The Caribbean Sea is an extension of the western Atlantic Ocean that is bounded by Central and South America to the west and south and the islands of the Antilles chain on the north and east. At the end of the twentieth century, agriculture was basic to the economies of nearly every island.
Two fundamentally different types of agriculture dominate: large-scale commercial, or plantation, agriculture and small-scale semisubsistence, or peasant, farming. Plantation farming provides the most exports, by value, whereas peasant farming involves far more human labor.
Caribbean agriculture operates under various natural and cultural restraints. Most of the islands have rugged terrain, restricting productive agriculture to river valleys and coastal plains. Typically, less than one-third of an island’s land area is suitable for crops.
The windward portions of islands are commonly very wet, whereas their leeward areas suffer drought, necessitating irrigation. Various hazards also impact agriculture, including the damaging winds of hurricanes, flooding, accelerated erosion, and landslides. In addition, some crops (notably bananas) have suffered from diseases.
On the human side, most peasant farms are restricted to steep, unproductive slopes, while plantations control most of the productive lowland soils. Population pressures have led to the loss of some of the best lands and have caused fragmentation of farmland. Farm labor shortages, climbing wages, and foreign competition have added to the burden.
Modern plantations own large tracts of land and specialize in one crop, commonly sugarcane, bananas, coconuts, coffee, rice, or tobacco. They are more mechanized and better managed than colonial plantations, although they are still largely British-, French-, or American-owned.
The largest plantations are found on the largest islands, especially Hispaniola, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico. Cuba also has large-scale farming, but the operations are government-owned. Plantations always have been smaller in the Lesser Antilles, where relatively little land is available.
Sugar dominates the export economies of Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Guadeloupe, and Saint Kitts.Among traditional sugar producers in the Caribbean, notably Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Trinidad, and Barbados, sugar exports are exceeded by those of other commodities.
Other commercial export crops grown in the Caribbean region include bananas, coffee, tobacco, and ganja. Bananas, introduced in the sixteenth century by Spanish missionaries, became an important export in the late nineteenth century as markets developed in Europe and the United States.
Sweet bananas are significant exports of Guadeloupe, Martinique, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Granada, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent. Overall production is not significant on the world scale.
Coffee is raised for export mainly in Haiti, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic. Jamaica’s famous Blue Mountain coffee, grown in the Blue Mountains northeast of Kingston, is among the most prized and expensive coffees of the world. Its production and export is largely for European, Japanese, and U.S. markets.
Tobacco was important before the sugar era and has seen a recent resurgence in the Greater Antilles, especially in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic, mostly for cigar production. Ganja, marijuana prepared especially for smoking, is illegal throughout the Caribbean region.
The product is nevertheless of considerable commercial importance. Its chief producer is Jamaica, and its main destination is the United States. Other significant export crops include cacao (for chocolate) and citrus.
Peasant farming in the Caribbean began after emancipation in the nineteenth century, when freed slaves sought out the only land available, in the hills and mountains. Unfortunately, this land is unsuitable for crop agriculture, having thin and erodible soils.
Individual peasant farms average less than 5 acres (2 hectares) in area, often in disconnected plots. A variety of crops are raised, including fruits such as mangoes, plantains, akee, and breadfruit; vegetables such as yams, potatoes, and okra; sugarcane; and coffee.