Caribbean Islands Table of Contents

The decline in agriculture's share of both GDP and the labor force continued in the 1980s. From 1980 to 1985, agriculture as a share of GDP dropped from 8.3 percent to 5.7 percent. Likewise, the percentage of the labor force in agriculture decreased from over 30 percent in the 1970s to 24 percent by 1985. Agriculture's inability to keep pace with other sectors of the economy or population growth forced an increase in food imports. As a result of these trends, Jamaica's total food import bill increased elevenfold from 1960 to 1980. These patterns were likely to persist because fewer younger people were entering farming. For example, in 1985 an estimated 50 percent of the agricultural labor force was over fifty years of age and 30 percent over sixty years. In the 1980s, government policies sought to revive declining production of traditional export crops and to introduce and promote nontraditional export crops through the commercialization and modernization of the sector.

Land Tenure and Use

Jamaica's total land area covers over 1 million hectares, 25 percent of which were under cultivation in the 1980s. In 1985, about 145,000 hectares, mostly in the coastal plains, were determined to be highly fertile, and 350,000 hectares were suitable for cultivation with various limitations. Some 160,000 hectares of agricultural land remained idle or underutilized. Twenty-four percent of total land, some 265,000 hectares, was covered with natural forest of commercial value. By mid-decade Jamaica had roughly 155,000 farms,down considerably from the 1978-79 agriculture census total of 179,700. Most farms were small; over 90 percent of all farms had four hectares or less. Farms having more than 20 hectares contained 43 percent of total cultivated land, however. According to the agriculture census of 1978-79, the average farm measured 3 hectares, and the island's largest farms, those 200 hectares and over, averaged 784 hectares. Sugarcane still covered over 25 percent of all agricultural land in use, followed by bananas, root crops, coconuts, citrus, and pimento.

Historically, land tenure in Jamaica has been rather inequitable. Most concentration of land in the postwar period resulted from urban migration and the purchases of very large tracts of land by incoming bauxite companies. The most important land reform programs in the postwar period were the 1966 Land Development and Utilization Act (also known as the Idle Land Law) and Project Land Lease introduced in 1973. The 1966 act allowed the government to encourage either the productive use, sale, or lease of some 40,000 hectares identified for the program. Project Land Lease attempted a more integrated rural development approach, providing small farmers with land, technical advice, inputs such as fertilizer, and access to credit. The plan helped more than 23,000 farmers cultivate 18,000 hectares. It is estimated that 14 percent of idle land was redistributed through Project Land Lease. Redistribution was still perceived by some as slow, inadequate, and containing marginally arable land, however; still others saw it as highly uneconomical and partisan in political terms. In the 1970s, unrealistically high expectations over land reform, as well as economic frustration, caused some sporadic land seizures and squatting, which found little government support. Redistribution of land in the 1970s emphasized cooperative ownership, a decision that sharply increased the number of cooperatives on the island and made members an important political force.

Government policies toward land tenure and land use shifted in the 1980s in favor of privatization, commercialization, and modernization of agriculture. Sugar cooperatives were dismantled, some government holdings were divested, and foreign investment was sought to update farming methods and help develop new product lines, or "nontraditional exports." Agro-21, established in 1983 to spearhead the new agriculture policies, held the ambitious objective of putting 80,000 hectares of idle land into the hands of the private sector in four years. The program relied heavily on international consultants and foreign investment; for example, the most prominent Agro-21 project, the Spring Plains farm, utilized Israeli technology. Although success was mixed, the program was responsible for growth in the production and export of nontraditional crops, such as winter vegetables, flowers, and Jamaican ethnic crops.

Traditional farming methods, including slash-and-burn methods, still dominated on most small farms. The mountainous island suffered from serious erosion problems, the result of farming on overly steep hillsides in the interior. Such farming has caused long-term damage to the country's topsoil, lowering soil productivity up to one-third according to some estimates. Most small farmers tended to grow a diversity of crops along with one main crop. Few peasants were solely subsistence farmers as the great majority traded a part of their produce and participated in the exchange economy.

In the 1980s, the use of such agricultural inputs as machinery, fertilizers, irrigated water, and technical assistance was slowly growing. Most small farmers still used handtools, especially the machete instead of more expensive power tools. A large percentage of the machinery was found on medium-to-large farms, but farms of up to two hectares used a surprisingly large amount of machinery for the size of the plot. According to data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the number of tractors in use on the island increased by 5.6 percent from 1971 to 1980, averaging eleven in use per 1,000 hectares of arable land in 1983; despite the improvement, this ratio was relatively low.

Fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigated water were likewise used in moderate amounts. Chemical fertilizers were not widely used, and animal manure and mulch were more common among small farmers. The use of chemical fertilizers declined by 4.8 percent in the 1970s after an increase of some 7.2 percent in the 1960s. Declining use of fertilizers continued in the 1980s. Fertilizer use was most prevalent for large export crops such as sugarcane, bananas, and citrus. Pesticides were even less common than fertilizers and were utilized mostly for sugarcane. Irrigated water covered 12 percent of arable land in 1983, up from an 8-percent level in 1965.

Most agricultural research occurred within the Ministry of Agriculture, but various farmer associations, such as the Coffee Industry Board or the Coconut Industry Board, provided research, as did the UWI at Mona. The Saturday edition of the Daily Gleaner provided farmers with valuable information on planting, harvesting, and new techniques. Agricultural extension workers were also active in Jamaica, including Ministry of Agriculture officials, crop associations, and agents of both local and foreign development organizations. The most important national farmer's organization was the Jamaican Agricultural Society, to which most farmers belonged.

Access to credit had increased since the integrated rural development plans of Project Land Lease in the 1970s, and augmenting credit to farmers continued to be an important government policy in the 1980s. The most customary sources of credit included the People's Cooperative Banks, commercial banks, Agriculture Credit Board, Agriculture Credit Bank, and Jamaican Agricultural Development Foundation. High interest rates in Jamaica throughout the 1980s prevented most small farmers from obtaining commercial bank loans. Nonetheless, the growth of private commercialized farming doubled the number of outstanding agricultural loans from commercial banks between 1980 and 1985. Multilateral and bilateral development agencies supported a number of projects in 1987 designed to improve export crops, rural parish markets, fumigation and certification, and overseas marketing.


Jamaica's monoculture sugar economy became diversified after emancipation, when former slaves planted a wide variety of food and some cash crops. Agricultural produce was quite varied in the 1980s, and included export crops, domestic crops, mixed crops, and nontraditional export crops; the latter comprised both new crops and those traditionally grown but not previously exported.

Sugar has been the dominant crop in Jamaica for centuries with the exception of the fifty-year period from 1890 to 1940. Even in the late 1980s, sugarcane fields covered over 25 percent of the total area under crops and employed about 18 percent of the total work force, although that demand was seasonal. Sugar production (including rum) accounted for nearly 50 percent of agricultural export earnings in the early 1980s. Nevertheless, sugar production declined sharply from 1965, when 60,000 hectares of cane fields produced 515,000 tons, to 1984, when 40,000 hectares produced only 193,000 tons. Many factors contributed to the decline of sugar, such as world price declines, falling yields, declining quality, labor unrest, and factory inefficiency. Farms over 200 hectares held the overwhelming share of the land under cane, usually on the fertile coastal plains. Jamaica's history as a slave-based, sugar plantation society marked sugarcane, and cane cutting in particular, with a strong social stigma.

Jamaica enjoyed two preferential markets for its sugar in the mid-1980s in the European Economic Community (EEC) through the Lomé Convention (see Glossary) and in the United States market via the United States sugar quota. In the 1980s, Jamaica was allocated 1.1 percent of the sugar imported into the United States from the world market. Although the United States sugar quota for Jamaican sugar dropped rapidly from 1984 to 1986 from 30,000 tons to 17,000 tons, Jamaica's own dwindling production prevented it from meeting the quota level in 1984. In 1985 the island actually imported several thousand tons of refined sugar for the domestic market. Meanwhile, the EEC remained a stable market.

Bananas were the only crop in Jamaica to have surpassed sugar in export revenues. After the peak years of the early twentieth century, however, banana production and exports were cyclical and generally in decline. During the 1970s, production decreased rapidly from 136,000 tons in 1970 to 33,000 tons in 1980. Although major efforts were made by the government and farmers, the production decline continued in the 1980s with 1984's figures totalling only 11,100 tons, one of the worst of the century. Several factors accounted for ebbing production, including slow technological advance, diseases, shortage of inputs, natural disaster, and transportation bottlenecks. In contrast to sugar, bananas were typically produced by small farmers. Most farms that grew bananas grew other crops as well. Banana exports were destined for Britain, where Jamaica had preferential access for up to 150,000 tons of its bananas against non-Commonwealth nations.

Citrus products, which included oranges, sweet oranges, tangerines, grapefruits, and various hybrids, were usually grown on small farms. The large interior town of Mandeville was the hub of the industry. Citrus output was stable in the first half of the 1980s and reached 754,000 boxes in 1985. Citrus fruits enjoyed a large domestic market for direct consumption and processing. Many farmers picked their own produce to sell directly to consumers. Government policies in the 1980s sought to expand larger-scale production and emphasized fruit processing for juices, concentrates, preserves, or canned fruit.

Coffee, cultivated since the early 1720s, remained an important export crop for small and large farmers in the 1980s. All coffee growing was regulated by a central organization, the Coffee Industry Board. Two varieties of coffee grew in Jamaica. Lowland coffee was generally grown on small farms and accounted for about 80 percent of output in the early 1980s. Blue Mountain coffee represented 20 percent of output but was steadily gaining a larger share of production. The number of hectares with Blue Mountain coffee doubled in the first 5 years of the 1980s to over 2,000 hectares, but Lowland's cultivation remained constant. New coffee farms were generally medium-to-large in size. Jamaican coffee enjoyed exceptional prices relative to world prices. Lowland coffee averaged a price two to three times the world price, whereas the highly aromatic Blue Mountain coffee received four to five times the world price. Some 1,000 tons of coffee were exported in 1984. Almost all of Jamaica's Blue Mountain coffee was sold to the Japanese, who were willing to pay top prices.

Jamaica produced a number of other traditional export crops such as cocoa (derived from the cacao plant), tobacco, coconuts, pimento, and ginger. Jamaican cacao plants were relatively diseaseand pest-free. Most cacao was cultivated on small farms on hillsides as a mixed crop. Although world cocoa prices were cyclical, Jamaica tended to receive a premium price for its cocoa. Some 51 tobacco farms produced 269,000 kilograms of tobacco in 1985 for both the domestic and export market. The tobacco industry was undergoing a process of deregulation. Coconuts were recovering from a lethal yellowing disease that killed 88 percent of the Jamaican variety. New varieties were being grown to continue to produce coconut derivatives such as soaps and oils from copra. Pimento, from which allspice is derived, remained stable and was also deregulated. The island's ginger was of high quality and found easy market access abroad, as well as being sold locally for use in nonalcoholic ginger beer, chocolate, and national dishes.

Numerous domestic crops, both fruits and vegetables, were also grown. Tubers, the most important staple crop, included yams, sweet potatoes, cassava, and dasheens. Popular vegetables included calaloo (a type of greens), sweet and hot peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, corn, and pumpkin. Abundant fruits such as plantains, avocados, mangoes, pineapples, soursop, breadfruit akee and melons were also grown. Legumes were also common, especially gungo peas, red peas (Jamaicans call beans peas), and peanuts. Jamaica was relatively self-sufficient in vegetable production.

Livestock, Fishing, and Forestry

Livestock were healthy, diversified, and relatively numerous in the late 1980s. Self-sufficiency was close to 100 percent for pork, 80 percent for beef, and 60 percent for poultry. Agro-21's Master Plan of 1983 called for beef self-sufficiency to be reached nationwide, a goal generally perceived as feasible. Nevertheless, livestock production declined in the mid-1980s, largely as a result of increased feed costs brought on by numerous devaluations of the Jamaican dollar. Virtually all of the poultry produced were chickens, of which there were nearly 6 million on the island. Most chicken farms were small, but a few large producers were influential. Poultry production was dependent on price changes relative to the price of other meats. An increase in the price of chicken in the late 1980s forecast lowered output. Besides chicken, the most common farm animals in Jamaica were goats, totalling more than 295,000, raised for both their milk and meat. Pigs were common on small farms. Swine disease rates were low compared with other Caribbean islands.

Two large dairy farms, Alcan (the bauxite company) and Serge Island, produced 80 percent of domestic milk, although 60 percent of dairy cattle were owned by small farmers. During 1984, two formerly government-owned dairies, Cornwall and Montepelier, were closed as part of the government's divestment policies; the closings further hindered output. As a result of climate and resources, Jamaicans also consumed a large quantity of imported powdered milk. In 1985 the country remained dependent on imported dairy products to meet 84 percent of local demand.

Other livestock included mules, donkeys, and horses, all of which were used primarily for transport. The agricultural census also reported nearly 7,000 sheep and almost 24,000 rabbits. An increasingly popular activity was bee farming for the commercial production of honey.

One of the most important obstacles that faced the government in the 1980s was the high price of imported feeds. To overcome this problem, agricultural policies stressed import substitution, such as increased corn production and experimentation with nontraditional feeds, including sugarcane tops, fish waste, and other agricultural by-products.

Fish was consumed in large quantities in Jamaica, exceeding domestic production. Dried saltfish, historically imported from Canada in exchange for Jamaican rum, still entered the country, but supply was irregular by the late 1980s. The island also imported more than 50,000 kilos of shrimp, codfish, sardines, mackerel, and herring in 1985. Fish production dropped markedly from 18,500 tons in 1980 to 6,000 tons in 1984 as a result of the high cost of equipment, but production rebounded in 1985, reaching 9,550 tons. From 1983 to 1985, pond area grew by 55 percent in an attempt to increase fresh water production for local markets and shrimp production for the export market. Improved marketing, which would require a switch of preference in consumer taste from salt water fish to fresh water fish, remained an obstacle to the success of inland fish farming. Fish ponds were one of several priority subsectors of the Agro-21 plan.

Natural forests, defined as land with at least 20 percent tree cover, represented 24 percent of total land. Government forestry preserves were large. Policies sought self-sufficiency in general purpose timber, with a target 1,700 hectares of forest and producing 40,000 cubic meters of sawlogs a year. In the late 1980s, however, self-sufficiency was still far away. The long-term development of mostly hardwoods, pines, and other species was planned to support the furniture, craft, and construction industries. Small sawmills were common but generally undersupplied.

More about the Economy of Jamaica.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress