There used to be a time when kitchen gardens were commonplace in the Caribbean. Far from being an indication that the owners of these tiny backyard plots had any serious inclination for farming, kitchen gardens were a reflection of the influence of a habit that the people of the region inherited from their foreparents. Kitchen gardens survived and thrived because their management required no particular expertise. In many cases they were run more-or-less on a throw-and-grow basis; a few pumpkin seeds were tossed out into the backyard and before you knew it the entire area was an uncontrollable mass of tangled vine and rapidly ripening fruit.
Kitchen gardens thrived here in Guyana – for obvious reasons – rather than in most other Caribbean territories. Quite apart from the fact that much of what was cultivated invariably ended up on the breakfast table, our amateur farmers used to take great pride in showing off their produce to family and friends.
Urban kitchen gardening was particularly prevalent in Guyana during the period of scarcity in the 1970s and 1980s the followed the shortage of foreign currency and the imposition of official bans on a long list of food items. Then, it became a matter of necessity. Elsewhere in the Caribbean, particularly in countries like Jamaica, Grenada, St Lucia and Belize, among others, the tradition of kitchen gardening persisted in pretty much the same way as they did in Guyana, albeit on a smaller scale.
Things change, however, and while it would perhaps be unfair to say that the practice of kitchen gardening has disappeared, what is certainly true is that there is far less evidence of the kind of subsistence farming that was in evidence up to around 20 years ago. Even here in Guyana where agriculture has remained one of the predominant private sector activities and where sugar and rice still account for a large share of the country’s foreign exchange earnings, there is less evidence of kitchen gardening. It should be said, perhaps, that while the practice is still quite commonplace in urban communities, urban kitchen gardening, which used to be relatively popular several years ago, is no longer as commonplace.
Here in Guyana and elsewhere in the region several reasons have been advanced for the decline of the kitchen garden. There is a school of thought which suggests that as Caribbean people have become more accustomed to an altered lifestyle on account or the increasing urbanization of the respective territories, they have lost both their aptitude and their appetites for small-time farming. Another school of thought suggests that changes in building patterns in the region have meant that many of those open spaces that used to part of the homesteads of Caribbean people are now taken up with extensions to houses and concrete walkways. Here in Guyana many such spaces have become makeshift garbage heaps.
Of course, on a broader scale and particularly in countries like Trinidad and Tobago, for example, wealth and affluence has meant that foreign tastes in fruits and vegetables, for example, can be satisfied through imports. Then there are other instances still – and Barbados and Jamaica are good examples of these – where servicing the tourist industry requires the importation of large quantities of costly fruits and vegetables.
As far as being able to afford food imports is concerned the Caribbean has quite simply hit a wall. A US$3 billion food import bill for a poor region with a rich tradition in agriculture is, quite simply, unacceptable. And so, like the proverbial Rip Van Winkle it appears, Caribbean governments – at least some of them – are waking up to the reality of having to do something about raising the level of self-sufficiency as far as food security is concerned. And if kitchen gardens are by no means a panacea for the problem of rising food prices, they are, at least, a pursuit that offers thousands of Caribbean (including Guyanese) people whose backyards have long been repositories for milk cans and coconut shells, with an option. Caricom governments can do much worse than an aggressive and coordinated policy on kitchen gardens that includes practical support for the people who are willing to return to the land.