A Tribute to Women Farmers in Dominica

A Tribute to Women Farmers in Dominica: Recording their Life Stories

The Women Farmers Oral History work stream set out to record and share the life histories of long-time women farmers. We considered the centrality of farming: as the lifeblood of Dominica’s economy; as an integral aspect of the island’s environmental sustainability; and as well as its special vulnerability to storms and to shifts in climate patterns. We also considered the uniqueness of woman farmers as residing at the intersection of several key economies and ecologies: the domestic food and agro-processing ecology, the household and family ecology, the village ecology, and the commercial and export agro-ecology.

NEWAM members Judith Peters, Claudia and Lousia Alexander, Francess Diggs and Neva Robin in conversation.

In keeping with the broad aims of the CCC Project, our small team sought to create an archive of women farmer life histories, on the understanding that their lifelong experiences as farmers mirror the history and challenges of agriculture in Dominica, especially its untold and partly hidden histories. In order to place their stories of survival and recovery from disastrous climate events within the larger context of their longstanding and largely unheralded roles as domestic food producers and stewards of the land, we asked them to share their adaptive responses to both the economic and climate shocks that have affected their lives and livelihoods over the last few decades. Not only have they suffered through all the devastating storms of Dominica’s recent history (Erika, Maria, David and others), but their lives also map on to the history of the rise and fall of bananas as the linchpin of the Dominican economy. In tracing their lives, we trace the patterns of triumphs, disasters, and recoveries that characterize that history.

We didn’t want to present a story of women farmers as casualties of the global economic system or of global warming and climate disasters. Instead, to stress the role of women producers as agents and makers of history, we teamed up with a vibrant organisation of women farmers, inviting them to be active participants in the documentation of their own lives and to share with us some highlights of their style of resilience and self-empowerment – how they had come together to provide mutual support, to solve problems, to develop co-operative practices, to advocate on each others behalf, to share planting information, techniques, seeds and cuttings, to develop new projects, and to pursue lasting strategies for building sustainable agricultural livelihoods.

Newam members Neva, Louisa and Bernie talking beneath a guava tree during a group koudmen

The group we chose to work with was the North-East Women in Agriculture Movement, an organisation of over ten years’ standing which included members from Marigot, Wesley, Woodford Hill, and Calibishie in North East Dominica. This group was also invited to take part in another CCC project, led by Dominican PhD candidate in Disaster Management at the University of Delaware, Farah Nibbs, who designed and presented a demonstration of a simple rainwater-harvesting system, and helped with the installation of prototypes on several of the women’s farms.

We added an intergenerational component to the project by inviting a youth-based organisation, the I Have a Right Foundation, assisted by youth volunteers from Create Caribbean, a CCC Project partner organisation, to participate in the collection of the women’s life stories. The intergenerational component was a very deliberate one, intended to bring farmer-elders, as narrators of their lives and of critical pieces of Dominican history, into dialogue with a small cadre of young people from both farming and non-farming families who would act as interviewers and recorders. The interview with Nurse Judith, as she is known to everyone in the community, was conducted and video recorded by two young women from the I Have a Right Foundation who participated in a media skills training workshop in preparation for the recording. Among the trainers at the workshop were two seasoned and accomplished youth interns – Gibran Esprit and Tahj Pollock – with impressive prior interviewing skills from Create Caribbean. The resulting film, in which Judith Peters narrates stories of her experiences as a farmer and member of NEWAM, is a proud accomplishment of these young people.

Nurse Judith’s Film

The farming women who are profiled in the two short films that came out of the project were both deeply involved in the banana export industry during its heyday, the period roughly spanning the 1960s to the mid-90s. Many of them grew up in the industry, some of them recounting vivid stories of assisting their parents in its early days. Many subsequently went on to produce bananas in partnership with their husbands and their adult children. Before its effective demise about twenty years ago, just around the turn of the twenty-first century, the industry had provided them and their families with a consistent, stable, and relatively robust, if occasionally uncertain, livelihood, affording them the means to educate their children, build or improve family homes, and buy working vehicles, three accomplishments that they often spoke about with great pride. As one of them declared,

“I sent my children to school on bananas, I built my home on bananas, I bought one, two, three vehicles on bananas”.

These farmers survived the painful downfall of the EU-protected market for ex-colonial suppliers from the ACP countries, as well as the short-lived Fair Trade experiment that followed, and struggled to continue working in the occupation that many of them loved. However, they were now without a guaranteed market, without government subsidies and extension service privileges, and often without assistance from their husbands, many of whom retired from farming or are currently ailing, in their late 60s, 70s, or even 80s. With nothing further to lose and often with very little choice, these intrepid farmers turned to alternatives in order to survive, experimenting with:

  • new crops and cultivation techniques
  • staying on the lookout for new local and regional markets
  • developing new trading partnerships
  • making use of various NGO support opportunities/projects that came along
  • delving into spin-off cottage industries like agro-processingj (e.g. of passion fruit syrup, ground cinnamon, coconut oil, hot pepper sauce) and handicrafts
  • and proactively coming together with other struggling female farmers and agriculturalists like themselves to form their women-in-agriculture organization.

When you hear the stories of their lives as played out in individual biographies, it becomes apparent that the biggest economic and occupational challenges they have faced in the last few decades have been a result of the destructive forces of capitalist globalization, including the loss of longstanding markets and global warming, and the related erosion of local economies and traditional social supports. One of the farmers featured here talked about having to meet one challenge after another:

  • the loss of the banana industry that had sustained a steady expansion of her family income and security for decades
  • the loss of government subsidies and commitment to small farmers, the closure of Bello, the only longstanding, local agro-processing enterprise to which many had turned to sell their experimental crops of peppers and passion fruit
  • the impact of Hurricane Maria and other climate disasters
  • the failure of some of the new crops she and her fellow farmers had experimented with
  • mounting irrigation needs exacerbated by a changing climate and unprecedented extreme weather fluctuations
  • the unsustainably low prices offered by DEXIA, the government import-export agency to which she and others turned only as a last resort (usually as an alternative to dumping crops left on their hands)
  • and, always, the unpredictability of fragmented, uncoordinated, unregulated, inconsistent, private transactional – often one-off – supply relationships with hucksters, supermarkets, hotels, small vendors, and individuals, including tourists.

These micro-scale transactional trading relationships can hardly be said to amount to ‘a market,’ so that one of the most common cries we heard in talking to the women farmers, both individually and collectively, was the need for consistent, reliable, and secure markets for their products.

Indeed, finding ways to navigate the absence of an organised and stable market seemed to be the biggest challenge proactively taken up by the collective of women farmers that we interacted with in the Oral History Project.

But the individual oral histories also told a story often left out of mainstream accounts of what farmers do. Another one of our featured farmers told of a typical day in her life when her children were small – having to stay behind to cook lunch for her children and transport them to school after her husband had left for the garden; joining him in the labor intensive work of deflowering and sleeving the bananas, which, according to her, involved hours of standing on a ladder and having frequent falls; then leaving again to pick them up at 3:30 pm. As she pointed out, having a “transport” made it possible for her to combine all these activities in a single day – but of course this kind of constant juggling act fell mostly on women.

The North-East Women in Agriculture Movement was formed partly as a condition of access to NGO grants, with the assistance of government facilitators who worked with women’s and youth groups, and partly on the basis of urgently felt common interests, shared needs, and the activation of longstanding communal gender traditions, spurred on by strong, dynamic individual leadership. Although the women share a basic social identity based on their origins in farming families and communities and a commitment to sustainable rural livelihoods, there are some differences – broadly represented by at least three groups:

  • those whose lives and livelihoods have always depended primarily on farming and who would unhesitatingly describe themselves as lifelong farmers
  • those engaged in farming as part of what sociologists and anthropologists have described as the peculiarly Caribbean custom of exercising “strategic flexibility” or occupational multiplicity in crafting a mix of income-generating and life-sustaining activities;
  • and a small minority with occupational or professional backgrounds in teaching and nursing who had turned – or, more typically, returned – to farming as a primary post-retirement vocation.

Two lifelong farmers, Lilian Marcellin and Octavia Hunter, whose stories are featured in one of the films, are also award-winning farmers, recognised multiple times at both the local and sub-regional OECS levels for excellence in productivity and quality. Along with Jennifer Pascal, one of the main movers and shakers not featured here, they make up the current leadership of the organisation.

Lilian Marcellin and Octavia Hunter’s Film

In both the collective and individual interviews, one common theme was striking: all the women describe a special “love” of farming and a commitment to learning new techniques to improve their yields in terms of both quality and quantity. The women as a group have eagerly participated in various workshops and demonstrations which have introduced them to new crops, new techniques of cultivation, and new small-animal husbandries like rabbit-rearing. Beyond the access to new knowledge, new skills, and new opportunities, all of the women also describe the collective as a lifeline in terms of social and emotional support. The group, for example, regularly engaged in the traditional practice of koudmen – giving a day of collective labor to individual members in turn. As one informant described it:

“If it’s a piece of dasheen you have to clean, we clean all day. We cook, we bring our own food, … we eat, we drink …, and the other week we would go somewhere else and do the same thing.”

She also talked about the group extending their volunteer services to help those worse off than them to clean up after Hurricane Maria. Some of their own stories of surviving and regrouping after Maria have been preserved in the video footage that will form part of the Surviving Storms archives.

In showcasing highlights from the individual interviews as well as a focus group session with about a dozen members of the women farmers group, film-maker Michael Lees and I Have A Right Foundation interns, Sydney Thomas and Tiana Smith, have captured in film the indomitable spirit of these longstanding, under-recognized and under-valued agricultural champions and pioneering drivers of a post-bananas farming economy in Dominica. We have also borne witness to their persistent and ongoing efforts, as a self-organized collective, to build sustainable agricultural livelihoods and enterprises, even when markets prove elusive and climate change and disasters threaten to break their spirit.

Finally, I want to acknowledge and celebrate those who provided invaluable assistance in setting up the project and who also played key roles in moving it forward at various stages. Dr. Annabel Wilson, Surviving Storms | CCC Project Manager and Research Associate, was a consistent enthusiast and facilitator; she made all the arrangements behind the scenes, co-convened the focus group, and was one of the trainers in the media skills workshop. Valarie Honoré, Director of I Have A Right Foundation, and Jennifer Pascal, Vice-President of the North East Women in Agriculture Movement, were instrumental in securing the partnership with us on the project and played indispensable mediator roles throughout. Naomi Celestine, a youth supervisor with IHARF, participated in the media training workshop and accompanied the interns on their oral history interview session with Judith Peters. Two interns from Create Caribbean, Gibran Esprit and Tahj Pollock did an excellent job of coaching the IHARF interns in how to conduct effective interviews. Dr. Adom Philogene Heron and his colleague, Dr. Ricardo Leizaola from the Anthropology Department at Goldsmiths, provided specialised training in media and video recording skills at the workshop, with Dr. Leizaola doing so remotely. Samantha Sweeting, Goldsmiths Visual Anthropology Alumni undertook post production editing on Nurse Judith, Sydney and Tiana’s film. And, Samantha King, currently a Research Associate at Yale, who undertook PhD research with members of NEWAM, offered initial introductions to the group.

This collaboration among an intergenerational and cross-border group – to provide a platform for a small number of women farmers in Dominica to add their awe-inspiring life stories to the Surviving Storms archival kaleidoscope – has itself become an object of pride.

Cecilia Green, Emeritus Associate Prof (Sociology, Syracuse) and project lead for Surviving Storms Past: archives and oral history.