I went on an investigation with my team to learn about the farming in St. Vincent. We visited many people and gathered heaps of interesting information about agriculture, history, permaculture and people.
When it comes to St. Vincent, I would argue that agriculture is the single most important industry in the country. However, it doesn't get much attention from investors, due to a number of different factors.
St. Vincent is a volcanic island, meaning that it has steep slopes and a multitude of ridges. These characteristics have truly shape the history of the island and its agriculture. Let's see how.
The mountainous nature of the island made it extremely difficult to colonize during the surge of European imperialism. The same was not true for other islands, such as Barbados, whose flat geography became an obstacle when locals tried to resist colonization. Today, the steep ridges of St. Vincent make industrial farming impossible, because machines need flat land to work efficiently.
Along with these factors, the St. Vincent farming industry has undergone some major changes in the last 30 years. These changes changed the landscape for present and future generations of farmers.
The "Land Reform Program" of the 1980s and the 1990s changed the organization of farming. This Program split up the estates (large swaths of land property of a sole land owner) to smaller plots, which were given to individual farmers to work independently. The government hoped that this measure would give people more freedom to produce what they wanted and that there would be a surplus of jobs in the island.
he second major change was the increase in imported goods to the island. Three decades ago, the people of St. Vincent produced almost all of the food they ate; nowadays, only a fraction of the food eaten in the island is local. Imported food, especially meat, is extremely cheap. In fact, it is cheaper to buy imported meat than meat produced locally.
These two changes in the past 30 years have made St. Vincent more dependent on foreign countries. The production chain of major crops is also more disorganized now than it was before the government implemented these changes.
One of the major crops —formerly the largest share of St. Vincent's exports— is bananas. The banana industry crashed in the last ten years and its exports are nearly non-existent today.
Four main factors contributed to the demise of the banana industry in Saint Vincent and two of them have natural causes.
Firstly, diseases and pests have ravaged the banana industry in several waves over the past decade. This made growing bananas on the island extremely difficult.
Along with the pests, multiple hurricanes —sometimes more than one a year— have swept the island, destroying crop after crop. The people of St. Vincent were often unable of sustaining production after losing multiple crops, thus causing the collapse of the banana industry.
Pests, hurricanes and the increase in South American banana exports led to the demise of banana farming in St. Vincent.
All in all, the banana industry could have recovered. However, South America has increased its banana production in recent year, making exports from other countries cheaper. Because of the plummeting prices of banana exportation, St. Vincent's banana industry became unprofitable and large companies opted out of it.
Bottom line, St. Vincent's exports have halted due to the banana industry crash and the lack of cohesion between farmers.
This issue has had collateral effects. After exports halted, the majority of people moved on to subsistence farming. Farmers with larger lands and yields sell to distributors who then sell the produce in Kingstown's markets.
Subsistence farming comprises the majority of the farming in St. Vincent. However, farmers with larger yields sell their produce to distributors who resell them in the Kingstown markets - Photo Credit: Caribbean Beat
Furthermore, urbanization has been happening in strides and most markets and shops have converged into the largest cities. Vegetable markets are rarely seen in smaller towns and villages, as people prefer to go to Kingstown for their groceries.
There's a reason behind this: The products and produce in Kingstown's markets are cheaper and of higher quality. These markets also carry a wider variety, since the distributors resell the yields of farmers from all around the island. This, coupled with the amount of imported food make it nearly impossible for small farmers to make money selling their own produce. Thus, they end up only growing food for themselves and their families.
But St. Vincent's problems are not only socioeconomic. One of the biggest issues the island faces is soil erosion.
Many of the farming techniques used in St. Vincent use tilling and trenching to prepare the soil for planting. These techniques actually make for smaller yields in the long run because they do not work with the soil. Tilling and trenching loosen the soil and when the hard rains fall, much of it is washed away. The good topsoil is then lost, leaving only rock.
One of the major farmers we talked to during our investigation was the Chief Agricultural Officer. He told us about the various problems soil erosion is causing in the island and gave us his solution.
The Chief Agricultural Officer thinks that the major issue is that many of the farmers in St. Vincent are not educated about soil erosion and good farming practices. Therefore, his solution was promoting an "Education Revolution". He said that the Ministry of Agriculture has seen a correlation between how long children stay in school and the use of better farming techniques. If youth stay in school until they are 15 or beyond, they are more likely to be conscious of their impact on the environment and will practice safer, more productive farming.
Tilling and trenching, two harmful techniques used in the farming in St. Vincent, lead to soil erosion - Photo Credit: Flickr
He is definitely right.
Educated people have more problem-solving tools and skills than their uneducated peers. They are also more likely to be conscious of the environment around them.
But keeping kids in school is not enough. Including practical and theoretical knowledge in the school curriculum is paramount in solving this issue. When it comes to the future of agriculture, we shouldn't be focusing on the technology, rather, we should strive to work in harmony with the environment.
We also visited a permaculture specialist who lives on the island and he told us about permaculture and its importance for the future of human race.
The principles of permaculture seek survival in the long-term instead of short-term solutions. This takes a lot of work. Permaculture is not the easy solution, nor is it the fast one. It starts small and slow, but the idea is that, in the end, we will work in harmony with our environment, our community and ourselves.
Most people in the island are trying to survive day-to-day. The problem is, though, that if we keep up the practices that are tearing our environment apart, nobody will survive at all.
For more articles by Ammon, please check our blog. If you are interested in helping St. Vincent and your community battle the effects of climate change, take a look at our Climate Change Activist Program.