New Internationalist

Country Profile

Issue 289

Country profile: St Lucia

Where is St Lucia? St Lucia’s Pitons are the best-known and most spectacular sight in the Eastern Caribbean. Two volcanic peaks rise steeply out of the sea, covered in dense forest and framing a lush valley which runs down to the beach. Not merely beautiful, the area is of huge environmental and archaeological importance, sustaining a delicate eco-system and containing important pre-Columbian remains. The island’s indigenous people probably used the site as a place of worship, celebrating sunrise between the peaks.

Hence the island-wide controversy when in 1991 the 115-room luxury Jalousie Plantation resort was built, offering all-inclusive services at $400 a day. Sitting in the valley between the Pitons, Jalousie seemed to symbolise the insensitive tourism development which threatened St Lucia. Its tennis courts covered an Amerindian burial site; uniformed guards kept local fisherfolk off its private beach. St Lucia-born Nobel Prize laureate Derek Walcott condemned the hotel as a sacrilege, saying it was like ‘opening a take-away concession in Stonehenge’.

The Government argued that Jalousie, like other tourism investment, brought jobs to the island. Like other small countries in the region, it views the tourist industry as literally the last resort, the only hope for small, formerly sugar-dependent Caribbean islands. As a result, tourism has transformed St Lucia in the last 20 years. Beach resorts and marinas line its idyllic west coast; cruise ships moor daily in Castries, disgorging passengers into a purpose-built duty-free shopping mall. Taxi-drivers, guides, waiters and informal vendors await the quarter of a million visitors who arrive each year.

But the tourist influx is not a bonanza for everybody. Farmers complain that hotels do not buy their produce and prefer familiar brand names from Miami. Tourists who have pre-paid for everything are unwilling to venture out and spend locally. Cruise ships argue over paying taxes, are accused of dumping waste into the sea and provide little revenue. The average passenger comes onto dry land for just a couple of hours and spends less than $20.

Despite the drawbacks, tourism is becoming even more vital as St Lucia’s other mainstay, the banana industry, falls apart. The ‘banana boom’ of the 1970s and 1980s brought prosperity to rural communities, as a protected British market and stable prices guaranteed small growers’ income. The concrete houses and Japanese cars in farming villages are obvious legacies of the good times.

But under attack from the US multinational Chiquita and the threatened liberalization of the European banana market, St Lucia’s industry is now in crisis. Prices have plummeted as protection is eroded, and farmers admit they cannot compete with low-wage plantations in Latin America. Trouble in the banana business has led to trouble on the streets. A militant growers’ organization, the Banana Salvation Committee, has led to strikes and protests against falling prices. In one clash with police, two young farmers were shot dead, traumatizing the small island. The official banana growers’ association is bankrupt, and many farmers are simply abandoning what used to be called ‘green gold’.

St Lucia has known booms and busts before. Sugar came and went, and for many years the island made money as a coaling station before shipping technology moved on. But the threatened demise of bananas leaves only tourism and with it a lost way of life. Eulogizing a bygone rural simplicity, Derek Walcott has castigated the ‘traitors in elected office’ who ‘elevated into waiters the sons of others, while their own learnt something else’.

James Ferguson

AT A GLANCE

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PHILIP WOLMUTH /
PANOS

LEADER: Prime Minister Vaughan Lewis

ECONOMY: GNP per capita $3,130 (UK $18,340)
Monetary unit: Eastern Caribbean dollar (EC$2.7 = US$1)
Main exports: bananas, garments, data processing
Main imports: machinery, foodstuffs.
Tourism brings in around $300 million annually, much more now than banana exports.

PEOPLE: 142,000

HEALTH: Infant mortality 18 per 1,000 live births (US 8 per 1,000). St Lucia’s health indicators are average for the Eastern Caribbean, but have improved dramatically since the 1950s with the advent of banana-based economic growth.

CULTURE: Fought over in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by imperial Britain and France, St Lucia retains strong French influences in all aspects of its culture. Some 90 per cent of St Lucians are descended from African slaves, and there is a smaller community originating from nineteenth-century Indian indentured labourers.
Religion: 80 per cent Roman Catholic, a legacy of French control.
Language: English. Most St Lucians also speak a French-based Creole, Kweyol.

Sources Human Development Report 1996, World Development Report 1996, Caribbean Insight, Latin America Monitor, Caribbean Development Bank, State of the World’s Children 1997.

Never previously profiled.


STAR RATINGS

[image, unknown] INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Extremes of poverty are rarer than in other Caribbean islands, but a business and professional élite dominates.
[image, unknown] LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
82 per cent and rising: St Lucia has made significant progress in recent decades and can boast two Nobel Prize winners.
[image, unknown] SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
The Government is encouraging diversification in the face of the banana crisis, but many everyday goods are still imported.
[image, unknown] FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
A lively press is free to criticize the Government, but police and security forces have been associated with corruption and violence.
[image, unknown] POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Women have good access to education and employment, some of it low-paid, but are under-represented in politics and the professions.
[image, unknown] LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
71 years, approaching ‘developed world’ levels (Japan 80 years).


POLITICS

[image, unknown] NI ASSESSMENT [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
A two-party ‘Westminster’ system is contested by the conservative United Workers Party and centre-left St Lucia Labour Party. Dominance since the 1970s by the UWP and recently retired Prime Minister John Compton has fuelled allegations of corruption and mismanagement, but elections are normally free and fair.


NI star rating

EXCELLENT
GOOD
FAIR
POOR
APPALLING
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