Some emblematic landscapes


Any attempt to describe the Caribbean becomes a wager; such is the great diversity over such short distances. Making comparisons is hardly any better other than possibly to liken the Venezuelan llanos to the great plains of the North American continent. So what does one retain of this blaze of images that assails the visitor as much as the resident? It seemed to us that a few chosen landscapes could be used to form a picture of the Caribbean basin. They are representative of those most commonly experienced which in turn also sump up the Caribbean. Familiar to the local population, for them they also evoke a deep attachment. At a time when globalisation is bringing with it a univocal blandness, these landscapes signal part of a visible Caribbean identity.

Fields of bananas and sugar cane, legacy of a sad history

These are the real emblematic landscapes of the Caribbean, ones that relate back to both a recent and distant past.

Sugar cane, symbol of slavery also remains (indeed would become) a component of cultural identity. No Caribbean-born person is unable to describe the expanses of cane that have colonised the flat plains or gentler uplands of both the archipelago and the isthmus, with their vast open fields, tightly aligned rows, which in former times, by digging down below the surface, provided momentary escape from the eyes of the plantation owner, manager, and still today, the law. From the tender greens of the young shorts to the leathery greens of the nature plant, and the straw-coloured yellow of cut cane, everyone could tell the time of year. Was there any person unable to describe the aerial elegance of the “arrowed cane,” the flowering cane, during the months of November and December?

Even if profit-earning machines have now replaced the cane cutters and gatherers (the women who tied the stalks and carried away the bundled cane), and the ‘cabrouets' (ox or horse-drawn wagons) which transported the cane to the factory, the harvesting is always announced in the media, making the annual calendar of the islands of the Lesser Antilles, when the wind carries the blackened fibres of the burnt stalks in light twirls of smoke into the settlements.

From Cuba, which turned sugar cane into a triumphal success story of the Revolution in the face of the North American empire, to the small islands where its production today has difficulty surviving, sugar would ensure the historic wealth of these territories. It is still rum that epitomises conviviality and sharing. Names may change ‘ti-punch,' ‘mojito,' different recipes evolve ‘piña colada,' ‘cuba libre,' ‘planteur,' but all serve to encapsulate part of the region's history

The banana plantations have replaced sugar cane, often in the same localities, and now occupy vast expanses along the coasts, the Isthmus and across the Greater Antilles. The plantations are of more recent date, from the last years of the 19th century through the whole of the 20th, still representing today extravert economic influencers, in which foreign interests impose their mark. The United Fruit Company no longer directly farms the great plantations of the Isthmus, but its name remains firmly impressed in the collective memory, its role re-orientated towards commercial distribution and marketing of the fruit.

The vast quadrilateral shaped layouts of roads, which allow for maintenance, harvesting, piped networks allowing precision-controlled irrigation, wheeled transport and railway lines linking directly to the shipment ports, together make up the elements that today still shape Caribbean identity. The banana tree is a fragile plant (in effect, from herbaceous plants of the genus Musa); which does not fare well in periods of strong cyclonic winds. The medias publish images of devastation, trees blown over and laid out like matchsticks. Across the islands in an attempt to reduce the full force of such winds, tree-lined hedges encircle the fields in order to reduce damage. As such, the open field system of the isthmus contrasts with the wide-meshed ‘bocage' of the islands, and the mainland trains respectively with that of the container lorries.

Terraced cultivation in the Isthmus

Such fieldscapes are found in the Isthmus. They originate from a Amerindian tradition: from the Inca empire to the Aztec peoples, the steep slopes of the Cordilleras, as in many other regions of the world, have been re-landscaped. The peasants construct lines of around one metre high walls on the mountainsides, consolidating them with dry stone. These newly defined spaces are filled with imported soil creating meticulously cared-for and reputed parcels of new terrain. Such traditional techniques are not restricted to the Amerindian world, and are found also in southeast Asia, where they have contributed to the renown of Bali, as well as in the Mediterranean, but where they are tending to regress. In the American cordilleras, these almost vertical edifices remain impressive achievements.

Today, in these restricted terrains, the mountain peoples of Guatemala have developed intensive horticultural activities, serve domestic needs, but with produce also destined for export. An ingenious water collection system allows these terrains to be irrigated in order to increase yields.

The milpa and the Creole garden: two variants of an inherited subsistence agriculture

The milpa is an enclosed parcel of land adjoining a peasant abode on which Central American ‘peones' cultivate maize, string-beans and root crops that sustain a poor rural family's daily subsistence. Often situated in upland terrain, one also sees the cultivation of potatoes, and increasingly vegetable marrows, in particular pumpkins, to which may be added tomato plants originating from the region.

The Creole garden is a direct legacy of the period of slavery when the plantation masters allowed the slaves to cultivate for their own family needs in vegetables and root crops. This practice allowed the former to dispense with having to provide all the slaves' food, but also afforded them some freedom of space and the possibility sometimes to amass some savings with the hope of buying one's liberty.

The Creole garden was always located near to the house, often appearing as an inextricable jumbled space, but with an evident coherence in terms of organised cultivation. On small patches ‘root crops' could be grown, like yams (Dioscorea alata) and 'cousse-couche' (Dioscorea trifida), plants originating from the region, and grown along ridge till systems supported by stakes. One also finds dasheen – ‘chou-chine' (the French name) and ‘madera' (the Spanish name) – the former following after the latter during the year. Today green vegetables (lettuce, tomatoes, turnips, carrots, and cucumbers) are cultivated together in these small spaces as well as the inevitable red peppers and lemon trees, coconut palms, with a stand of cane and bananas completing the picture.

Depending on the talents of some cultivators, the Creole garden is also a locus for growing medicinal plants, used in traditional Caribbean pharmacopoeia. A plant from the Zingiberaceae or the Ginger family (in local French Antillean vernacular known as “à tous maux”), and the arrowroot (‘toloman' in French, Spanish ‘achira') provide typical examples.

The traveller quickly passing through will see nothing of this rich diversity, with barely the time to separately identify the abundance of plant life.


Authors: Monique Bégot, Frédérique Turbout
Translation:  : Louis Shurmer-Smith