Garifuna - Economy



Subsistence and Commercial Activities . The Island Carib were fishers, hunters of small land animals, collectors of shellfish, and horticulturists; both sexes participated equally in food production. Only men engaged in offshore fishing and hunting, whereas the women were largely in charge of the fields after the initial clearing. Bitter manioc was the primary staple, of which the Garifuna made a flat, unleavened bread that, when properly stored, would keep for weeks and could be carried on the long sea voyages the men frequently made to other islands and to the South American mainland. Trading and raiding were important activities that often kept the men away for long periods of time. After the arrival of Europeans, the Carib began to trade with them and to sell their labor. They also turned increasingly to plantation agriculture of commercial crops, such as cotton, and, by the time they were deported from Saint Vincent, they seemed well on their way to dependence upon a cash economy. In Central America they were at first in great demand as mercenary soldiers for both the Royalists and the revolutionary Creole forces. They also worked in the mahogany camps in Belize, Honduras, and Nicaragua, both before and after independence in those areas.

After 1900, when the fruit industry had become the major employer along the coast, they worked as stevedores and in various semiskilled occupations in the major banana ports. During World War II many men worked in the U.S. merchant marine, which led them to seek continued employment in this sector later. This started what has become a migratory stream, with some individuals returning periodically to their home villages until final retirement there and others settling permanently in the United States. The second generation has produced many teachers, physicians, and engineers—professions they follow both in the United States and in their home countries. The largest part of the population, however, remains in the underemployed working-class sector. Women joined the men as migrants during the 1960s, most working as seamstresses, factory workers, or domestics in the large cities of the United States and Central America. The village economies have been bolstered by the remittances sent home to relatives, but little capital has been invested there. Many communities are largely made up of older folk and young children living on irregular and inadequate checks sent by the absent intervening generation.

Industrial Arts. Aboriginal craft products included baskets, cotton cloth, sleeping mats, pottery, and a variety of wooden utensils, including graters for manioc, drums, and dugout canoes. All of these have survived in Central America except pottery, which was replaced by European earthenware and porcelain, probably during the eighteenth century in Saint Vincent. Most of the crafts have been forgotten today, and only a handful of persons in the more remote villages still manufacture the other items.

Trade. Although most scholars believe the Carib engaged in extensive trade in aboriginal times, it is not clear what products they exchanged. During the eighteenth century they were known among European residents in the Caribbean for their silk-grass woven bags, baskets, tobacco, fruits and vegetables, and various forest products. In Central America the women regularly appeared in town markets with superior agricultural produce, and the men sold fish, both fresh and dried. Their reputation as smugglers of arms, liquor, bullion, and consumer goods has survived to the present day.

Division of Labor. Women in aboriginal times were the primary farmers, dependent upon the men only for clearing the land. Women also caught land crabs and other shellfish, cared for pigs and chickens (known only after the arrival of Europeans), prepared the food, cared for the children, and wove cotton cloth and fiber mats on hanging looms. Men fished and hunted, made canoes, and engaged in trading and raiding excursions. They were also largely in charge of the ceremonial life, including public ritual and curing. After the middle of the twentieth century, women left behind while the men migrated took on more and more of the men's responsibilities. Today they are dominant in religious and curing rituals and ceremonies. Women have long enjoyed considerable independence of word and action. They are, in general, as well or better educated than the men and have begun to enter political life and some of the professions in their countries of origin.

Land Tenure. Because their agriculture was largely of a shifting nature, land tenure has not been a major issue for the Island Carib or the Garifuna. So long as there was sufficient land and a small population, tenure was determined by "first come." The very concept of landownership was problematic for them aboriginally, which no doubt worked against them in making treaties with the Europeans. Not until the twentieth century did land scarcity become an issue in Central America, and by then most of the Garifuna were adapted to an economy supported by male wage labor.


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