17 Apr, 2020

A local glimpse of Agriculture from the Caribbean: the Kalinago Territory

by Charlotte Eloise Stancioff, Kimani Lapps

In the Kalinago Territory of Dominica, land degradation and changing agrarian landscapes are having a deep impact on local ecosystem. Resulting in the disruption of rural communities' wellbeing and revealing how culture, society and environment are intrinsically connected.

1. To understand the current state of agriculture on the small island-state of Dominica in the Caribbean one cannot ignore the historical context that shaped the region since colonization on the economic, social and cultural plan. Over the centuries, the Caribbean has served as a hub for resource extraction and exploitation by Spanish, French, Dutch, Danish, British and US colonizers and traders. As Conway writes, “five hundred years of externally dominated incorporation into a succession of metropolitan empires” has shaped a core/periphery relationship (Conway 1998, 29).

Historic dependencies beginning with European contact and subsequent colonization has evolved into the current commodification of Caribbean landscapes, with a systemic land exclusion. Examples include a regional shift to tourism (Lee et. al 2015), the predatory practices put into practice by foreign entities upon local resources and the decline of regional agriculture and local economies (Rhiney 2015; Rhiney 2016). In the meantime, the adoption of plantation economies marginalized native patterns of subsistence to the benefit of export crop specialization.

2. During the colonial era, Dominica’s rugged terrain ensured that large sugar estates were not feasible – although the island was not exempted by the establishment of monocrop agriculture or “extractive” forms of trade vis-à-vis the European metropoles. More recently, during the second half of the 20th century, things changed a bit when banana plants were grown extensively throughout the whole island, bringing considerable wealth to Dominic. This included the only legally constituted indigenous space in the Caribbean, the Kalinago Territory, where the advent of banana mono-cropping has continued to shape social and environmental attitudes to land use to the present day. 

Until the '80s, little contacts existed between the Kalinago Territory and the rest of Dominica. Situated in the northeast part of the island, the Territory remained difficult to access, protected by a mountainous terrain. Subsistence cultivation, focused on growing a mixture of root tubers, vegetables and herbs around individual households provided the main livelihood, supplemented by fishing and hunting. The introduction of commercial banana plantations changed everything, bringing in piped water, connection with the rest of the island and economic growth for farmers. The banana, or “figue”, industry brought in regular incomes, providing economic stability for many families. One interviewee explained it thus: “It is for my family, that is how I maintain my family […]. All my children go to school on ‘figue’ money” (B58 2015). 

Still, the relationship between export cultivation and subsistence needs within the Kalinago Territory would ultimately prove unsustainable. Banana influenced all aspects of life, accelerating the access of the island’s rural population into the thick of globalized markets, and ultimately devastating local economies and livelihoods (Potter et al. 2004; Rhiney 2016). Everything collapsed when the Dominican banana market witnessed a financial collapse at the turn of the 21st century, shortly after the end of the preferential treatment of Dominican bananas exported to the UK. Consequently, intensive agriculture came to a sudden halt in the Kalinago Territory: overnight, the weekly paycheck that banana farmers grew to depend on, simply stopped. One farmer described it: “It was hard when the bananas stopped being bought. Yes, it was hard but, in the 1990s I had plenty [sic] bananas, then Sigatoka took over... I abandoned most of my field” (B48 2015). According to another respondent, “Everyone has become poor since bananas” (B8 2015).

3. In the past, agriculture had been the historic backbone of the Kalinago Territory, providing food security, cultural values and societal ties to its people. Traditional life was disrupted during the banana production – whose abrupt end twenty years ago did not result in the Kalinago community returning to ancient labor relations. The consequence were rather the abandonment of fields and the demise of cultural values and social ties. Since then, local community has not been able to reorganize its means of production, in order to reflect the changed reality. Proof of this is the disappearance of the Koudmen, an old system of collective reciprocal labour exchange that ensured a continuous source of employment and helped to preserve ties between locals. 

Kalinago farmers had traditionally cultivated crops by observing moon cycles and largely depended on rainfall irrigation, with rivers and streams serving mainly for leisure , social interactions and fishing. The advent of an export-oriented agriculture transformed waterways into new productive resources for immediate exploitation, bringing water pollution, loss of biodiversity and forests reduction – while rivers and streams lost their functions as socializing places for tribe members. 

Without any governmental push for agricultural diversification, today working in agriculture has become too expensive and socially insecure for most in the Kalinago Territory. As one interviewee explains, “right now we are less in agriculture, because the government is saying there is a market here, but when they come, they don’t get the market for you. So you just lose confidence” (B8 2015).  Some local producers rely on dealers to buy their crops for reselling in foreign markets. Many Kalinago residents need the “traders so you can get some income, pay the bills” (B21 2015). However, lack of regulations means dealers often pay well below market value for local products, and do not provide a consistent market. 

4. In the end, agricultural livelihood instability and pull factors from the nearby towns have led to a twin cultural and generational gap. “People don’t want to go into agriculture, especially young people, because agriculture is what you work, you have to have your dirty clothes on and agriculture in Dominica is very primitive, with no tractors or machines” (B30 2015). While elder generations often discussed that the physical effort required by agriculture has created a lack of interest amongst the youngsters, other factors such as economic stability seem at play. Proof of this is the plethora of early morning buses shuttling people to the capital of Dominica, Roseau (a 1-hour ride one way), which shows that there has been a clear shift in economic activity over the past 20 years. Leaving the Kalinago Territory, people look for jobs that will bring economic security for their families, as the banana industry and agriculture no longer can. As one individual explained, “young men who have family land don’t farm, but rather look for opportunities in Portsmouth (large regional city) or Roseau” (B16 2015).

This poses a significant threat since agriculture in the Kalinago Territory has historically provided self-reliance and cultural preservation. Such benefits continued to some degree during the boom of the banana industry, as agriculture remained the most common and secure livelihood for the Territory. When the banana trade proved no longer profitable in the 2000s, an altered landscape marked by little agricultural cultivation and difficult land management immediately followed. This impacted so many other aspects, leading for instance to declining water resources and a negative perceptions of the local landscape. 

Today economic uncertainty only reinforces such negative perceptions and by extension jeopardizes the social fabric of the Territory. As individuals shifted their livelihoods away from agriculture, there was a resultant decline in food security, as well as in traditional practices associated with agriculture, such as Koudmen. While economic necessity has forced many to leave the Kalinago Territory, multilayered impacts of agriculture degeneration revealed how culture, society and environment are intrinsically connected. 

5. The story of the Kalinago Territory reveal the complex network of issues that makes so difficult evaluating the state of agriculture in a single place. While often explained with the vulnerability of small farmers to globalized supply chains, digging deeper into the story of declining Caribbean agriculture reveals “the systemic way these individuals and their livelihoods have been marginalized over the years” (Rhiney 2015, 110). 

Yet there are also several testimonies of a certain push for local agricultural development into the Caribbean region (Beckford and Rhiney 2016; Lowitt et al. 2015; Rhiney 2015; Smith and Rhiney 2016), as individuals seek to re-build community self-reliance and look for food security. Certain evidence points towards more equitable land relationships throughout local communities. Case studies like the Kalinago Territory offer insights into the unfolding impact of the globalization of supply chains on attitudes, production and wellbeing in rural, indigenous communities. 

Authors’ note: This research comes from four years (2013-17) of work in the Caribbean, mainly in St. Kitts and Dominica. In Dominica, the authors studied the changing role of agriculture in current land relationships. Collaborating closely with different representatives of government, community leaders and NGOs, we investigated how environment and society has changed in reference to land use and culture, and what this means for present communities. The article presented is based on interviews, surveys, land use/land cover analysis, and remote sensing from the Kalinago Territory, Dominica. All survey and interviews were completed together, and Dr. Stancioff completed the land analysis in the Netherlands. The full research is available:

Stancioff, Charlotte Eloise. (2018). LANDSCAPE, LAND-CHANGE & WELL-BEING IN THE LESSER ANTILLES: Case Studies from the coastal villages of St. Kitts and the Kalinago Territory, Dominica. Sidestone Press.

This research is a part of a larger project NEXUS1492 is an ERC-Synergy Research project led by Leiden University, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and University of Konstanz. NEXUS1492 is an ERC-Synergy Project from the European Research Council under the EU's 7th Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) / ERC grant agreement n° 319209.

References and works cited:

  • B8. 2015. Point, 24/06/2015
  • B16. 2015. Salybia, 01/07/2015
  • B21. 2015. Salybia, 02/07/2015
  • B30. 2015. Salybia, 14/07/2015
  • B40. 2015. Salybia, 17/07/2015
  • B48. 2015. Salybia, 17/06/2015
  • B58. 2015. Salybia, 18/06/2015
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