I first came into contact with the School for Field Studies (SFS) and the Center for Marine Resource Studies (CMRS) on South Caicos in the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI) in 2014. At that time I was working at Cardiff University (Wales, in the UK) on an interdisciplinary research project into the relationship between seagrasses, fishing communities and food security. However, little did I know just how much SFS and the subject of food on South Caicos were going to feature in my life!
My History and the History of Food on the Turks and Caicos Islands
Back in 2014 the Sustainable Places Institute at Cardiff University partnered with SFS-CMRS to investigate the impact that tourism development was having on seagrass meadows. For example, hotel construction removing seagrasses to create the idealized blue water expected to attract visitors to the islands. Moreover, our work sought to understand if such development was contributing to declines in fish populations, and then in turn if this impacted the fishing industry and the archipelago’s ability to feed its growing permanent and temporary (tourist) population.
Seagrasses are integral to marine ecosystems. Photo by Heidi Hertler
On visiting the TCI, our project quickly grew to look not only fisheries but more widely into the situation of Food Security on the islands – as concerned with the physical, social, and economic access that people have to healthy and culturally appropriate nutrition (FAO, 2016). This was because the TCI imports almost all of its food, primarily from the United States of America (Baker et al., 2015). This means that like most things here, food is incredibly expensive. In contrast to the paradise experience of visitors and many wealthy locals, 22% of households on the islands are classified as poor, 40% report being worried about obtaining sufficient food, and 20% might have gone hungry at least once in the last month (Halcrow Group Limited, 2013).
The material state of South Caicos often reflects its social situation. Photo by Alastair Smith
As in many places, concerns over food supply have produced a call in the TCI for a return to the production of more local food, and public discourses have re-remembered the islands of North and Middle Caicos as the forgotten breadbaskets of the archipelago. However, as is well known, while fishing has long been prominent the modern habitation of the Turks Islands, Salt Key, and South Caicos was entirely driven by the opportunity to harvest sea salt from the archipelago. This stimulated me to undertake historical research into the history of food supply in the TCI.
The first islands in the archipelago to be successfully re-inhabited post European contact were Salt Key and Grand Turk in the 1670s, although this was only for the prime salt season between March and November, outside of which ‘saltrakers’ would return to Bermuda. Here the historical record suggests that from the very beginning these islands were “Low sandy and barren, with very little, if any fresh water, without any vegetables except low shrubs, or any animals except lizards, iguanas and land crabs” (Annual Register, 1765). Moreover, reporting on these early inhabitants noted that: ‘Food is [imported] salt pork…stinking rum… [and] musty biscuit…and now and then an iguana (a sort of large lizard) when they have time to catch them, and very often they are without bread” (Annual Register, 1765).
The physical geography of South Caicos today. Photo by Alastair Smith
By contrast it is thought that North and Middle Caicos were not substantially re-inhabited until after 1783, when British Loyalists from North America attempted to grow cotton on the islands. However, despite recurring interest in growing both cash crops and food here, production at scale was never sustained. Among the recurring evidence for a cycle of minor successes followed by destitution is the report from 1889 that:
“The experience of the last ten years has shown that at least once in three years the rainfall in the Caicos is insufficient to nourish a crop which will feed the people who grow it, and that it is only in about three years out of every five that they may expect to have any surplus to dispose of in order to procure clothing or other necessaries” (Harriott, 1889).
My research therefore suggested that as a collective, the Turks and Caicos Islands emerged as a fundamental product of early globalization. They were primarily inhabited to produce salt, a preserving agent fundamental to the success of long distance sea travel that connected the Caribbean with Europe and North America. Moreover, with little success at local growing, the inhabitants have long relied on the import of food. Meat, vegetables, and fruit have been exchanged for either salt or the famous conch, which has long been traded for other foodstuffs to feed the population.
The struggle of agriculture on the Islands. Photo by Alastair Smith
Another ‘Course’ of Food on South Caicos
After leaving Cardiff University, I quite literally stumbled across SFS again while visiting Panama, the chance encounter of which led to my appointment as Resident Lecturer in Environmental Policy and Socioeconomic Values, this time at the Center for Tropical Island Biodiversity Studies (TIBS), Bocas del Toro. Following the opportunity to teach during Summer Session II at CMRS, I returned for another ‘course’ of food here on South Caicos in the TCI.
The Summer II program is a research-based learning opportunity (see my previous SFS blog post on different relationships between research and learning). In the very first week, the three members of the faculty provided students with the foundational knowledge and skills needed to participate in the Center’s ongoing research agenda. Students then divided into three teams and are rotating through the experience of gathering data for each of the three projects. Students have also chosen the projects for which they will take greater ownership and write an associated research paper as the major part of their course assessment.
In my case, students will be identifying a particular question under the theme of Food Security on South Caicos; perhaps looking at the way food supply has changed over time on south Caicos, considering the cultural importance of food on the islands, or investigating the relationship between diet and public health.
Whatever questions the students choose to investigate, the opportunity to return to South Caicos has already been a fulfilling one, as I am able to bring back research to the very place that it was first developed. Student hopefully benefit from working alongside those actively present in this island community, and are themselves then able to contribute to the growing stock of knowledge relevant to a range of the archipelago’s stakeholders.
References and Sources
Annual Register, 1765. Annual Register, or a view of the History, Politicks, and Literature, for the Year 1764. J Dosley, London.
Baker, S., Paddock, J., Smith, A.M., Unsworth, R.K.F., Cullen-Unsworth, L.C., Hertler, H., 2015. An ecosystems perspective for food security in the Caribbean: Seagrass meadows in the Turks and Caicos Islands. Ecosystem Services.
FAO, 2016. Food security: concepts and measurement, [Available on-line] http://www.fao.org/docrep/005/y4671e/y4671e06.htm. Last Accessed: 7/21/16
Halcrow Group Limited, 2013. Turks and Caicos Islands Country Poverty Assessment (CPA): Executive Summary.
Harriott, A.W., 1889. Her Majesty’s colonial possessions, No. 52. Jamaica. (Turks and Caicos Islands.) Report on the blue book for 1888. (In continuation of Colonial Possessions Report No. 13.).