THE CHALLENGE FOR FOOD
Thank God for Miss Samdaye. This woman, a resident Claxton Bay, is a food machine. If you drop her off anywhere on the planet, you could bet your bottom dollar that she will find a spot to plant and grow food.
Growing up in Princess Town, she planted yam, dasheen, eddoes, cassava, all manner of carbohydrate. Then, sixty years ago, a tall man, driving the sugar-cane train from Caroni Ltd, picked her up, married her, took her back to Phoenix Park where he showed her how to drive the Caroni train, how to fish in his boat off Claxton Bay. When he died a year later, in an accident on the same train, she was taken away by a crab-catcher to Crab Village (now Pranz Gardens) to live. Crab-catching was the economy of the day. Crab, mook, shrimp, oyster, crayfish, shellfish, fish, all manner of protein, she harvested. She lived half her life in the Claxton Bay mangrove, and the other half planting cane in Caroni Ltd to raise her seven children.
Today Miss Samdaye is an activist. She is dead set against plans by Essar Steel of India to build a steel mill next to her house, her vegetable garden, her community. She is dead set against the destruction of the Claxton Bay Mangrove System to build a port to facilitate Essar. She points to the children: forty years of steel dust, sulphur and nitrogen dioxides in their lungs. She points to her garden of peas, biganne, cassava, same; these will be contaminated with steel dust. She points to Mr Ramnarine and his goats, which feed on the low grass on the savanna; the goats will ingest steel dust. She points to the open spouting which collects rainwater for residents. She points to the earth that will “harden” if the mangrove is destroyed, if the 500 acres of land are given to Essar. She points to the mangrove, the mother of food.
The logic which Miss Samdaye applies to her immediate situation is not different from the logic which scientists are currently applying to the global food crisis: there is a clear link between the planet’s ecological system and food production. The greater the exhaustion of the planet’s ecological architecture, the lesser the capacity of humans to produce food. And the greatest cause of land exhaustion is unmitigated and unnecessary heavy industrial activity.
When ecologists talk about “land” they are not talking about a horizontal plane stretching from one horizon to the other. They are talking about a vertical, integrated and dynamic structure. Most of this structure is invisible to the naked eye.
The first rung of this structure is deep inside the earth’s crust; vast rivers of water flow miles inside the earth, sometimes trapped in rocks, or caught in sand. These streams are millions of years old; human activity can produce toxins which can leach through soil, sand, crevices in rocks and contaminate the earth’s water cycle.
Second, there are the soils of the earth, complex and varied, bearing millions of tons of microbial life. Resting atop these are, third, the oceans, rivers and swamps. Fourth, there is the vegetation, mangrove, grasslands, forests, and so on. Trinidad and Tobago, because of its proximity to forest and water systems in South America, has one of the densest speciation of life on the planet. The microbial life on a square inch of soil, or bark, or in one drop of ocean or river is one of the densest on the planet.
Moving higher up the ladder there is the ambient atmosphere, the air that humans breathe everyday; then the larger atmosphere; the clouds; the stratosphere and the ozone layer.
This multi-storied global greenhouse, within which humans have traditionally grown food, is in a state of reactivity. Heavy industrial pollutants – over fifty types of organic and inorganic compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, particulates, a complex of trace elements, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, carbon – impact on each strata of the ecological system. This poses overwhelming challenges for global food production. Humans will have to find different ways of producing food: new concepts, new technologies, new systems, new persons.
Vast acreages of the 77,000 acres of Caroni lands must become the platform for an agrarian revolution in Trinidad and Tobago. We must build dams, within or at the foothills of the Northern Range, to collect water during the wet season, to store, to irrigate vast tracts of land. Exhausted soil must be rehabilitated and allocated for animal pasturage, tree crop farming, fruits, varieties of peas, hardy ground provisions. The buffalypso must be treated and revived. Farm schools must be established. And a Food Park, with estates entirely devoted to food manufacture, labs, packing and packaging facilities, engineering for small machines, collection and distribution systems, marketing, and animal medicine. And model-farms. And recreation zones. And timber stocks. And wind-farms and solar cell networks. The challenges for building an ital food economy, in the context of global climate change, are enormous. We have not yet begun to meditate seriously on what is required. But there are possibilities.
As hydrocarbon reserves diminish, as our capacity to import declines, individuals, families, communities will have to look to backyards, empty lots, surrounding spaces, pots and porches, to grow their own food.
Four years ago Miss Samdaye and her husband were allotted two acres of Caroni land each, among scores of former workers of Caroni Ltd. This land was located next to their community. They awoke one morning to find their lands being graded down. The residents went to see Prakash Saith, the CEO of the National Energy Corporation, they went to see Dr Lenny Saith, the then Minister of Energy. Their land had been taken back and given to Essar Steel of India. Steel for India, for the US, the Saiths were saying. And NO – to ital food for us.