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There was a time not so long ago when outsiders just didn’t go to Trench Town. Until recently, this inner-city Kingston ghetto had such a reputation for violence that even armed police gave it a wide berth. But suddenly the former no-go zone is on the tourist trail and reggae fans can go to pay homage to the memory of Bob Marley at the so-called Culture Yard on First Street. The dilapidated ‘government yard’ tenement where Marley hung out with Bunny Wailer and other soon-to-be reggae legends is Jamaica’s latest and most unlikely heritage attraction.

The advent of Trench Town tourism suggests that the worst of Kingston’s political violence may be over – for the time being, at least. While there is still an unpalatably high national murder rate (849 in 1999), most deaths are linked to drugs and crime rather than party allegiance. The armed ‘dons’ who used to run the capital’s poorest areas as political fiefdoms have lost interest in partisan feuding, and recent elections have been mainly peaceful affairs. The People’s National Party (PNP) has held power for an unprecedented 12 years, while the rival Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) is stuck in the doldrums.

But the real significance of the Culture Yard is Jamaica’s determination to chase the tourist dollar. As competition hots up with other Caribbean purveyors of sand and sea, the island has sought to market itself as a cultural attraction, showing off its old plantation houses and colonial forts as well as its less picturesque slums. It has also tried to play down its image as a dangerous place, and so the Trench Town initiative is an important public-relations gesture.

Tourism is rapidly becoming the biggest player in the Jamaican economy, earning an estimated $1.3 billion in 2000. Cruise ships and ‘all-inclusive’ resorts are taking over from traditional hotels, placing the industry more firmly in the hands of large conglomerates. Even so, many Jamaicans, from ministry officials to beach hustlers, continue to depend on the industry and what little ‘trickles down’ from the likes of Sandals resorts, where tourists live inside well-guarded enclaves. Approximately one in ten of the population works directly or indirectly in the tourism industry.

The old export earners, bauxite and sugar, are meanwhile in decline. There were sharp drops in world aluminium prices during 1999, and Jamaica’s mining sector suffered accordingly. Sugar, an antiquated hangover from the island’s plantation past, is only kept alive by preferential quota arrangements with the European Union. A similar deal for bananas has been threatened by the World Trade Organization’s ruling that the EU is breaching free-trade rules by favouring Caribbean producers, and farmers are abandoning what used to be known as ‘green gold’.

Largely as a result of agricultural woes, Jamaica’s economy has shrunk for four consecutive years, while its debt, despite some rescheduling, is still an unacceptable burden at more than $3.3 billion. If the Government has succeeded in taming inflation, it has been at the cost of a recession, and unemployment is stubbornly high at 16 per cent of the workforce. Not surprisingly, as incomes fall and prices rise, tempers are likely to fray, as in April 1999 when the Government announced a 30-per-cent hike in the price of petrol/gasoline, leading to riots and eight recorded deaths. On that occasion some of the worst violence took place around Trench Town. Any repetition, the Government knows, would be bad news for the all-important tourism industry.

Fact file

Leader Prime Minister PJ Patterson.
Economy GNP per capita $2,330 (Haiti $460, Britain $22,640).
Monetary unit Jamaican dollar (J$1,000 = US$26.50).
Main exports bauxite, alumina, sugar, bananas, clothing.
People 2.6 million. People per square kilometre: 237 (Britain 238).
Health Infant mortality 10 per 1,000 live births (Haiti 83, Britain 6). Health facilities are concentrated around the capital, while cutbacks have reduced basic healthcare provision.
Environment Tourism and bauxite mining have done considerable ecological damage but Jamaica still has a wide array of flora and fauna.
Culture Over 90% of Jamaicans are of African descent, with smaller mixed-race and white communities. Other migrant groups include East Indians and Chinese.
Religion Christianity, mostly Anglican but growing Pentecostal influence. African-descended folk religions such as Pocomania and Kumina exist alongside Rastafarianism.
Language English (official), but patois (‘Jamaica talk’) is widely spoken.

Country ratings in detail

Income distribution A wealthy minority takes a large slice of national income. Even the middle class struggles but worst affected are the unemployed (16%) and the low-waged (also 16%).
Literacy Officially 90% and rising, due to sustained government investment in primary education.
Life expectancy 75 years and rising, but ‘first-world’ problems such as obesity and heart disease have overtaken the old killer infections and malnutrition.
Freedom Jamaicans enjoy a free press and little overt repression, other than during sporadic street rioting. But police are sometimes trigger-happy and prisons are grim.
Position of women Women are prominent in all professions and form a majority of graduates. Politics, however, remains mostly a man’s world.
Previously reviewed 1990
New Internationalist assessment The current PNP monopoly on power has reduced Jamaica’s political tribalism and violence, and the Government has made strides in reducing inflation and halting the Jamaican dollar’s decline. But much remains to be done in addressing widespread poverty and social exclusion, particularly among a growing army of young unemployed.

New Internationalist issue 333 magazine cover This article is from the April 2001 issue of New Internationalist.
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