November 19, 2008

The beginnings of rice cultivation in Guyana (Part 2/3)

Posted in Economics, Education, Environment, Guyana, History tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 1:04 am by randallbutisingh

The beginnings of rice cultivation in Guyana (Part 2/3)

By Winston McGowan

The first instalment of this article traced the beginnings of rice cultivation in Guyana from the earliest efforts by enslaved Africans during the period of Dutch colonial rule in the 17th and 18th centuries to the early 1880s. By 1880 indentured and free Indians had begun to give an unprecedented impetus to rice production, though cultivation was still haphazard and very limited. This situation would change considerably in the following forty years which is the focus of this article.

By the 1920s it could be said that an expanding rice industry had been established in British Guiana. This was clearly reflected in land usage in the colony. According to official statistics, in 1931 49,000 acres or 30 per cent of the cultivated land in the colony was planted with rice. This was a great change from the situation in 1880 when less than 2000 acres of land were in rice cultivation and the colony imported most of the rice it needed from India.

Several factors were responsible for the considerable extension of rice cultivation in British Guiana between 1880 and 1920. The first and by far the most important one was a major crisis which the dominant sugar industry experienced from 1884 to 1904. This prolonged crisis stemmed from the effective competition which Guianese and other Caribbean cane sugar encountered in the British market from subsidized beet sugar produced by several European countries. As a result there was a drastic and progressive decline in sugar prices there from £22, 4s per ton in 1883 to £14, 11s per ton in 1884 to £9, 12s per ton in 1896. Owing to this development many plantations in the colony collapsed and were abandoned and the area under sugar cultivation fell from about 77 000 acres in 1884 to about 66 000 acres in 1900.

This chronic depression in the Guianese sugar industry made both the local and the metropolitan governments lose faith in it. It also weakened the sugar planters, making it more difficult for them to continue to use their political influence to prevent the diversion of land, labour and capital to alternative economic enterprise. These circumstances combined to create a climate in the colony favourable to the emergence and development of other industries, initially rice production and gold mining, which profited from their ability to attract labour from the straitened sugar industry. In short, the post-1884 sugar depression emphasized the need for the diversification of the colony’s economy away from sugar monoculture.

The depression resulted in a significant reduction in wage rates and the amount of work available in the sugar industry. Wages became so low that many Indians at the completion of their indenture decided to end or reduce their employment on the sugar plantation and instead to rent or purchase land to cultivate rice.
Rice cultivation was greatly stimulated by the availability of cheap land provided both by the sugar planters and the government who in order to avoid the heavy expense of a return passage to India offered the ex-indentured labourers land instead. Thus there was a progressive relaxation of the terms of sale of Crown land, reducing the price immensely. Similarly, the planters rented parts of their estate to such labourers with the hope of recruiting them as workers especially at crop time. As a result by 1904, 8561 acres of estate land were said to be under rice cultivation.

Rice cultivation was also encouraged by recurrent local shortages of ground provisions. Such shortages helped to make rice become a staple food of other ethnic groups apart from Indians, especially Africans and Chinese.

Similarly, local rice cultivation was stimulated by shortfalls in rice production in India, the colony’s main external supplier. In particular, a major shortfall in 1901 limited exports to the colony, enabling local rice to fetch a much higher price than usual and encouraging more extensive cultivation. This development was aided by the belief that local rice was better than the imported article.

The Guianese rice industry also benefited from special assistance from the colony’s Department of Agriculture, which from 1900 provided new varieties of seeds. It was also stimulated by the introduction of rice mills. By 1907 there were 44 mills in the colony, 24 in Demerara, 10 in Berbice and 10 in Essequibo.

Rice cultivation in the colony also profited from the impact of World War 1 which adversely affected its food supply in several ways. For example, the war resulted in the high price of the limited quantity of imported wheat flour reaching the colony. Furthermore, there were transportation difficulties in respect to rice imports from India. The average annual importation of 2519 tons of rice between 1909 and 1913 dropped to 159 tons between 1914 and 1916 and 72 tons in 1917. These circumstances were exploited by the local rice producers who provided not only what was lacking from India but also rice flour as a substitute for wheat flour.
Rice cultivation in British Guiana got a major impetus from the introduction of more modern technology, modifying the earlier more rudimentary approach of ox-ploughing, hand cutting etc. From 1917 tractors and other machines were employed very successfully. This development was evidence that the industry had begun to benefit from greater capital investment, some of which was provided by overseas companies.

Finally, the successful expansion of rice cultivation between 1880 and 1920 was due considerably to the tenacity and hard work of the farmers, mostly Indian peasants. They demonstrated these qualities in spite of the high mortality among them due to frequent attacks of malaria. Mortality in the Indian community, a major social problem in the colony, was said to be highest among rice growers.

The third and final instalment of this article will examine the obstacles faced by rice cultivators between 1880 and 1920 and the effects the incipient industry had on the colony of British Guiana.

Published in: Stabroek News, Guyana – History this week- November 6, 2008.

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