African Guyanese in rice

One of the challenges of cohabitation in a plural society with a history of ethnicised political conflict is the inevitable “social comparison process”. Hypersensitive persons see “slights”, or worse, when there may be none, bereft of “giving the benefit of the doubt”. This was exemplified recently in a letter by Mr Eric Phillips, reacting to a Guyana Times editorial, “21st Century Agriculture”. That discussed the Government’s efforts to modernise the sector, which had been dominated by sugar and rice.
This passage earned Eric’s ire: “Towards the end of the 19th century, Indian Indentured labourers – brought in to replace African slaves on the sugar plantations – introduced a second commercial crop – rice.” He concluded that this statement “included skilfully deceptive language about the origin of rice in Guyana. The impression given by the author was that Indians were the first to plant rice in Guyana; or, as the language skilfully puts it: “on a commercial scale”. Phillips expatiated on the Dutch introduction of rice cultivation in the 18th century, and said this was subsequently practised by runaway slaves. He extended a quote from Dr Wazir Mohamed, “the slave population was not only prevented from planting rice officially, but was also prohibited by force of arms to do so unofficially”, to assert, “they did not have the freedom to plant rice either during slavery or after.”
However, eminent historian Dr Winston Mc Gowan offers a more nuanced perspective: “Enslaved Africans initiated rice cultivation in Guyana in at least three kinds of circumstances. Firstly, some of them who worked on plantations used a part of their free time to plant rice to supplement their meagre food allowance and to sell to other slaves. This practice continued until the end of slavery…Secondly, enslaved Africans were required to cultivate rice by a small number of planters, who used a part of their land for that purpose, no doubt, to provide food for their slaves. This was a rare occurrence.” Thirdly, there was the cultivation by runaway slaves mentioned by Mr Phillips.
But, as with Dr Wasir Mohamed’s explanation, that was during slavery. Following Emancipation in 1838, to their great credit, many freed Africans pooled their savings and bought abandoned plantations, into which half of their populace moved, founded villages, and cultivated their thousands of acres of lands. The question, of course, is why didn’t they grow rice on these transported lands? Dr Mc Gowan’s answer is, “The end of slavery in 1838 resulted in a decline in African participation in rice cultivation, for most of the ex-slaves opted to focus principally on the cultivation of ground provisions. An official report in 1848, however, does mention that rice was being planted in Berbice by Temnes.”
On Mr Phillips’s charge of “deception”, I surmise that because of the Guyana Times procrustean 700-word limit on editorials, the early introduction of African rice cultivation was not mentioned, just as the early efforts of Indian indentureds from the 1850s. It was only at the end of the 19th century that the sugar industry’s depression forced the state to end the constraints on sale of Crown Lands (100-acre minimum, and high prices) to facilitate interior gold mining. It was then that Indian time-expired indentureds started purchasing large acreage, and (as the editorial stated) rice became commercially viable. At this time, even African Guyanese who did not own village lands could have followed suit.
But there is a pertinent question for African Guyanese in the present focus on agriculture that harks back to the Black Bush Polder (BBP) rice development schemes in the 1950s under the first PPP Government. That was a key mobilising issue by the PNC in 1961 and 1964, since the overwhelming number of grantees were Indian Guyanese. That the selection criteria were facially neutral was irrelevant. After its installation into office in 1964, the PNC embarked on a number of initiatives to increase African Guyanese participation in the rice industry.
A section of Mibicuri – dubbed “Zambia” – was carved out for African Guyanese farmers, who were each given the same 2.5 acres for cash crop cultivation and 15 acres for rice farming. In the Mahaica/Mahaicony/Abary Rice Development Scheme (MARDS), more than half of the 63,000 acres were leased to African Guyanese. This was replicated elsewhere, and they all had access to financing from GAIBank and GNCB. Today, however, most African Guyanese who have not sold off their lands are now leasing them to others.How do we ensure greater participation today?