Seeing beyond the Bocas

By Bridget Brereton

It’s coming up to Christmas, a time when the newspapers often publish articles in which the authors look back with nostalgic warmth to the Christmases of their childhood.
Nostalgia for the past—of a different kind—is a feature of an interesting new book about T&T and its development. It’s by Mahadeo Bissoon, a Trini/Canadian development geographer, and it’s called Seeing Beyond the Bocas: Quest for Livelihoods in Trinidad. It urges us to “see” our own geography, environment and culture, and to develop our own paradigms and paths, in order to move towards balanced and sustainable development.
Bissoon thinks that Trinidad before World War II (1939-1945), or even before the 1960s, had evolved a largely sustainable economy. Both Afro- and Indo-Trinidadians had bought lands, opened up new areas for cultivation, diversified their crops, and created vibrant farming communities. These co-existed with the big sugar and cocoa plantations and the growing oil industry.
The book doesn’t deal with Tobago, which Bissoon thinks needs its own separate study, but clearly the same conclusion would apply there.
In Trinidad’s rural communities, many food products—processed rice, milk, coconut oil, dhal, ghee, farine, fruit preserves, bene balls, sugar cake and so on—were produced at home and sold in the local markets. Practices of self-help and communal co-operation were deeply rooted, as in many traditional rural communities all over the world, and crossed the ethnic lines in the villages.
Light manufacturing and crafts flourished in hundreds of small businesses and workshops, especially but not only in and around the larger towns and along the East-West Corridor. This was a kind of “industrialisation” that was low-tech, small-scale, rooted in the local communities, and based on the skills of individual artisans and craftsmen and women and their own-account activities.
Bissoon is clearly nostalgic for this kind of economy. It was gradually eroded, he believes, in the post-war period, especially after the 1950s. Many sectors of the urban and suburban population became accustomed to government employment, in the growing civil service, in the newly nationalised or created State companies or in the various incarnations of URP.
The drive to self-employment and self-determination weakened. The agricultural sector was systematically neglected, while the corridor, including the Laventille area, was “de-industrialised”.
What, then, should be done? Bissoon is very critical of export-led development, of our dangerous dependence on energy resources, especially the transnational corporations, and of all the current buzz-words (entrepreneurship, global competitiveness, the knowledge or information economy).

He believes the country should refocus its development policies on its unique geography and ecology. As a geographer, Bissoon reminds us of the island’s rich natural environment and geographic advantages: several different soil types, tremendous botanic diversity, no volcanoes, safe from serious hurricane damage, and no destructive earthquakes for the last two centuries. “There is an unwillingness to appreciate this environment,” Bissoon writes, “and the possibilities of creating a field of sustainable benefits with a much lighter footprint”.
Bissoon recommends the revitalisation of the agricultural sector through the encouragement of “integrated mixed-farming systems” combining animal husbandry with crops, aimed mainly at the domestic market. Food security is essential, Bissoon believes, and the kind of farming which he endorses would create organic linkages with manufacturing by stimulating many agro-processing businesses.
Similarly, Bissoon wants to see the growth of the “onshore” light manufacturing sector—that is, businesses where the ownership and capital are local and the market aimed at is mainly domestic. Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) making goods for domestic consumers, requiring relatively small capital outlays, should be the focus of development policies. This implies a shift away from the reliance on heavy industrial plants requiring huge capital investments and creating few permanent jobs, and also on international trade (global competitiveness), and a movement instead towards greater economic self-sufficiency.
These kinds of small scale-light manufacturing businesses, Bissoon notes, are quite compatible with entrepreneurship and innovation, or even the “knowledge economy”, the current development buzz-words. In his view, however, the several State companies set up ever since 1970 to encourage SMEs have by and large failed to facilitate the growth of this “onshore” manufacturing sector.
There is, I think, an element of unrealistic nostalgia in Bissoon’s prescriptions for development in Trinidad. Not only is it simply impossible to return to the pre-World War II era of self-sufficient rural communities and small artisan workshops; we should recall that this was hardly a “Golden Age” for most of the people. To take only two differences from the present day, life expectancy was lower, and the position of women (of all classes and ethnic groups) was worse, than now.
Yet his overall take on the nation’s development deserves serious consideration, especially his plea, which echoes that by Lloyd Best and Tapia, that we must evolve our own paradigms and our own pathways. “If we are convinced we are without choice”, he asks, “who or what will make our history or geography?”
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