Plenty News, Vol. 3, No. 1 Winter, 1983
In preparation for our venture with the sailing ship Fri, Plenty recently visited six of the poorer islands in the Caribbean. One of Plenty’s Directors, David Purviance, writes about this experience:
We had read up on each country and had pored over maps for weeks before the trip, but being on these small island countries was an experience that no reading prepared us for.
Most surprising to us was the overwhelming youthfulness of the population; teenagers and young families is everywhere. The British schooling system has left the legacy of an educated youth. We found the people eager to change and improve their country. What they lack are the tools, resources, and information to meet their needs.
On Dominica, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent, agriculture dominates the economy, and banana is king. The sophisticated marketing procedure that the banana industry has perfected makes this the only proven money earner. Caribbean agronomists told us that if a farmer tries growing vegetables, he’ll have such a difficult time getting his produce to market that he’ll usually give up and opt for the “banana system.”
The problem with monocropping is the farmer’s complete reliance on the banana industry for marketing help, fertilizer, pesticides, and technical information. Today most farmers haven’t the knowledge to successfully grow vegetables. The islands are forced to import more food each year. At the same time the cash return to the banana grower has steadily dropped over the past decade. With less money to purchase costly imported food the population gradually slips into malnutrition. The Pan American Health Organization held a survey among Dominican children and found that 51 percent were malnourished. Wherever we went, this puzzle was the topic of conversation. Farmers and government ministers alike spoke of the need to change the system.
In order to untie the import apron strings, new sources of income must be found. Small, locally owned businesses and cooperatives seem to be one answer. Breaking the monocrop system with a variety of native food crops is another. In both areas we can help.
In the short term, we’ll use the Fri to bring tools and supplies to farmers’ organizations, women’s groups, schools, and individuals. In the long run, we’ll send soybean farmers, soy dairy technicians, and alternative technology specialists to begin soy variety trials, offer advice to local farmers, and construct soy dairies on the islands. Currently all dairy products are imported and costly. A soy dairy will be a new business, providing a market for soybean farmers, and a local outlet for high-protein products. Soy ice cream, flavored with local fruit, will be made in the dairy and sold by vendors throughout the island.
We went to Dominica at the invitation of the Caribs, the last indigenous people in the Caribbean. Like the rest of the island, banana cultivation is the main occupation.
Fortunately, the tradition of fishing and boatbuilding bring in some cash as well. After seeing their 10-foot fishing boats with flour sack sails set against the crashing Atlantic surf, we agreed to provide sailcloth, new fishing nets, small outboard motors, and woodworking tools to the Carib fishing cooperative.
We visited both primary schools in the Carib Territory, where 440 students attend crowded classes with no lights, no technical facilities, and outdated textbooks from overseas. We offered to supply materials for a roof to an adjacent building damaged by Hurricane David. The new roof will make a science wing possible and Plenty will help equip the classes. A wind generator, and solar cell array, which Plenty already owns, will be installed at the school to provide lighting. Plenty also promised shop machinery, sewing machines, and sports equipment. We met the Carib midwife and made an agreement to bring her to the Farm for further training in midwifery and primary health care.
We went next to St. Lucia. The economic situation is somewhat better than that of Dominica because of tourism. But the agricultural picture is the same, and we felt that soybeans would be a welcome addition to the island. We visited a school for boys where tough youths are given a home and taught a skill.
The school lacked any real technical equipment, and we offered to supply tools for a shop class and sports equipment.
In St. Vincent, we met a strong farmers group, the Organization for Rural Development (ORD). ORD is working with 900 farmers providing credit, tools, breeding animals, and village seminars on everything from bookkeeping to nutrition and health. In an effort to bring down the 35 percent malnutrition rate, ORD has begun introducing high-protein crops into the local agriculture. As on many of the other islands, the merits of soybeans were known, but without any knowledge about growing or processing them. What ORD lacks is tools and information. We promised to supply soil test kits, tools, seed, and a soy technician to begin home cooking demonstrations.
On Antigua, we met two groups working to increase food production and spread nutritional information. Antigua’s major problems are poor drinking water and inadequate food production. Plenty can help here with our experience in soybean cultivation, food processing, and water projects.
On Haiti, we found the most desperate situation of any of the islands. It is at once the poorest and most densely populated country in the Western Hemisphere. Three out of four Haitians live at or below the absolute poverty level, with an average income of only $70 per year. Add to this an ecological disaster and you begin to get the picture.
The Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa’s order, care for the most miserable of Haiti’s poor. We visited the sister’s Home for Abandoned Children, where they take care of 75 children, and their Home for Dying and Destitute, with 170 patients. When we learned that their city water supply only operated in the morning, we offered to have a well drilled for them. We’ll also bring vitamins, medicines, and toys to the Children’s Home.
We visited a women’s self-help group, which works to improve the status of the Haitian woman. Last year 600 women at tended evening classes on a variety of subjects such as reading, writing, sewing, cooking, child care, etc. The group has credit funds available and several free hostels for women who must travel more than a day’s journey to market. We agreed to help them with a mimeograph machine, treadle sewing machines, bolts of cloth, cooking utensils, and a slide projector.
Possibly no other island has as much influence on the Caribbean as Jamaica. Its reggae music has made it the cultural flagship of the Caribbean. As a political showcase, Jamaica is watched carefully by other developing countries. A degree of development has raised Jamaica a step above its Caribbean neighbors. The per capita GNP is $1250. Life expectancy is 71 years and the adult literacy rate is 82 percent. However, the numbers fail to tell the whole story. The economic and health problems rival those of the lesser-developed Caribbean nations. Unemployment and food production are areas of major concern.
We visited the Iona School on the north coast, which is trying to teach some 400 students skills that will ensure employment when they graduate. No small task, considering that the 34 percent unemployment rate for adults jumps to 60 percent for new school graduates. The school is trying to raise funds for a print shop and bakery on campus. We may start a soy dairy at the school as a training program.
Wherever we went Plenty’s experience with soybeans was openly welcomed.
The Caribbean is truly a community, and help successfully given on one island will be noticed and requested on others.