Wazir Mohamed spent the formative years of his life as a community and political worker, and is engaged in academic research to find answers to Guyana’s seemingly intractable ethnic dilemma.
This is the second part of a presentation made in November 2008 at the International Rice Conference organized by the Guyana Rice Development Board and the Ministry of Agriculture at the National Convention Centre, to mark the centenary of rice exportation from Guyana. The final part of this series will examine globalization and the evolution of the rice industry since 1970.
In the previous column, I discussed the reasons why Africans are not as involved as they should have been in the rice industry. Today I discuss the growth after 1894 of a small farming, mainly Indo-Guyanese rice industry and how this altered economic and ethnic relations in the country. The predominance of East Indians in the rice industry is significant from several standpoints. It points to the lack of foresight on the part of the colonial state and the manner in which it reorganized the economy in the background of the collapse of sugar’s monopoly in the final decades of the 19th century. Faced with the labor crisis of underemployment as sugar collapsed, the colonial authorities permitted the development of a small farming peasantry. This was an about turn on their part. Having prevented the African population from evolving into a peasantry, the colonial state, through its decision to provide lands cheaply to time expired indentured laborers, permitted the growth of a rice peasantry peopled mainly by East Indians.
This policy resulted in some economic diversification with the rise of an export crop in competition with sugar. Armed with an export crop and the ability to produce wealth, East Indian rice farmers were able to make economic advances, while the African population was left hanging in the fragmented villages. The historically inherited disparity in land ownership and wealth between East Indians and Africans in Guyana is related to the lopsided policy of the colonial state. Because of Guyana’s capacity to produce sugar for the world market, Africans in Guyana were denied the freedoms afforded to their counterparts in other land endowed West Indian Islands. In the context of the colonial West Indies, the growth of an export industry in the hands of former indentured servants in Guyana paralleled the limited freedom some slaves and ex-slaves of the colony of Jamaica inherited seventy odd years earlier. The rise of the rice industry that occurred after 1900 did not have to do with who had or who lacked knowledge in rice production, but with the economic necessities facing the sugar planting class.
Rice could not be commercialized in the early period because of the threat it had posed to sugar’s control over labor and land. Despite the fact that rice was being planted by East Indians from as early as 1865, it was not until the sugar crisis began to take its toll on the economy in the 1880s and 1890s that East Indians were given the go-ahead to commence large scale production. The history of the early struggles with the planter class over rice is captured in the accounts of Lesley Potter, who labeled the rice planting Indians of that period as “the padi proletariat,” rather than “peasants”, noting that “most of the cultivation was on small patches of land for immediate subsistence only.” Sugar could not permit the expansion of rice. Potter’s account and labeling of the subsistence activities of East Indians coincides with Rodney’s departure from earlier historians in his labeling of the African villagers as rural proletarians, rather than peasants. This is significant because these rice plots were akin to the provision grounds of slaves who were required to provide part of their subsistence from these grounds. Both were part and parcel of the sugar economy, playing a major role in reducing the cost of increased food imports associated with the influx of immigrants.
The rice industry of Guyana dates from 1894 to the present. The exodus of “excess” labor and land from the age old stranglehold of the sugar barons provided the stimulating impetus for the growth of the rice industry after 1894. The relaxation of the land laws was a game changer, altering settlement patterns by opening up lands on the Coast and in the riverain areas that had been legally inaccessible for sixty years.
East Indians who had completed their period of indenture, but were marooned on the sugar plantations and in its margins, and in the African villages, were freed to acquire plots of lands in remote districts. Crown Lands, the preserve of the planter class since slavery ended, became accessible and the East Indian population took full advantage. Time expired East Indians accepted the challenge of land grants from the colonial authority in lieu of return passages and cashed in as land became cheap with the deepening sugar crisis. The demise of sugar in certain districts, especially outside of Demerara where sugar was being consolidated, also opened up plantations to rice. On the Essequibo Coast, with accessible irrigation water from the natural lakes, Anna Regina and neighboring estates were converted to rice fields. East Indian families moved into Mahaica, Mahaicony, the Essequibo Coast and Islands, and the riverain areas of the Corentyne.
The phenomenal growth of the rice industry after 1894 is attributable to the rise of settlements of free Indians away from the established coastal plantations. The outgrowth of settlements primarily on crown lands and on abandoned sugar estates accounts for increases in rice cultivation from 2,500 acres in 1893 to 61,200 acres by 1919. While the sugar crisis broke the camel’s back, the opening up of markets in the West Indies was important in the expansion of the industry after 1900. By the 1950s the rice industry became the largest land user in the country. The paddy proletariat had graduated and a fully formed small farming rice industry was established. Except for pockets of tenant farmers in various parts of the country, the number of rice farmers, approximately 10,000 in 1921, had more than doubled to 22, 156 in 1955. Of this total 900 were large farmers cultivating plots in excess of sixteen (16) acres, with the majority small farmers cultivating less than fifteen (15) acres each. Approximately fifteen thousand were cultivating between two (2) and eight (8) acres, while an approximate total of five thousand were cultivating less than two (2) acres each.
After 1950 the number of rice farmers grew steadily and by 1970 had reached its zenith of approximately 45,000. But since then the number has declined steadily; today there are between 8,000-10,000 rice farmers. The rise in the number of rice farmers after 1950 was directly related to the democratization of decision making in the industry and the growth of representative democracy at the national level. The birth of the Rice Producers Association in 1946 and the election of the first national government in 1953 were important factors in the expansion of agriculture.
The growth in the industry after 1950 was attributable to the emphasis placed by the national government on drainage and irrigation schemes, on agriculture, and on protective mechanisms to preserve small farming and the rural rice culture.