By Marlon Bute
“What are we? Since that’s your question, I’m going to answer you. We’re this country, and it wouldn’t be a thing without us, nothing at all. Who does the planting? Who does the watering? Who does the harvesting? Coffee, cotton, rice, sugar cane, cocoa, corn, bananas, vegetables, and all the fruits, who’s going to grow them if we don’t? Yet with all that, we’re poor, that’s true. We’re out of luck, that’s true. We’re miserable, that’s true. But do you know why, brother? Because of our ignorance. We don’t know yet what a force we are, what a single force — all the peasants, all the Negroes of the plain and hill, all united. Someday, when we get wise to that, we’ll rise up from one end of the country to the other. Then we’ll call a General Assembly of the Masters of the Dew, a great big coumbite of farmers and we’ll clear out poverty and plant a new life”. (“Masters of the Dew”, p. 106).
This imploration, this plea, could have been easily echoed to our local farmers in the pre-Independence era when bananas, coconuts, arrowroot, yams, dasheens, sweet potatoes and vegetables flourished in our land and when we were yet as a people still living in poverty and faring badly when it came to social justice, healthcare, education and other social services.
Even in the years preceding Independence, agriculture in St. Vincent and the Grenadines continued to do well with banana remaining the island’s main economic stay. Thousands of homes had backyard gardens from which tomatoes, pigeon peas, okras, string beans, sweet peppers, lettuce and other vegetables could be harvested to supplement servings of roasted breadfruit, jack fish or a chicken that would have been earlier that day caught, plucked and left to marinate in chives, thymes, ginger and other seasonings from that same backyard, or from a neighbour’s.
Now, we have farmers who are on social welfare while their farms only push forth weed and shrubs. They cannot feed the nation as they once did. They cannot feed themselves as they once did. Some try. Some remain resilient. But, the cries of most of our producers of food resound across the land. They lack capital; the roads are impassable; they no longer have a credit facility to allow them to buy seeds and fertilizer. And the Ministry of Agriculture seems unable to establish a framework that would revive and sustain agriculture.
Vincentians, for the most part, no longer have backyard gardens, home-grown chickens, sheep, goats or livestock that traditionally supplemented their income or took pride of place on the dinner table.
The reality is that as we celebrate and boast of 34 years of Independence, we are worse off since Independence. Vincentians are now more dependent than any other time in our history on foreign aid and on hand-outs from families and friends, at home and abroad. Where are the farms? Where are the backyard gardens? Where is the spirit of self-help, self-reliance that characterized pre-Independence days?
We really can’t complain that we produce and that we do not consume. The problem is that we consume all that comes from outside — mostly inferior meats and fruits, and we hardly produce. We need to start producing. We need to plants seeds in our backyards. We need to plant some chive, thyme, lettuce, tomatoes, and cabbage, and feed ourselves. We need to help our children to help themselves.
We need to recommence rearing a few chickens and rabbits. We need to wean ourselves of government assistance and rid ourselves of this dependency syndrome that has taken hold.
At every chance we get, we ought to be preparing a healthy and delicious meal at home.
Some estimates indicate that we import as much as 400 million dollars of food. Yet, we have high unemployment, thousands of acres of idle arable lands, a feeds mill, and good water and electricity supplies. What are we missing? Why import 30-plus million in chicken products? Why import tomatoes, carrots, lettuce, cabbage and cucumbers?
We need to get up and get. We need to plant that seed in the ground and in our minds and in our children’s minds. We need to reflect that we come predominantly from a people, and indeed peoples, who throughout history always strove to sustain themselves.
From this Independence onward, I really hope that my brothers and sisters at home and abroad, in the urban areas and the rural areas, in the big cities and the small towns, in the hills and the valleys and in every nook and cranny will plant a seed. We must own ourselves. We must wipe out dependency, despair and poverty. We must rise up. We must rise up and plant a seed. We must own ourselves.Marlon Bute is a Toronto-based Vincentian writer and storyteller. He holds a bachelor’s degree in history and french. He studied at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad and Barbados and l’ Université des Antilles et de la Guyane in Guadeloupe.
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