This Issue | Editorial | Feature | E-mail
Guyana’s Rice Industry
a historical perspective

This is the summary of a presentation “Guyana’s Rice Industry: Globalization and Demographic Change, 1800-2008”, a paper presented at the International Rice Conference organized by the Guyana Rice Development Board and the Ministry of Agriculture at the National Convention Centre, November 7-8, 2008 to mark the centenary of rice exportation from Guyana. It also examines the relationship between the crisis of sugar at the end of the 19th century and the rise of the small farming rice industry.

By Wazir Mohamed
Guyana Journal, May 2009

Afro-Guyanese and Rice
In order to understand the reasons why Africans are not as involved as they should be in the rice industry of Guyana, it is necessary that we take a second look at the ways in which the globalization of the world sugar trade in the 19th century determined the conditions of labor. The globalization of the sugar trade influenced the growth of the mono-crop sugar economy of Guyana in the 19th century and played a crucial role in the marginalization of the African population from land and from participation in the rice industry. Because of Guyana’s propensity for sugar and its role in the sugar revolution of the 19th century, the slave population was not only prevented from planting rice officially, but was also prohibited by force of arms to do so unofficially. Unlike other areas of the West Indies, in Guyana the planter class did not permit nor sanction the development of a diversified agriculture in the colony. They curtailed the growth of provision grounds in the colony and by the 1820s had smashed all the attempts by slaves who wanted to and who had established runaway African communities in the interior. Many of these communities had organized their living around the production of rice in the far reaches of the Abary, Mahaica and Mahaicony rivers. This is captured in the report by British Militia Captain Charles Edmonstone who in one of his escapades to capture runaway slaves stumbled on a maroon community in the Abary-Mahaicony area with well cultivated rice fields and fourteen houses filled with rice, which in his estimation could have fed 700 men for an entire year. This shows that while they had the knowledge, they did not have the freedom to plant rice either during slavery, or after. Actions such as this of the colonial state and the planter class expressed the level of desperation which existed as the colony struggled to deal with its labor shortage. Guyana inherited a slave workforce at the end of the slave trade of approximately 100,000, which was far below the estimated 3 million required to keep all the coastal plantations functioning. This was exacerbated after 1838, when the African workforce began to take trade union action to achieve better wages and working conditions. Faced with these demands for freedom the colonial state and the planter class imposed more stringent measures to deny the African workforce the right to organize as workers, and the possibility to plant rice and to expand their land holdings. As such every attempt by Africans to grow rice between 1838 and 1860 was unsuccessful, firstly, because of the clash in reaping times with sugar and the intransigence of the planter class to allow production to continue; and secondly, because of the problems of drainage and irrigation and the inhospitable atmosphere which existed between sugar and rice husbandry. A third major problem is the layout of village lands, which has been a nightmare, a millstone around the necks of African villagers. After 1850, all village lands had to be laid out in small, miniscule parcels. This became a bugbear, and was one of the primary factors for the drainage and irrigation nightmare of the villages. There is a direct relationship between sugar’s need for cheap labor, and the laws which were enacted to stop the advance of the African population in their quest to enlarge the freedoms gained in the early 1840s.

Faced with the rise of the second slavery in Cuba, Brazil, and the USA and stiff competition from slave produced sugar on the world market, after emancipation, land control and other mechanisms were instituted to keep African labor attached, available and cheap. Land laws passed between 1838 and 1861 prevented African labor from expanding their dream of independence outside the villages, while the indentured contract tied East Indian immigrants in perpetual servitude to the estates of residency. East Indian labor did not replace African labor as history would have us believe, but was used as a mechanism to discipline the African workforce. The indentured contract was used to keep them in their place; it was used to construct the African workforce into what I have called in my PhD dissertation “a reserve army of labor.” The land laws which encircled the African workforce and the implementation of the indentured contract to keep East Indian laborers in slave-like living and working arrangements were two sides of the same coin. Both were designed to keep African and East Indian labor cheap and available; to corral and keep both groups of laborers within the bounds of the established plantation space, thus preventing them from planting new crops, including rice in commercial quantities. This is why the rice industry did not develop until after the stringent land laws were relaxed and watered down in the 1890s.

Land control laws passed by the British colonial state in 1836 and expanded in 1839, 1851, and 1861 upped the asking price for Crown lands in parcels of 100 acres at one British pound and later to five and ten dollars per acre respectively. Having exhausted all their savings in the villages, the African population could not afford to buy land in one hundred acre plots at such exorbitant prices, much less pay for the cost of draining and irrigating these lands. In the absence of government, drainage and irrigation which should have been centrally organized and managed was the sole responsibility of land owners. A lack of a central drainage and irrigation authority was an important bugbear in the development of agriculture outside of sugar. The Crown lands regulations which made it virtually impossible for the laboring population (Africans and East Indians) to acquire lands outside the established regions under planter control remained official policy until 1898 when the attention of the colonial office shifted to the need for an alternative to sugar, and hence a landed peasantry became permissible outside of the established sugar industry. With the dawning of this attitude to land, the prohibitive crown lands regulation in force since 1839 was relaxed in 1898 to allow for plots of 100 acres and homestead lots of 25 acres to be made available at the asking price of 15 and 10 cents per acre respectively. The changed attitude to land gave the impetus for the rise of the East Indian rice peasantry. The phenomenal growth of the rice industry after 1898 was related to the changed land policy. The altered land policy had nothing to do with the benevolence of the colonial ruling classes, but was related to the global crisis of the cane sugar industry and the survival of the planter class in the colony.

In the final analysis, Afro-Guyanese were denied the possibility of engagement as equal partners in the rice industry because of the stringent land and labor policies which the colonial ruling classes employed during the course of the 19th century. The end result of these policies was lopsided development of the colony after 1900, and this accounts in part for some of the problems – economic, ethnic, political, and social – of modern Guyana.

The Cane Sugar Crisis of the 1880s and the Small Farming Rice Industry

Now to discuss the growth after 1894 of a small farming, mainly indo-Guyanese rice industry, and how this altered economic and ethnic relations in the country. The predominance of East Indians in the rice industry is significant from several standpoints. It points to the lack of foresight on the part of the colonial state and of the manner in which it reorganized the economy in the background of the collapse of sugar’s monopoly in the final decades of the 19th century. Faced with the labor crisis of underemployment as sugar collapsed, the colonial authorities permitted the development of a small farming peasantry. This was an about turn on their part. Having prevented the African population from evolving into a peasantry, the colonial state through its decision to provide lands cheaply to time expired indentured laborers permitted the growth of a rice peasantry peopled mainly by East Indians. This policy resulted in the growth of diversification of the economy with the rise of an export crop in competition with sugar. Armed with an export crop and the ability to produce wealth, East Indian rice farmers were able to make economic advances, while the African population was left hanging in the fragmented villages. The historically inherited disparity in land ownership and in wealth between East Indians and Africans in Guyana is related to the lopsided policy of the colonial state. Because of Guyana’s capacity to produce sugar for the world market Africans in Guyana were denied the freedoms afforded to their counterparts in other land endowed West Indian Islands. In the context of the colonial West Indies, the growth of an export industry in the hands of former indentured servants in Guyana paralleled the limited freedom some slaves and ex-slaves of the colony of Jamaica inherited seventy odd years earlier. The rise of the rice industry which occurred after 1900 did not have to do with who had or who lacked knowledge in rice production, but with the economic necessities which the sugar planting class faced in that period.

Rice could not be commercialized in the early period because of the threat it had posed to sugar’s control over labor and land. Despite the fact that rice was being planted by East Indians from as early as 1865, it was not until the sugar crisis began to take its toll on the economy in the 1880s and 1890s that East Indians were given the go-ahead to commence production on a large scale. The history and evolution of the early struggles with the planter class over rice is captured in the accounts of Lesley Potter who labeled the rice planting Indians of that period as “the padi proletariat,” rather than “peasants.” She notes that “most of the cultivation was on small patches of land for immediate subsistence only.” Sugar could not permit the expansion of rice. Potter’s account and labeling of the subsistence activities of East Indians of that period coincides with Rodney’s departure from earlier historians in his labeling of the African villagers as rural proletarians, rather than peasants. This is significant because these rice plots were akin to the provision grounds of slaves who were required to provide part of their subsistence from these grounds. Like the provision grounds of slavery, the small rice plots were part and parcel of the sugar economy. These plots played a major role in reducing the cost of increased food imports associated with the influx of immigrants.

The rice industry of Guyana dates from 1894 to the present. Its rise was related to the impact of the push factor, the release of “excess” labor and “excess” land from the sugar industry. The exodus of labor and land from the age old stranglehold of the sugar barons provided the stimulating impetus for the growth of the rice industry after 1894. The relaxation of the land laws was a game changing event. It altered settlement patterns by opening up lands on the Coast, and in the riverain areas which had been legally inaccessible for sixty years. East Indians who had completed their period of indenture, but were marooned on the sugar plantations and on the margins of the plantations, and in the African villages, were freed to move away and acquire plots of lands in remote districts. Crown Lands, the preserve of the planter class since slavery ended became accessible and the East Indian population took full advantage. Time expired East Indians accepted the challenge of land grants from the colonial authority in lieu of return passages and cashed in as land became cheap as the crisis of sugar deepened. At the same time, the demise of sugar in certain districts also opened up plantations to rice. On the Essequibo Coast, for instance, where irrigation water from the natural lakes was accessible, Anna Regina and neighboring estates were converted to rice field. The impact of the sugar crisis on existing plantations, especially those outside of Demerara where sugar was being consolidated, led to the growth of rice. As a result East Indian families moved into Mahaica, Mahaicony, the Essequibo Coast and Islands, and the riverain areas of the Corentyne and established settlements.

The phenomenal growth of the rice industry after 1894 is attributable to the rise of settlements of free Indians away from the established coastal plantations. The outgrowth of settlements primarily on crown lands and on abandoned sugar estates accounts for increases in rice cultivation from 2,500 acres in 1893 to 61,200 acres by 1919. While the sugar crisis broke the camel’s back, the opening up of markets in the West Indies was important in the expansion of the rice industry after 1900. From this historical backdrop, by the 1950s the rice industry became the largest user of land in the country. The paddy proletariat had graduated and a fully formed small farming rice industry was established. Except for pockets of tenant farmers in various parts of the country, the number of rice farmers, which in 1921 was approximately 10,000, had more than doubled to 22,156 in 1955. Of this total there were only 900 large farmers cultivating plots in excess of sixteen (16) acres, the majority were small farmers cultivating less than fifteen (15) acres each. Approximately fifteen thousand were cultivating between two (2) and eight (8) acres, while an approximate total of five thousand were cultivating less than two (2) acres each.

After 1950 the number of rice farmers grew steadily and by 1970, according to most estimates, had reached its zenith of approximately 45,000. But since then the number has declined steadily and today there are between 8,000 - 10,000 farmers in the industry. The rise in the number of rice farmers after 1950 had a direct link to the processes of democratization of decision making in the industry and the growth of representative democracy at the national level. The birth of the Rice Producers Association in 1946 and the election of the first national government in 1953 were important factors in the expansion of agriculture. It was during this period that drainage and irrigation which had been the preserve of the planter class became a national priority. It would be safe to assume that the growth in the industry after 1950 was attributable to the emphasis placed by the national government on drainage and irrigation schemes, on agriculture, and on protective mechanisms to preserve small farming and the rural rice culture.

Small Rice Farmers Are Disappearing

The role of the colonial state in constructing the disparity in land ownership and wealth between East Indians and Africans in Guyana was discussed. Now to examine two factors which contributed to the gradual disappearance of the small rice farmer - one, the attempt of the Burnham government to correct the historical disparity between African and East Indian ownership of land and their disparate involvement in the rice industry and two, the impact of globalization and liberalization.

As noted above there were 22,156 rice farmers in 1955 and 45,000 in 1970. The 1955 total included only 900 large farmers cultivating plots in excess of sixteen (16) acres, while the majority was small farmers cultivating less than fifteen (15) acres each - approximately 15,000 cultivating two to eight acres each and, approximately 5,000 cultivating less than two acres each. In the absence of any recent scientific study, most industry analysts agree that the demographic make-up of the industry has undergone and is undergoing rapid change. The number of small farmers has decreased, while the acreage under cultivation has increased. Most estimates put the number of farmers in the industry today at 8,000 to 10,000, a reduction of 35,000 since 1970. As early as 1999 Fazal Ally (late General Secretary of the Guyana Rice Producers Association) in a Guyana Review report confirmed that by then the number of rice-farming families had declined to approximately 15,000 and that 70% of the approximately 200,000 under rice was under the control of “fewer than five large companies.” This was a telling statement that the nature and culture of the industry were going through rapid change. The figures show that from 1970 to 2000, while the number of farmers declined by 30,000, the acreage under cultivation had increased. Meanwhile the average farm size, which in the 1950s stood at around six acres, had increased to approximately 15 acres by 2000, by which time the trend of the previous 80 to 100 years, when small farmers proliferated, had been reversed. The industry was on track to becoming a large farmer industry, with the small farming families converted into farm workers. This trend has given rise to a migratory rural population and workforce. Small farmers are abandoning their lands to the large farmers and are migrating in search of incomes. These are not small changes: they reflect the changed conditions of the ordinary folk in the rural areas.

The drastic reduction in the number of farmers reflects the fact not only that Guyana is tied to the global economy, but also that the global economy drives changes at the local and community levels. Dharamkumar Seeraj, General Secretary of the GRPA, in an interview with an OXFAM Canada team in 2001, reflected on the extent to which the global economy is wreaking havoc on rural life in Guyana and on the future of small rice farmers. He noted that with the impact of global change we are seeing “the break-up of farming families, because farmers have to leave home to go in search of employment… We see the migration of young potential farmers and qualified people.” He further noted that the break-up of the small farming culture affects not only the farmer, but also the younger members within small farming households who make up the bulk of the rural population. “We see children called out of school because farming families can no longer afford the cost of transportation, uniforms, and school books. We see cases of suicide, farmers literally dying from the pressures of not being able to pay the banks - heart attacks on the increase, high blood pressure… there are fallouts at all levels.”

While globalization accelerated the process of demise of the small farmer and of the small farming rural rice culture, these developments had begun in the 1970s. From the early 1970s to the mid-1980s rice farmers and millers were the target of state-sponsored repression. In this period of transition to globalization, the production, marketing, price, access, and availability of rice came under the control of political operatives who wreaked havoc over the right of farmers to their crops. This is partly reflected in the production figures which nosedived in the Burnham years. The statistics of that period speak for themselves. The acreage under production fell from 270,000 in 1970 to a low of 126,000 by 1990. This state of affairs was created by the insistence of the Burnham government on the need to de-emphasize the role and place of rice in the economy because as it was put, the PPP “had devoted so much of its resources to the rice farmers, who were mainly its East Indian supporters.”

To address the historical imbalance between Africans and East Indians in the industry created by the colonial state at the end of the 19th century, to use the words of former finance minister Carl Greenidge, the Burnham government “tried to de-emphasize rice in favor of other agriculture and industrialization to which its own, predominantly urban supporters were attracted.” Within the political lens of the government, the historical economic imbalance in the country between the two major ethnic groups had to be addressed through the implementation of institutional policies to curb the influence of East Indians over the decision making apparatus of the industry. Within the framework of this ideology, it re-organized the management apparatus of the industry and derailed the democratization mechanisms which were installed in the late 1940s and the early 1950s, that cemented farmer participation in the decision making bodies.

With Burnham's death in the mid-1980s, the new PNC regime headed by Desmond Hoyte implemented measures to reverse the undemocratic trend of the Burnham regime and openly embraced neo-liberal economics and politics under the rubric of the “Economic Recovery Program” begun in 1989. This opened the floodgates to the market economy, and dismantled the framework of the rice industry which had been organized around small farmers. This is reflected in the reduced number of rice farmers today, and the consolidation of land and resources in fewer hands.

Globalization is reshaping the nature of occupation and ownership of land. Land is being consolidated into larger and larger blocks. Many small land-holders in the rice producing areas have either abandoned, sold, or rented their lands to larger farmers. Rural life is being reshaped. As this reshaping evolves, the court system is constantly called into action to deal with litigation. While detailed field research is required to sort through the levels of dislocation in the industry, one thing is certain - the small rice farmer is one of the victims of globalization. Replacement of the small farmer, a process many authors call “depeasantization” is an unintended consequence of globalization. This trend is very pronounced in neighboring Brazil, where 75% of all arable land is now owned by no more than 3% of land owners. Guyana seems destined to move in this direction.

Dr. Wazir Mohamed spent the formative years of his life as a community and political worker in Guyana, and is now engaged as a Professor of Sociology at Indiana University East in academic research to find answers to Guyana’s seemingly intractable ethnic dilemma.