368 – 1375.