November 20, 2008

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

Posted in Economics, Education, Environment, Guyana, History tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , at 12:16 am by randallbutisingh

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

By Winston McGowan

The first two instalments of this article showed that rice cultivation in Guyana was initiated by enslaved Africans in the 17th and 18th centuries and was extended substantially between 1884 and 1920 especially by enterprising Indian peasants. This final instalment will focus on two issues, namely, the obstacles to rice cultivation in these four decades and the impact which the emerging rice industry had on the Guianese economy.

The main obstacles to rice cultivation between 1884 and 1920 were probably the related problems of recurrent unfavourable weather conditions and deficient drainage and irrigation. Inadequate rainfall, including the late arrival of the rains, often resulted in a lack of water to flood the rice beds. As a September 1905 report stated, “It is not unusual to hear of hundreds of acres of rice parched owing to a prolonged drought.” Droughts tended to be more frequent and severe in Berbice and a series of them affected the entire colony between 1911 and 1913.
Damage from prolonged drought was particularly great where irrigation was deficient. Cultivation also suffered from flooding which resulted from heavy rainfall and poor drainage. Flooding often hindered the planting of paddy and, when it occurred at harvest time, destroyed the crop.

In short, the lack of a good system of drainage and irrigation made certain rice-growing districts unable to provide against excessive rainfall and excessive drought. As the British Guiana East Indian Association complained in 1922, “through the lack of a proper system of drainage and irrigation serious losses have been and are still being suffered by the rice farmers in times of drought and during rainy seasons.” The inability to deal effectively with these difficulties partly explains why at least until 1900 the acreage under rice cultivation was severely restricted and only one crop was harvested every year.

Rice cultivation was also adversely affected by several other problems, some of which were comparatively minor and others more serious. Among them were pests such as water-weevils and paddy bugs and the eating of growing rice plants by straying cattle. Cultivation was also hindered by inefficient methods and the frequent lack of proper seed selection which resulted in crops of poor quality and undesirable quantity. It was also checked by the slow introduction of mechanization owing to the limited financial resources of most rice farmers. By 1917, however, some of the larger farmers were beginning to use machines such as tractors, reapers and threshers.

In spite of these obstacles, rice cultivation in the colony expanded after 1884 with the estimated acreage growing from about 2 000 acres in that year to about 55, 000 acres in 1920. The growing establishment of the rice industry had major effects on the Guianese economy.

Its most obvious and important effect was that it served to diversify or modify the economy which in 1884 was dominated by sugar production, with sugar and its two by-products, rum and molasses, providing about 90 per cent of the value of the colony’s exports. There was some discussion locally especially in the 1890s as to whether rice production could become an alternative to the sugar industry in the colony’s economy. This possibility, however, never materialized. Sugar continued to be the backbone of the economy, but enjoying reduced importance. By 1920, when almost all the former sugar plantations in Essequibo had been converted to rice lands, rice was second to sugar as the colony’s main export. Nevertheless, its significance was still somewhat limited. In fact, rice production never assumed a position of major importance in the local economy until the early 1940s when it reached about 50,000 tons annually.

Rice cultivation resulted in a shortage of labour on the sugar estates which tried to address this disturbing problem in several ways. For example, many estate proprietors decided to grant Indians a portion of their estate for rice cultivation on a part-time basis so as to retain their labour except when these workers were planting or harvesting rice. Furthermore, the shortage of labour led to greater mechanization of the sugar industry with the introduction and growing use of tractors from 1917.

Rice cultivation also had major effects on food supplies in the colony. Rice gradually became a staple in the diet of other sections of the Guianese population other than Indians, especially among Africans and Chinese and the working class in general. This development helped to lead to a sharp decline in the level of imported food especially from the 1890s. For example, the value of all imported food into the colony fell by about 35 per cent between 1891 and 1913. This development included a marked decline in imports of rice mostly from India which fell from an annual average of about 18 000 tons between 1888 and 1894 to about 8 000 tons between 1904 and 1908 to about 2500 tons between 1909 and 1913. By 1920 imports of rice had virtually ceased. By then local production was not only meeting domestic needs, but also the colony was exporting 8 000 tons of rice a year mostly to the British West Indies and the other Guianas.

Rice cultivation had a severe effect on the production of several locally produced food items, especially vegetables and ground provisions. The high price obtained for locally produced rice especially during World War I when there was a drastic fall in imports from India helped to induce many small farmers to switch from the cultivation of vegetables and ground provisions to the planting of rice with the result that by 1919 there was a great scarcity of local vegetables, fruits and ground provisions which were usually abundant in the pre-war years. The prices of these scarce commodities rose 100-150 per cent above those existing in 1914 and 1915. The shortage of ground provisions in 1919 also resulted in the importation of a considerable quantity of sweet potatoes.
Similarly, some farmers abandoned cattle raising and turned their efforts to rice cultivation. Thus by the end of the war in 1918 there was a severe shortage of milk in the colony and a sharp increase in its price from 3 d a pint in 1915 to 8 d per pint in 1919.

Thus by 1920, due partly to the impact of World War I, rice cultivation in British Guiana had evolved from a somewhat minor peasant enterprise to become the second most important sector in the colonial economy. Rice had come to stay and one could speak of the existence of a rice industry, however fledgling. The colony had become the leading rice producer in the Caribbean. This significant development since the 1880s was due primarily to the industry of Indian peasants.

– Published by: Stabroek News- History This Week- November 13, 2008

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