Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The indigenous inhabitants had a subsistence economy based on agriculture and pastoralism. With the arrival of European settlers most of the population began to work in agriculture for export. At the same time, subsistence agriculture remained important as a source of food such as cereal grains, maize, and potatoes. In the cities and villages, people made agricultural implements, textiles, etc. for sale. Today, much land formerly given to Subsistence agriculture is being abandoned as farmers seek work in the tourism and construction sectors. Nevertheless, several traditional crops persist through part-time agriculture in which reciprocal work is very important.
Industrial Arts. Many traditional industries have disappeared in the last few decades. Those still surviving include textile production by women, mainly silk, embroidery, and calados (openwork). Pottery, basketry, and other types of handicrafts formerly linked to agriculture and household needs survive as part of the tourist trade.
Trade. The economic history of the islands has been linked to international trade owing to the position of the Islands in the commercial routes between Europe and America. The most productive crops were always for export, with the actual crops grown changing in response to demands from the European countries. The first important crop was sugarcane but it failed as an export crop because of competition from sugarcane exported from the Antilles. Sugarcane was replaced by wine, which was exported to Europe and America until the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century, cochineal insect cultivation for the production of dyes was wide-spread, but when anilines (synthetic organic dyes) were discovered cochineal production was discontinued. During the first decades of the twentieth century, bananas, tomatoes, and potatoes were the major crops for export. More recently, flowers and green vegetables exported to Europe have become important.
Limited local industrial development has always necessitated a dependence on imported manufactures. Since 1852 the Canary Islands have had a free-port system that has favored the open character of the islands' economy, but this system has also led to economic dependence and the growing influence of British trade. Until 1936 the British owned many local businesses, banks, insurance companies, etc. At the same time, they began banana export and created the first tourist facilities. After World War I, the Canary Islands lost their place in the international banana market and slowly became part of the Spanish economy. Actually, a special Economic arrangement recognizes some commercial peculiarities of the islands in spite of their integration in the European Community.
Division of Labor. Socioeconomic changes during the last thirty years have brought women into the labor market. Traditionally, women were confined to agriculture and to the household. Cooking and child rearing continue to be primarily female activities, but in urban areas men play a larger role in domestic tasks. Until the 1960s, most Canarians worked in agriculture, but today more than 80 percent of the working population is linked, in some way, to tourism. Native peoples also hold some positions in the island and state governments, though Spaniards hold most of these positions. Similarly, most of the executive positions in the major tourist companies are held by Spaniards and other Europeans.
Land Tenure. Immediately following the Spanish Conquest, the lands were redistributed through a system ( repartimientos ) that gave large tracts to those involved in the military expeditions. Therefore, until the nineteenth century, only a few families owned agricultural land. Following the medieval system of "shared property," the peasants worked the land, paying their rent with a part of the crops, mainly cereals. Beginning in 1812 many peasants gained control of land, leading to the development of many small- and medium-sized farms. During the 1980s there were more than 70,000 farms, each with more than 6 square kilometers of land. The more profitable ones are mainly on the coast and grow crops for export. Farms devoted to local trade are located in the midlands and highlands.