The Adopted Dog – Into Mesopotamia

Our second day of field trips was to look at two more of our possible case studies.  The first was probably the most important one from the point of view of the EU Funding.  To the north east of Kingstown is a large catchment called the Mesopotamia valley, and it is stacked full of banana trees – the largest plantations in the whole country.  As I’ve explained the industry is declining and some of the hillsides are being abandoned.  While the natural vegetation is encroaching on some fields, the steeper slopes are becoming more susceptible to erosion and the consequences for flooding in the settled valley bottoms and dumping soil out over the coral reefs on the Atlantic Coast.

We gathered at the ministry to take a vehicle out of town towards the airport.  Just beyond the turn off to the terminal, right at the end of the runway, we veered off the Windward Highway and started heading up through the leafier suburbs behind Arnos Vale and over the ridge into Mesopotamia itself.  The road hairpins down the side of the valley, but not before you have several look out points to see the expanse of the plantations.  It was rainy season and the central mountains of St Vincent looked threatening in amongst the iron grey skies.  Houses were generally nestled at the base of the valleys, or along the many ridges that reach down from the volcanic peaks.  The steep slopes in between were full of banana plants, many of them with their fruit covered in blue plastic bags to protect them from insects and fungus.

The evidence of banana industry was everywhere – not just in the fields.  Along the roadside we would see pallets ready for stacking the produce; in the heart of the valley was a large metal storehouse that was marked as a processing plant.  A whole posse of trucks sat in yards here and there waiting for the time they were to transport the cargo down to Kingstown wharf.  It all looked very organised, productive and profitable.  But then we saw the abandoned plantations and the derelict machines and you realised this was the last vestiges of a declining industry.

The options for land use change in St Vincent were limited.  Beyond the abandonment of fields and recapture by the natural vegetation, they could be taken on for other sorts of agriculture.  This was somewhat limited by the steepness of the slopes on which the bananas had been grown.  One potential application of the National GIS was to study the slopes, the soils and the water sources to look at land capability for other crops; be they ground annual crops like rice or wheat, or plantations such as rubber, arrowroot.  The latter was a traditional crop in the north of St Vincent that had gone into decline until it was seen as a very useful whitener or computer paper.  The other alternative was to subdivide the plantations and allow further building development.  And that was about all.  The steep slopes of Mesopotamia were a large problem for government right now.

We followed the main river out of the valley and down to the Windward coast.  Here the land was flatter and often used for coconut plantation as well as other farming – the options of non-banana land were much wider than that in the valley.  But this area was earmarked for a much bigger project.  Ever since I had started coming to St Vincent there had been talk of a new airport.  Still no turf had been cut, no sod lifted.  But this windward region was in such limbo that it too looked slightly decayed and worn out.  With the prospect of hectares of land being bought up for runway, taxiways, tarmac, terminal buildings and car parks, nobody was investing in their private dwellings – just waiting for the government to pay them off so they could move on.

The Adopted Dog – Life after bananas

I dropped in to Kingstown a few times during this contract and it gave me a chance to explore both the city and the country more deeply.  There is a habit on my kind of work that you are always thinking of the passport stamps.  As long as I step into a country, stay there a night, say, I can record that I have been to a particular country – and gradually count up to the 204 states and multiple autonomous territories.  So many I have never returned to so my single snapshot in time and space is all that is stored in my memory.  When I return to a country it is revealing to see it again – some places familiar, others changed from the last time I have been there.  But more interesting is stay somewhere new , have a new rhythm of life there,  and meet new people; it allows you to see the whole country afresh, go down new roads and have new experiences which change and hopefully enrich your overall perspective of a country.

This project gave me the chance to do that for St Vincent.  The first work I had done there had been natural resources based, particularly to do with the sea and its reefs, rocks and sandy bays.  This project was about the whole of St Vincent, which put a bias on the land.  New issues were to come out for me; land rights, disaster management, and in particular the process of diversifying agriculture, from which the need to make a national GIS had come.

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Bananas in the field below – but fewer are commercially viable

St Vincent, like many small island nations, had been developed through colonial times to provide one commodity to their respective empires.  For St Kitts this was sugar, for Grenada it was spice.  For St Vincent it was bananas.  Many of the volcanic valleys were cleared of their natural vegetation and planted up with row upon row of banana plants.  For years and years, extending past the colonial period, the whole industry of St Vincent was geared around the growing, harvesting and shipping.  Boats from the UK would regularly call in to Kingstown harbour and the lorries would pile down from the leeward and windward sides of the island to load them up for shipment.  I’d seen it myself on previous visits.

But St Vincent’s banana industry was in decline.  The economies of scale that were gained from mass production could not be emulated on the island; indeed some of the individual competing plantations in Latin America were larger than St Vincent itself.  Also, it was incredibly risky economically to put the vast majority of your land and exports into one single item, at the whim of global markets and fashion.  The Government of St Vincent had become convinced by this over the years.  And the European Union were sensitive to it too.  The treaties of the EU preclude favourable trade to former colonies, but they realised that they had a legacy of obligation not to leave these countries stranded with no guaranteed market, so had set up a large fund to help stabilise export earnings from these countries.

St Vincent needed to find a use for the large areas of banana plantation that were being taken out of production due to falling export trade.  Left fallow they could easily become a tangle of weed, or worse still cause horrendous soil erosion that could store up trouble for the rest of the country, causing landslides, cutting off roads, clogging up watercourses and smothering coral reef.  The programme we were a part of was meant to put together a package of interventions to help diversify the land use; for agriculture, tourism or construction, while retaining the balance of soil and vegetation for a healthy environment.  Basic to this was understanding the characteristics and potential of the land, and that meant you needed good information from all government and non government agencies to do that analysis.  Hence our project to systematically gather and catalogue all the existing GIS data for the Ministry of Planning.