By TRENTON DANIEL and MARTHA MENDOZA
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) â¿¿ 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 Haitian 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 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 crafts.
"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 handicrafts 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 across Haiti, thanks in part to an injection of more than $3 million from groups like 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 as of July this year, 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 1 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.