New Internationalist

Back to the land

Issue 094

The New Internationalist meets some young Jamaicans who believe small-scale, cooperative fanning is the only way for the Caribbean to conquer unemployment.

Beyond the Blue Mountains that arch stiffly like a saw-toothed stockade around Kingston, Jamaica, the topography changes dramatically. Twenty miles inland from the coast the hills fold back on themselves, chocolate-brown streams tear down steep valleys and the soil turns the rich red that indicates bauxite. Further on, where the ore is concentrated enough to mine, the Aluminium Company of Canada (Alcan) scoops the rust-coloured earth from an enorm­ous pit - the first step in the long and energy­intensive production of aluminium.

But here, near the tiny village of Glengoffe, a scattered collection of tiny, one-room houses strung along a narrow roadway, there is no bauxite worth mining.

There is only the land itself, green and fertile, but impossibly broken up by plunging ravines that seem to cleave the ground at every turn. Even so one quarter acre plot has been intensively planted by a group of young men determined  to make a go of it in the countryside. The United Development Youth Movement is a kind of loose-knit social club held together by the belief that their future lies in farming rather than in the overcrowded slums of West Kingston.

When our VW van wheels around a sharp curve near their plot, Dillon, the group’s leader is busily.painting political slogans on the road­way in preparation for the forthcoming elect­ions. The entire island is a welter of competing slogans and the Glengoffe area is no different. ‘Our land is steep’ Dillon explains, handing his paint brush to a friend, ‘but if we want work we know we must use it. That is the only way for our country to provide employment for all young people.’

Only about a third of Jamaica can be farmed. The rest is either too steep or, like the limestone ‘cockpit country’ of the northwest, too barren. Much of the prime agricultural land isstill used for sugar and under the control of large land­owners. In 1972 those with less than five acres made up over 70 per cent of Jamaica’s farmers. But they occupied only 16 per cent of the total farmland.

Most of the land around Glengoffe is owned privately in small parcels of five to ten acres. The owners are often old men whose children have gone to Kingston or migrated to America or England. They have neither the need nor the wish to farm all of it. The result is that land which could produce food and provide employ­ment lies idle. And since land represents power in the community most would rather hold onto it than sell it. For those young people without access to land, nearby Kingston is a powerful lure. Every week scores of young men and women join thousands of others from across Jamaica in the slow drift to Kingston’s urban squalor.

But Dillon and his friends put together a small project and managed to get some funds from a few small local development agencies to rent the quarter acre plot and buy seeds, tools and a few pigs. On a slope on which it’s hard to get a footing, they’ve planted bananas, yams, peppers, cocoa, red peas and caliloo. There is even a small concrete piggery. So far the quarter acre is more a symbol to the local community than a means of making a living for a dozen young men. Although, says Dillon, ,some people think we communist cause we working together.’

Now they’ve shown the experiment can work they’re after much larger game - trying to borrow enough to buy 20 acres of relatively flat land down the road to start a much larger cooperative venture. ‘We can employ plenty more youth and also produce more food to sell in the city,’ says Dillon cocking his beret to the back of his head and digging his boots into hillside. They plan to set up production of chicken meat and eggs as well as an expanded piggery with the help of outside funding. There is a growing conviction in the Caribbean that mixed farming - intercropping fruit and vege­tables plus small animal rearing - is the key to successful farming on small plots.

In the long term there are few other options for the young people of Glengoffe or any of the thousand-and-one villages in the rural Caribbean. Even if foreign investment drastic­ally increases there is no chance of creating enough jobs for everyone in a country where the ‘official’ unemployment rate is over 30 per cent. For Dillon and others like him future prosperity can only be built on the land. Emigration is now virtually impossible. And the shanty towns of Kingston the dead-end of the road.

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