The Future Coming Towards Us: The Caribbean Faces the New Millennium - Economy and Ecology
Moses Seenarine, (Published by Saxakali.com on January 1, 1999)
Tainos Facing The End of The Last Millennium
The Caribbean people, or Tainos, facing the end of the last millennium were probably not aware of the significance of that era from a Christian perspective, but they were probably no less interested in what the future held for them over the next 1000 years. I doubt if anyone at that time would have guessed that by the end of the next millennium, almost all Tainos would be killed and replaced by people gathered far away to contemplate their lives.
At the end of the last millennium, Tainos’ local and regional economy closely matched the ecology of the region. Facing frequent hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, pestilence and other natural disasters, Caribbean people made simple houses out of locally available materials. If a house collapsed, residents would not be seriously harmed, and it could easily be re-assembled. Cassava and other main food crops were grown underground, and could readily be re-planted and harvested within a few months. Utensils, tools, and ornaments were made from clay, stone and other locally available materials, which were 100 percent recyclable, survived a few millenniums and even can be used today. Taino women and men both interacted with the environment and regional economy, so there was less division of labor and more equal gender relations. In addition, there was communal sharing of land, food, tools and knowledge.
Indigenous people including Amerindians, Tainos, Jukas, and Garifundas, still live a sustainable life in the Guianas, Belize, Puerto Rico, and St. Vincent, which is proof of their remarkable wisdom and strength. They have taught many rural Caribbean people their culture, including (i) basket weaving, (ii) boat and house building (iii) slash and burn agriculture, (iv) growing ground provisions, (v) the use of trees, plants and herbs native to the region, (vi) using cassava to make bread, cakes, soup and sauces, (vii) use of tobacco in healing and spirituality, (viii) music and musical instruments, and much more. And as a lasting testament to the efficiency and sustainability of their culture, the bar-b-que pit has grown in popularity to become a truly American past-time, while hammocks are in use from Alaska to Argentina.
Introduction to the Global Economy
In stark contrast to the harmonious existence of Tainos in the previous millennium, the people of the Caribbean have been in a state of perpetual crisis for the last 500 years. Following its introduction to the global capitalist economy, the human ecology of the region has been drastically altered in the change from communal to private ownership. The pursuit of greed in the region has led to the genocide of millions of Tainos, the settlement and enslavement of tens of millions of Africans, and the indentureship of over a million Indians, Chinese, and other ethnic groups.
Conquest and exploitation of Caribbean people helped to establish the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, English, and French empires, and contributed the raw materials and funding for the industrial revolution in Europe. While in the US, Canada, Australia, NZ, Africa and Asia, European families were provided land and encouraged to settle, after abolition of enslavement and indentureship, the majority of the people living in the Caribbean were prevented from owning lands and moreover, military expeditions were launched to destroy crops and seize animals reared on lands without permission.
Similar to the colonialization of their soil, the minds of Caribbean people have also been colonized. The vast majority aspire towards European middle-class values and view the sustainable existence of indigenous Caribbean people as backward, regressive, and economically irrelevant. Even though hurricane losses from Georges, Mitch, Andrew, Floyd, and others add up year after year, they merely re-build the same complex, vulnerable infrastructures. Despite centuries of oppression, losses, failure and debt, the unsustainable model of heavy capitalization and industrialization is relentlessly pursued by all Caribbean governments, making it the most resilient form of the El Dorado myth.
At the end of the second world war, almost all of the colonies in the region had a comparable gross domestic product (GDP) per capita and relatively high currencies. However, the economic situation today is much more diversified and there is a wide range in per capita income and currency evaluation between different countries, in addition to social stratification within each one. Interestingly, the lowest per capita income and currency are in the politically independent countries like Haiti, Guyana, Surinam, etc., while those with the highest are the still colonialized ones like the Virgin Islands, Saint Martin, Puerto Rico, etc. Despite increasing levels of production throughout the region, political independence has led to economic depression across the board, revealing that the Caribbean is yet to achieve economic independence.
Moreover, neo-colonial governments in the region have worked in collusion with global capitalist agencies to roll-back the gains made by Caribbean workers as a result of five hundred years of struggle. This is because working class unions, the womb of the independence movement, became viewed as threats by political leaders in the post-independence period. As Clive Thomas argues, “Having taken over state power, the leaders of the independence movements sought to demoblize and depolitize the masses to prevent any further entrenchment of mass politics in the society at large” (1985:72)
These leaders emerged from, and represented the interests of, the middle-class, which was essentially a colonial creation. For them, the independence settlement provided a means of excluding the masses from effective power. So they have gone along with IMF and World Bank restructuring, downsizing, and privatization, which benefit the middle-class and further exploit the working class. For example, local governments are competing with each other to establish export processing zones to allow transnational corporations (TNCs) to minimize taxes and promote the growth of sub-contracting non-union jobs in sweatshop-like working conditions. In this neo-colonial arrangement, the government and middle-class serves the role of a slave-driver who sub-contracts the labor of the Caribbean working class to TNCs. In addition to net transfer of resources abroad, neo-colonial agents abuse and compel the mostly female workers to work in hazardous conditions with poor safety standards, and use the police, and military if necessary, to put down workers’ resistance and punish their leaders and supporters.
In Babylon’s Backyard
By the dawn of the 20th century, a former European colony in the Americas became the leading capitalist and military power in the world, and in turn has sought to neutralize European influence and develop client states in the hemisphere. The US’s closer proximity means increased vulnerability for the Caribbean since the US military-industrial complex can respond in minutes to any form of perceived threat. And not unlike the pro-colonial sentiments of the previous era, the Caribbean middle-class and governments encourage closer trade and political ties with the US.
Similar to the colonial period, the entire region is treated with utter contempt by US, including the seizures of land for military bases in Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Since 1938, the U.S. Navy has been acquiring land in Vieques, Puerto Rico, by expropriation. The Navy now controls 26,000 of the Island’s 33,000 acres, which it uses for bomb storage and practice for military interventions throughout the world. The 9,400 residents of Vieques are survivors of over sixty years of U.S. colonialism and environmental racism and their struggle is ongoing.
As part of its contempt, one year may find the region being courted by the US to “fight drugs” and corralled into signing a ship-rider agreement, which incredibly grants the US the right to invade Caribbean countries’ airspace and sovereignty. The next year may find the US trying to crush the fragile economies of small island developing states (SIDS) in the Caribbean by opposing their right to export bananas to their former European rulers. The two multinational corporations that control the world’s banana industry, Chiquita and Dole, have a monopoly on the US market, and as major contributors to the Clinton presidency, they obtained the administration’s help in extending their monopoly by limiting the preferential treatment of Caribbean bananas on the European market. This has led to further devastation of the banana-dependent economies of the region, for example in St. Lucia over 2,200 farmers and 10,000 other persons in banana industry will be affected, which will lead to increasing poverty and social decay in the country.
Environmental Legacies of Colonialism and Neo-colonialism
A recent UN report, “Caribbean Environmental Outlook” indicate that the islands are on an unsustainable course due to increasing population, urbanization, waste and other problems. An official from another UN agency, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), stated that as a result of increasing population and disposable incomes the demand for fish has exceeded available supplies. Water availability is the most severe natural constraint to the region’s agriculture. Triumphant capitalists in the US routinely transports radioactive and other hazardous materials throughout the Caribbean sea.
The much trumpeted Caribbean tourist industry is the most inefficient in the world and almost totally owned by transnational corporations. It contributes to a large increase of waste, which is becoming less and less biodegradable, and to increasing water shortage in many islands. Foreigners staying in foreign owned hotels get fresh water and electricity 24 hours a day, while locals are left thirsty and in the dark. Barbados which faced severe droughts in 1993 and 1994, is now classified as one of the most arid nations on earth.
Environmental genocide in Essequibo, Guyana
This brings up an interesting issue. In the long standing border dispute between Venezuela and Guyana, the popular Venezuela President, Hugo Chavez government is demanding that Venezuela should carry out an environmental impact assessment for any deal made by the Guyana government over the disputed Essequibo region.
Due to global warming and raising sea levels, the entire region is sinking. The increasing destruction of breeding grounds for fish, the coral reefs and mangrove swamps, coupled with commercial overfishing, is leading to the depletion of fish and sea life. One-third of the coral reefs in the Caribbean are at high risk of extinction due to a combination of near-shore pollution and offshore overharvesting.
Continuing fish kills across the Caribbean.
Starting in August, mysterious fish kills in the thousands were reported off Grenada, Barbados, Tobago, Guyana, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. The main fish population affected appears to be the shallow reef species, small and large, such as the grunts, jacks, snappers, chubs, black margate, bonitos, ocean surgeon and parrot fish. The dead fish are said to have a discolored gill, symptomatic of suffocation, red blotches on the liver, and bulging eyes. Others reportedly had their intestines oozing through their anus.
There are various theories given for the kills, including the dumping of hazardous waste in the region, the waste of cruise lines, the growth of the “red tide,” a poisonous algae, a water-borne virus or bacteria originating from the Orinoco river in South Americe; and Montserrat’s volcanic action. This summer, the region experienced sea temperatures raising about one degree, which could result in stress and infections in fish. The kills are severely hurting the fishing and tourist industries since people are not sure if it is safe to use the fish or water. Local sales of near-shore or reef fish have plummeted.
Barbados: Flying-fish scam
Flying-fish, a Barbadian delicacy, can be brought in Trinidad for one Barbados dollar (US 50 cents) per package of six fish. Fish-lovers then pay about Barbados $1 for each fish. Thousands of packages of frozen fish, often improperly-boned,” are shipped from Trinidad by the container load. There are then re-boned, repackaged, refrozen and sold under a local label as Barbados fish.
The demand in the Caribbean Diaspora for regional foods, furniture and pets is leading to further depletion of natural resources. The more affluent northern-based communities import large amounts of Caribbean products, thereby decreasing the availability and increasing the price for the local Caribbean population. One grocery store in Queens, NY, advertised for sale 20 varieties of local fish fresh from Guyana:
Yellow gilbaka at a surprisingly low price; hassar; and snapper head for $1.49/lb. In stock: gilbaka eggs; houri; snook; silver bait; tilapia; buck crabs; lukumani; packoo; himara; butterfish; catfish; dry shrimp; bangamary; mullet; snapper; cuffum; and white belly shrimp.
Green electricity pricing
Diet and life-style changes
The banana battle has been a cruel reality check for the Caribbean and many SIDS policy-makers are beginning to openly criticize globalization, trade liberalization, and economic domination by the major industrialized powers, whose indifference to the world’s poor is matched by their inadequate efforts to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, blamed for global warming and its effects like increased frequency of hurricanes and raising sea levels. Yet, paradoxically, Caribbean leaders are all committed to developing an equally harmful industrialized economy based on support from the US.
For example, the foreign minister of Trinidad and Tobago recently asked, “how can a small developing island with little or no resources and a small population compete with industrialized continents with large internal markets, advanced technologies, market access and sophisticated financial systems?” Although he raises an important contradiction, he nevertheless assumes that small islands need to become more populated and industrialized in order to become competitive. This is evident in the fact that at the same time, the president of Trinidad and Tobago was in Washington, DC, pledging his country’s and CARICOM’s full support for US policies and institutions in the region, including the deficient Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI), the emerging Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), and the toothless Organization of American States (OAS)
At the end of this millennium, the economy of the Caribbean has become very complex and no longer matches its ecology, and I wonder, given current rates of resource depletion, pollution, and population growth, how much of the present economy and ecology will still be around in the next one thousand years.