Caribbean Islands Table of Contents

Agricultural output in Trinidad and Tobago during the 1970s and 1980s was inversely related to the performance of the oil sector: depressed during the oil boom, stimulated during oil's decline. Increasing wage costs, shortages of labor, and oil wealth all directly affected agricultural output. The trend was most pronounced in the 1970s, when the sharp increase in the price of oil exports discouraged traditional agricultural exports and encouraged the importation of food crops previously produced locally. As the oil industry's boom attracted more Trinidadians to urban areas, the rural labor force declined nearly 50 percent, representing only 10 percent of the total work force by 1980. Meanwhile, agriculture's share of GDP dropped from slightly over 6 percent in 1970 to just above 2 percent in 1980. Sugar, the most important crop, typified the decline, as its output fell nearly 50 percent during the 1970s. Other major export crops also suffered drastic declines from 1970 to 1980, including cacao (61 percent), coffee (15 percent), citrus fruit (75 percent), and copra (56 percent). Although agriculture rebounded in the mid- to late 1980s, it was far from approaching its status prior to the oil boom. Output in 1985 stood at about US$365 million, or 3 percent of GDP, well below the 1970s level in constant dollars. Nonetheless, the agricultural sector in the 1980s did experience the fastest growth among all sectors in the recessed economy. Growth in agricultural output in the 1980s was led by the strong performance of domestic agriculture, especially small-scale family gardening.

Land Tenure and Use

Trinidad and Tobago's total land area covers 513,000 hectares, of which less than one-third was arable. Approximately 11,000 hectares, or only 2 percent of total area, were devoted to pasture, the lowest percentage in Latin America or the Caribbean. By contrast, approximately 45 percent of total land was forest or woodland, making timber abundant. Although Trinidad's three corridors of mountains place the greatest restriction on agricultural activity, the plains between the ranges were generally fertile. Only about 13 percent of the arable land was irrigated, but there were numerous streams and small rivers. Flooding was common during the rainy season.

According to the most recent agricultural census from the early 1970s, there were over 35,000 farms on Trinidad and Tobago, occupying nearly 130,000 hectares. The average farm had 6 hectares, but the 40 largest farms were extremely large, all over 400 hectares. Landholdings were usually of two kinds. Small farms were numerous, used traditional methods, and produced mostly food crops for the domestic market. Larger farms were generally more capital and input intensive and produced cash crops for export. Land distribution on the islands was not believed to be as skewed as in other Commonwealth Caribbean islands; in 1987 current data were unavailable, however. The relative abundance of land and the large availability of state lands did not make land reform or landownership a prominent issue. In fact, the opposite was true; Trinidad and Tobago had difficulty retaining citizens in rural areas to work the land.

Agricultural inputs such as machinery, fertilizers, and technical assistance were generally available but were mostly utilized for export crops. Although agriculture was increasingly mechanized, it was still relatively labor intensive. According to the United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization, Trinidad and Tobago had only 2,500 tractors in use in 1983, or only 8 tractors per 1,000 hectares. This made Trinidad and Tobago less machinery intensive than Jamaica. In spite of being one of the leading producers and exporters of fertilizers in the world, Trinidad and Tobago's fertilizer use in the 1980s was still below 1970 levels. In 1983 approximately forty-nine kilograms per hectare of fertilizer were used compared with sixty-five kilograms in 1970 and forty-five kilograms in 1975. Although the Ministry of Agriculture, Lands, and Food Production provided some technical assistance in the rehabilitation of various aging and diseased tree crops, these programs were generally unsuccessful, and yields continued to decline. In 1982 a successful citrus rehabilitation program was introduced, however, which helped expand citrus output in the mid- to late 1980s.

Government agricultural policies did not focus on technical assistance per se but instead utilized pricing policies, such as subsidies, price controls, and guaranteed earnings for agriculture producers. Subsidies, the most rapidly expanding portion of government expenditure in the 1970s, were directed almost entirely at agriculture, especially sugar and livestock. Because of the small number of producers, however, price controls were also introduced to keep prices at fair levels and to help subsidize poorer consumers. As a result of the dwindling production of export crops, the government also instituted guaranteed prices for agricultural output that could be sold to the government via the Central Marketing Agency. Agricultural research took place at the regional Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute. Although credit for farmers was available from numerous sources, the most influential lender was the government's ADB.


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.

Livestock, Fishing, and Forestry

Livestock activity was not as developed as other areas of agriculture. Although livestock was targeted for generous subsidies and government programs, only the poultry and pork industries were very developed. The country's beef and dairy industries in particular were lacking. Pork was consumed in large quantities, and except for a few specialty items such as ham and bacon, the country was self-sufficient in pork. Beef production was very low; less than one-third of the estimated 30,000 head of cattle were dedicated to beef production. Most beef was imported from New Zealand and Australia. Water buffalo were also present, however, generally tended by rural East Indians. In the late 1980s, farmers were experimenting with a cattle-buffalo hybrid appropriately called a "buffalypso." Dairy production was inadequate, and the islands were about 90-percent dependent on imported milk, handled almost exclusively by Trinidad Food Products, a subsidiary of Nestlé. In fact, Trinidad and Tobago had the smallest percentage of its farmland used as pastures in all of Latin America and the Caribbean.

The fishing potential of Trinidad and Tobago continued to be underutilized in the 1980s despite numerous generous government subsidies instituted to promote the industry. Fish was an important part of the national diet, especially among Tobagonians. Catches of fish, including kingfish, grouper, redfish, snapper, shrimp, and tuna, totaled about 3 million kilograms per year in the first half of the 1980s. There were over sixty fishing beaches on Trinidad and Tobago, but only a few had adequate facilities to exploit the coast's potential. Most deep-sea trawling activity occurred in the Gulf of Paria, which continued to spark territorial water disputes with Venezuela. Although an important mutual fishing agreement was signed between Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago in 1985, there remained signs that disagreements persisted (see Foreign Relations, this ch.). Although inland fisheries were expanding rapidly in the 1980s, they were still only small in scale and were a governmentrun activity. Despite strong institutional support for the industry in general, such as from the National Fisheries Company, the Fisheries Development Fund, and the Caribbean Fisheries Training Institute, inefficient methods still prevailed, preventing fisherman from meeting local demand.

The forestry industry was small considering that about 45 percent of the islands were forested. There existed sixty-two small sawmills that fed the local furniture industry and a match factory. Wood was also used for firewood and charcoal, and many exotic woods were exported in small quantities. Production in the 1980s exceeded 5 million board meters annually. Large tracts of forestland were owned by the government and have been held as preserves since the 1700s. Because Trinidad and Tobago was geologically tied to South America, there existed a rich variety of woods, sixty species of which were commercially lumbered. Nonetheless, the islands were not self-sufficient in wood products and relied on imports to meet local demand. Some reforestation programs were implemented in the 1980s to prevent creeping erosion.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress