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.

A Road to Repair

Petite Savanne Koudmen (a short film)

Repost from EmoNewsDM.Com

As part of the Surviving Storms | CCC project, Dominican-British researcher Dr Adom Philogene Heron and his colleague Dr Annabel Wilson visited Petite Savanne to participate in a koudmen (cooperative work) that villagers hold on a Sunday to restore their road. They made a film about the process. 

‘Road to Repair’ tells the story of villagers rebuilding a the road to their home, their farms, their livelihoods – a lifeline for a community devastated and displaced by tropical storm Erika in 2015.  

Shortly after landslides and floods took the lives of 18 souls, the village was declared abandoned by government. Yet, many continue to make life there. Some never left; some go back and forth to their gardens or the bay oil distillery from their resettlement in Bellevue Chopin; and some simply return for the weekend ‘lime’ and enjoy their village. 

Their road is a pathway home – to livelihoods, to ancient bay trees planted by their ancestors and to their land. 

The road to repair is long but the villagers are making a way. 

If you can please assist the villagers in their koudmen – buying materials, food and drinks – please contact Staret on +1 767 277 4538

To learn more about the project:





Tracking Elsa from Dominica

How hurricanes come to be.

Since the beginning of the hurricane season – June 1st 2021 – Dominican residents, and those living throughout the Caribbean, Southern US and Central America, have been monitoring weather systems that leave West Africa and move out across the Atlantic Ocean, on a 3,000-mile journey towards the Americas.

They travel along the very same trade wind paths that brought the ancestors of Afro-American peoples in bondage, propelling the sails of European slave ships towards the Americas – carrying the labour ‘at the edge of the hurricane….at the end of the slave trade winds’, as Brathwaite once described it (1993: 260-61). These very same alizés (as the winds are known to francophone islanders) carry Saharan dust to the Antilles, bringing beautiful hazy sunsets and particulate deposits on vehicles and windows. This dust is said to curb the formation of cyclones.

These alizés, and all that they carry, invite the Caribbean to look eastwards, towards weather disturbances born as far away as East Africa. To vigilantly track them via satellite images on TV and online, to follow their development on inter-island WhatsApp and Facebook groups, where citizen weather watchers exchange reports, forecasts and observations along the island chain. And this is not to mention that most trusty medium, the FM radio. During storm events Dominicans call in to DBS (Dominica Broadcast Service) Radio to describe conditions in their local areas – the heaviness of rain, strength of winds, nearby damage, and status of utilities (i.e., water and electricity outages). Separated by steep ridges, deep valleys and mountains, Dominican weather patterns may differ radically between enclaves in the north, south, east, west or interior of the island. Yet, in this sharing there’s a kind of crowdsourcing of live weather information; a triangulated conversation between individual observations, communally gathered reports and official met office information.

With the recent passage of category-1 Hurricane Elsa (2nd of July 2021) this tracking came alive. Elsa was the first hurricane to make landfall in 2021, and the 5th storm of the year (‘E’ being 5th in the alphabet). In fact, Elsa was the earliest 5th named storm on record, with storms beginning with ‘E’ typically arriving in August.

Atlantic cyclones are named using a rotating roster, where a name can be recycled after 6 years. This year the 2015 list is being reused. However, during August of 2015 Erika struck Dominica, causing death, destruction and widespread flooding. Hence it was retired, and this year Elsa has been inserted in its place.

Elsa spared Dominica, where it was felt only as a tropical storm with minimal damage. But the hurricane caused more severe damage elsewhere: killing one person in St Lucia, two people in The Dominican Republic, and causing one confirmed death in Florida. On top of this, 9 Cubans aboard a 22-person vessel on a migratory journey to America were also presumed dead after the US coastguard ended a week-long air and sea search for survivors (the remaining 13 were rescued and taken into US immigration custody). Elsa also caused some flood and wind damage to homes, infrastructure, and crops across the Lesser and Greater Antilles; and was the first hurricane to make landfall in Barbados in 66 years (damaging over 800 homes).

Chattel House, Barbados @Jayceemayers Instagram

Although causing minimal destruction in Dominica, Elsa was ‘a wakeup call’, as a friend put it. A reminder to be prepared for the season. To store food and water (for drinking and washing), locate local shelters, cut branches near homes, clear drains (to avoid flooding), to buy batteries, candles and store spare bottles of cooking gas.

The memory of hurricane Maria, just four years ago – referred to in Dominica as simply ‘the hurricane’ – and tropical storm Erika two years before that, offer painful reminders to prepare for storms that can so rapidly organise themselves into cyclones. Moving from…

  • a wave (non-cyclone)
  • to a depression (cyclone, winds <38mph)
  • to a tropical storm (cyclone, <39-74mph)
  • and then up through the categories (1-5) of a hurricane (cyclone, 74mph+)

…in the space of a few days.

For a hurricane do develop within the main development region (MDR), between west Africa and the Caribbean, at such an early stage in the year portends to a highly active hurricane season (NOAA 2021).

How Atlantic Hurricanes form?

Hurricanes begin as tropical waves. A tropical wave is an atmospheric system of low pressure that typically moves in a westward direction. They originate as ‘African Easterly Waves’, undulating weather patterns that travel across the Sahara out to the Atlantic. Some sixty waves may be generated throughout a single 6-month hurricane season (June 1st to November 30th), with roughly one in ten forming into cyclones.

Their power is generated by the contrasting temperature of the hot arid Sahara Dessert and the cooler moist tropical conditions of the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa and central African rainforests. These weather systems continue westwards as they gather energy. With small atmospheric disturbances they can become unstable, rising higher into the atmosphere, and gaining moisture as they move out over the Atlantic – into an area close to Cape Verde. Here they can develop into clusters of thunderstorms (NOAA).

All this unfolds within a thin tropical band called the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ, see lines below) where trade winds meet and move the weather systems out further towards the Americas. As NASA Earth Observatory note:

The intense sun and warm water of the equator heats the air in the ITCZ, raising its humidity and making it buoyant. Aided by the convergence of the trade winds, the buoyant air rises. As the air rises it expands and cools, releasing the accumulated moisture in an almost perpetual series of thunderstorms.

A feature of this convergence zone is its rising warm air currents called ‘updraughts’, which pull moisture high into the atmosphere, where it forms energised and rain-filled thunderclouds. Places located along this strip receive some of the heaviest annual rainfall on the planet.

The location of the ITCZ moves throughout the year, bringing seasonal shifts in the location of heavy rainfall – resulting in the wet and dry seasons of the tropics (rather than the cold and warm seasons of northern countries, for instance). Most of the Caribbean receives its wet season during June to August; whilst Brazil’s is December to February; and Guyana experiences both (see the lines meeting below).

Out in the Atlantic, tropical waves are energised by warm ocean temperatures, they are moved by converging trade winds and spun counter-clockwise by the rotation of the planet – this is how they form into cyclones.

The indigenous Kalinago of Dominica were able to foretell the arrival of hurricanes, perhaps owing to their ability to anticipate the clear weather and drop in pressure that tends to precede their landfall. They were so accurate at such forecasting that they warned English settlers in St Kitts of hurricanes that made landfall in ‘1657, 1658, 1660, 1665, and 1667 … [E]very time the Caribs [Kalinago people] on Dominica and St. Vincent sent a warning ten or twelve days in advance’ (Dunn in Yarde 2012: 77). Kalinago people knew the hurricane as Ioüallou, calling their wet season – from May to October – Ioü llouo yourou. They planned their planting, raiding, trading and house building with the hurricane in mind. And so too European seafarers, colonial settlers and slavers, began to map the winds and seasonal storms.

Halley’s map of the trade winds (1686) – indigenous peoples, seafarers, settlers, enslaved labourers, freepersons and cosmographers long understood the winds of the Atlantic, and how they inform Caribbean weather patterns.

To return to Elsa, island residents in the Eastern Caribbean tracked the wave carefully to see how fast it was developing, whether it would become organised into a cyclone – depression, storm, or hurricane – and whether/where it might make landfall. Many Caribbean governments placed their islands on ‘hurricane watch’, issuing advisories to send staff home from work, avoid seacraft operations and avoid all river or sea bathing.

In the end, the hurricane just passed from east to west across the south of the Dominica, causing minimal wind damage and outing water and electricity for a day. The storm then moved on through the Greater Antilles and southern US.

How Hurricanes Die

Cyclones ‘die’ as a result of making landfall or entering cooler waters. ‘Striking an island’, NOAA note,

especially a mountainous one, could cause its circulation to break down. If it hits a continent, a hurricane will be cut off from its supply of warm, moist maritime air. It will also… draw in dry continental air, which combined with increased friction over land leads to the weakening and eventual death of the hurricane. Over mountainous terrain this will be a quick end.

(NOAA 2021)

Such knowledge is popularly held in Dominica too. As one interviewee told Therese Yarde in her PhD research on Dominican understandings of nature:

According to where the hurricane is coming, you find the mountains can be very helpful in breaking down the wind force and that kind of thing

(Yarde 2012: 379)

Having moved over multiple islands Elsa slowed to a tropical storm as it continued to arc upwards along the east coast of the US.

With the start of August, as we enter the most active period of the hurricane season (the vast majority of hurricanes form after August 1st), islanders continue to look vigilantly to the east for more storms to come. During this time many will recall that timeless childhood nursery rhyme:

June to soon

July stand by

August come you must

September remember

October all over

(thanks to Genny Seaman for the reminder; originally an old mariners poem)

For a detailed and accessible introduction to the science hurricane formation, tracking, effects + routes see this article by Morsink on the Smithsonian Institute website