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Caribbean Islands Table of Contents

Caribbean Islands


Sugar continued to be the most important cash crop despite the overwhelming structural problems that the sugar industry faced. As late as the 1880s, there existed over 300 independent sugar plantations on Trinidad; a century later, however, the industry was completely dominated by one state-run firm, Caroni Sugar Company. The government bought a 51-percent share of Caroni from the near monopoly of Tate and Lyle in 1971; within five years, the enterprise was fully government owned. By the mid-1980s, Caroni merged with the government's joint- venture Orange Grove, making Caroni almost a complete monopoly.

Although the sugar industry hit a forty-five-year low in 1984, output did recover somewhat in the late 1980s. Nonetheless, the industry continued to face several major obstacles to long-run success. As the standard of living for Trinidadians increased in the 1970s, real wages of sugar workers rose faster than output, causing productivity to decline. Falling yields per hectare in the cane fields also exacerbated dwindling productivity. Additional problems included seasonal labor shortages, factory equipment problems, and numerous unplanned cane fires. In spite of government efforts to revive the industry, production costs of Trinidadian sugar in the 1980s were estimated to be three times greater than market prices and well above the EEC's price offered through preferential agreements. Inefficiencies and low world sugar prices caused a large annual drain on government finances that paid for the shortfall. The option of reducing or eliminating sugar production was a very difficult one because of its long history on the islands and its role as a major source of employment for a country with chronically high unemployment rates.

In the 1980s, sugarcane continued to occupy under a third of land in use (fewer than 20,000 hectares). The sugar subsector employed approximately 20,000 workers, or slightly less than half of all the agricultural labor force. Most cane was grown on the central plains, primarily by East Indians. In 1985 about 65 percent of all sugar was harvested on large estates; the number of small farmers was declining because fewer young people were entering the cane fields. The sugar harvest in 1984, one of the worst ever, yielded 70,000 tons, or only about one-third of the harvest of 1970. Sugar production rose to over 80,000 tons in 1985, and in the late 1980s the government was aiming for 100,000-ton sugar harvests. Nonetheless, major increases beyond the 100,000-ton mark were unlikely without even larger government losses. Eighty percent of the country's sugar was exported in 1985 compared with 60 percent five years earlier. Beginning in 1984, the government also began a program to process imported raw sugar.

Reduced market access to its major preferential export markets, Britain and the United States, was another major problem facing the sugar industry in the 1980s. Trinidad and Tobago's sugar quota with the EEC was reduced at the 1985 Lomé Convention (see Glossary) from 69,000 tons to 47,300 tons as a result of its inability to fill the previous quota. As production rebounded after mid-decade, however, Trinidad and Tobago was allocated a portion of the quota commitments of some African countries to export to the EEC. Trinidad and Tobago gained even less access to the United States market because of cutbacks in the United States International Sugar Agreement (ISA). Trinidad and Tobago's ISA quota dropped to only 6,504 tons by 1987, a 60-percent reduction from 1984. This reduction was expected to cause the loss of millions of dollars to the sugar industry in Trinidad and Tobago. Because of these unfavorable market conditions, Caroni was diversifying away from sugar in the late 1980s into rice production and livestock.

Cocoa, derived from the cacao plant, was the other major crop in Trinidad and Tobago. From the late 1880s until the 1930s, cocoa was the most important crop on both islands, and in the late 1980s it remained the leading crop on Tobago. In fact, Trinidad and Tobago was once the second leading producer of cocoa in the world. Brought by the Spanish in the 1700s, cocoa still occupied more agricultural land than sugar in the 1980s, although it was frequently cultivated with bananas and coffee. Over half the cacao farms were small, but large estates accounted for over 80 percent of output. Trinidad and Tobago's cocoa crop was ravaged for decades by successive diseases. The government formulated numerous rehabilitation schemes for the industry, the most recent one in 1980, but they were generally unable to meet their goals, and production continued to fall. The 1980 program was no exception, as production declined beginning in 1982. For example, in 1985 cocoa output was 1.3 million kilograms, or under 50 percent of the 1981 output. Falling yields were another major problem the industry faced as average yields declined from 275 kilograms per hectare in the 1930s to under 100 kilograms per hectare in the 1980s. Virtually all cocoa was exported. The Cocoa and Coffee Industry Board, a central regulatory agency, handled all export functions. Despite the state of depressed international cocoa prices in the 1980s, Trinidad and Tobago continued to receive premium prices for its high-quality cocoa.

The other major export crops were all tree crops: coffee, citrus fruits, and coconuts. Coffee production expanded after 1930 in response to the decline in cocoa output. Production of Trinidad and Tobago's major variety, robusta, however, declined by more than 50 percent from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s. Exports also dropped sharply, demonstrating the lack of success of a 1970-71 rehabilitation plan undertaken by the government. Output was so low in 1984 that no coffee was exported. Nevertheless, coffee production did rebound strongly in 1985, reaching 2.1 million kilograms, 35 percent of which was exported. The expansion of citrus crops, especially oranges, grapefruits, and limes, also coincided with the decline of cocoa in the 1930s. Output of citrus products peaked in the mid-1950s and later decreased drastically to a low of 4.7 million kilograms in 1982, or about 20 times below peak output. During the early 1980s, citrus exports fell to an insignificant 2 percent of total production. A rehabilitation program was successfully introduced in 1982 that greatly expanded production in the mid-1980s to over 6 million kilograms. Although the citrus industry was affected by viruses, old trees, and high wages, new plantings, renewed supplies of labor, and favorable weather in the late 1980s all spurred renewed growth in citrus crops.

Coconut, and its main derivative, copra, was another major export crop and was the second most important crop in Tobago. Like other export crops, output of coconuts declined in the 1970s, making the island no longer self-sufficient in oils. All coconuts went to the local processing industry for soaps and oils. Copra output in 1985 exceeded 4,000 tons.

The fastest growing subsector in agriculture in the 1980s was domestic agriculture, consisting mainly of vegetables, rice, tubers, and livestock. The revival of domestic agriculture was the consequence of falling oil prices, balance of payments constraints, the return of labor to the land, and growing experimentation with larger scale farming for domestic agriculture. In the late 1980s, Trinidad and Tobago was approaching self-sufficiency in green vegetables, which were typically grown on small garden plots. Rice, a staple food, was an expanding domestic crop but was still imported in large quantities. Such vegetables as yams, sweet potatoes, dasheens, and eddoes (a tuber) were also produced, mostly for direct consumption, and were also expected to increase as long as the oil sector was recessed.

Data as of November 1987

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Caribbean Islands Table of Contents