Agriculture in the West Indies

Agriculture in the West Indies is heavily dependent on the seasonal rainfall. This is true even of the larger territories of the Greater Antilles. The planting/harvesting cycles of both small farmers and large-scale agricultural producers revolve around the wet and dry seasons, especially since irrigation is hardly an option for the small farmers due to high implementation and maintenance costs. Estimates of agricultural production in Jamaica indicate that 95% of all domestic agricultural production is rain-fed (C. Thompson, personal communication, 2002).

Agriculture is important to the economies of the West Indian territories. Sugarcane, banana, and rice are the most important crops from the standpoints of export earnings, contributions to national economies, and the number of persons employed. Of the three, rice is largely produced in Guyana and Trinidad. None of the other smaller islands cultivate rice to the extent of even self-sufficiency.

Banana, the second most important agricultural crop of the West Indies, is the backbone of the economies of the Windward Islands of Dominica, Grenada, St. Vincent, St. Lucia, and the French island territories of Martinique and Guadeloupe. Banana cultivation accounts for half of the export earnings and generates employment ranging from 23 to 34% of the total agricultural employment in these islands (Dearden, 1996).

Sugarcane is the main agricultural crop in the West Indies. Several West Indian economies were founded on sugarcane, and though significant plantings have disappeared from islands such as Antigua and Grenada, sugarcane still remains the dominant crop in Barbados, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, St. Kitts, Belize, and Jamaica in the English-speaking Caribbean. Among Spanish-speaking territories, until the 1960s and early 1970s, Cuba was the world's largest sugar exporter, and the Dominican Republic still is a major producer. Sugarcane also dominates the agricultural sectors of the French islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique.

The West Indian territories composing the Sugar Association of the Caribbean (Barbados, Belize, Guyana, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and St. Kitts) estimate earnings from the 2000-01 sugar crop to be $261,370,000 from a total export of 638,017 tons. The 1999-2000 earnings were $310,000,000 from 685,877 tons exported (The Gleaner, 2001), and the major earners were Guyana, Jamaica, Belize, and Trinidad and Tobago. The importance of sugar is further illustrated by the fact that, for Jamaica, sugar supercedes the combined economic value of all other leading crops— banana, coffee, and citrus (Planning Institute, 2000). In Jamaica, where unemployment is about 15.5% (Planning Institute, 2000), sugar provides direct employment to some 36,500 persons. Approximately 46,000 ha are under cane cultivation, with an annual sugar output of just greater than 200,000 tons from nearly 2.3 million tons cane (SIRI, 1999). The estimated economic losses from poor crop yields, crop failure, and livestock fatality due to widespread drought in Jamaica, attributed to the 1997 El Niño event, was $1 million (Office for Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management, 1999).

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