Jamaica has been for centuries one of the wealthiest countries in the region. Correction: make that “had been” as, over the last forty years or so, we have been losing that distinction. The world recession has made the situation even more obvious. Now I’m no economist, nor would I want to be, but it seems to me that one of our problems is that we spend too much time on the past and its traditions. “That’s an odd statement,” you will say “Coming from someone who writes almost exclusively about Jamaica’s history.” Not at all; Jamaica, and indeed every country, should celebrate and remember the past but not live in it.
In my opinion we hold on too much to “traditional exports.” We fight for a place on the world market for our bananas when the market seems to want bananas from Costa Rica. We then accept a lower price. Our bauxite industry has all but died a long and painful death. Recycling aluminium is a lot cheaper than mining and producing it from scratch. Good riddance I say to the deep red gouges in our green landscape. Sugar is no longer King. The King is dead, bury him! Jamaica is a small country; if there is a demand for something we produce we would never be able to produce enough of it to satisfy the market, the old “supply and demand” of basic business. Case in point: coffee. Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee is in great demand worldwide. Unlike bananas, we set the price for our coffee and the market pays it. In the middle of a recession, income from coffee has increased by 30%. The same is true of cocoa. There is a limited area where these crops grow so we can’t put thousands of acres more into coffee and cocoa. We therefore need other products. We have hundreds of thousands of acres of sugar cane. Every year we accept lower prices on this crop which used to be the backbone of our economy. We will need some cane fields for domestic consumption and the production of another star export, rum. Some of our existing fields can be turned to the production of ethanol. This takes retooling and a fairly heavy financial outlay but isn’t that better in the long run than accepting half price for sugar?
Take a drive outside the cities. Wherever you go you are almost guaranteed to pass stands of bamboo on the roadside. In the countryside we use bamboo for fences, for scaffolding, even for homes. On small farms bamboo “pipes” are used for irrigation, small rivers are crossed on bamboo bridges and large ones navigated on bamboo rafts. Children fish with bamboo poles and, unfortunately, some are disciplined with bamboo switches. In China and Japan, bamboo scaffolding is commonly used in construction.
There are many old wives’ tales about harvesting bamboo. But often those old wives were smart. The sugar content of bamboo rises and falls. The more sugar there is in the bamboo is the more attractive it is to insects. Sugar content is at its highest during the hottest time of the day. Harvesting bamboo at dawn during the full moon is actually the best time as the sugar content is lowest at that time! Bamboo also starts to rot from fungus after five to seven years. Bamboo is therefore best harvested between three to five and five to seven years, depending on the variety.
Bamboo grows at an incredible rate; it is the fastest growing plant on earth and can grow 24 inches (60 cm) per day. Bamboo plants reach maturity in three years. Because of this it is cheap and it is sustainable. Lumber and textiles made from bamboo are no longer niche products but are in incredibly high demand worldwide. In the U. S. one can buy bamboo flooring at any hardware store and bamboo sheets at your nearest department store. The bamboo products industry is anticipated to reach sales of twelve billion U S. dollars within two years. Why can’t Jamaica get a piece of that pie? Certainly with such an unbelievably high demand, the market would absorb as much bamboo lumber as we could produce. I can see it in my mind quite clearly: Acres and acres of former cane fields, already laid out, with irrigation in place, turned to bamboo and the huge sugar mills gutted and refitted to cure and laminate the lumber. Sugar cane and bamboo are both grasses, for all I know they could be planted and reaped using the same equipment. Maybe it’s time King Sugar was deposed in favour of the Big Bamboo!