How St. Vincent & the Grenadines’ Mayreau Island is tackling food insecurity

Farmers cultivate corn, peas, pumpkins, okra and other crops during the rainy season. The island's 2023 rainy season is proving very healthy for crops. Photos by Holly Bynoe, used with permission.

By Holly Bynoe

This is the second instalment of a two-part post (Part 1 is here) under the Shared Island Stories initiative, supported by the School of Art History at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, which explores ways in which to build collaborative tools to inform case studies in support of the project “Sacred Space and Social Memory: Interrogating Co-becoming in Community-Based Practices in the Grenadines and the Isle of Skye.” Funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) with project reference: EP/X023036/1.

After several trips to We Are Mayreau‘s centre (which shares a physical compound with the Mayreau Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church), and meeting members from the community, the realisation that the non-profit's arms are multi-tentacled and multi-faceted is plain to see.

To be a thriving NGO on an island like Mayreau means that services, offerings, professional development and training must be in context with on-the-ground realities, and needed by the community. We Are Mayreau works in this way with open doors, where ongoing feedback — solicited and unsolicited — continues to be shared both casually and more formally during community consultations. In addition to the Tobago Cays Marine Park (TCMP) coral restoration project, the organisation is also guiding a Women Farmers’ group — younger girls are a crucial demographic — and raising awareness to counter the deep food insecurity that is tangible, held within collective consciousness, and acutely felt in the southern Grenadines.

Top: We Are Mayreau's centre. Bottom: The Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church. The two share a compound. Photos by Holly Bynoe, used with permission.

The World Bank has funded St. Vincent and the Grenadines’ 2023 Food Insecurity Project at a sum of USD 10 million. It aims to mitigate the negative impacts on the country’s agricultural and fisheries sectors, which have been hard hit over the years by the Soufrière volcano's eruptions, the COVID-19 pandemic, the Russia-Ukraine war, climate change, tropical storms and droughts.

Most recently, the Central Bank of Barbados reported from a regional context that food insecurity “continues to be a pressing issue in the region, affecting the livelihoods of 3.7 million people, some 52 percent of the English-speaking Caribbean,” adding:

The consequences of food insecurity are well-documented in terms of hunger and malnutrition; however, its impact on other aspects of society — like mental health and education — are often overlooked.

This paints a dire picture of the context in which Mayreau finds itself; as such, the entry into food security for the island could not come at a better time. Mayreau is 1.5 square miles, water scarce and generationally food insecure; food importation on the island is at an alarming 95-98 percent.

Import and transportation prices from the mainlands of both St. Vincent and Grenada are rising, prompted by the poor quality of imported food (many items coming in tins, full of additives, preservatives, and other chemicals that diminish health and hamper waste management), and limited year-round healthy options of fresh fruit and vegetables. In addition, shorter growing periods because of extended annual droughts have impacted the 350 residents of the island. Any mention of “food insecurity” elicited groans, sighs, and deep breaths throughout my time on the island.

On my penultimate evening, I was invited to a meeting with members of the women's farming group, who discussed many things as they move through their first operational season: the sourcing of seeds, maintenance, mosquito control, importing materials from St. Vincent, watering schedules, and self-organisation.

We Are Mayreau's director Marion Isaacs guided a tour with The Hub Collective Inc. of the newly built hydroponics women’s-run facility. Photo by Holly Bynoe, used with permission.

The collective is deeply invested in mutual working, building accountability in their group while becoming more autonomous and independent provisioners in their community. Listening to them plot, plan and schedule time for weeding, cleaning, seeding, and harvesting felt wholesome. It reminded me of the intangible spirit of place I felt during my childhood as my family prepared farine — baked ground cassava, a traditional dish — over several rigorous days of harvesting and production in one of the only functional coppers in Bequia. In a short space of time, the women have planted and harvested peppers and lettuce, which they use in their homes with the excess being sold to the community, supermarkets, restaurants and tourism-oriented businesses.

The island, its consciousness and its people are on the verge of understanding how home gardens and different ecological processes like permaculture could benefit their process. The World Bank's funding is crucial to bringing these ideas into material manifestation. I shared the progress being made at The Hub Collective's Bush Medicine Revival project, which supports medicinal plants and Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), or what we in the Anglophone Caribbean commonly call “Bush Medicine.” I also shared some tips on how to keep the caterpillar populations down with a spray mix of neem and cayenne. Caterpillars can destroy crops — sometimes overnight — before they develop into moths and butterflies. The screening of hydroponic systems can also help avoid the problem, as the insects won't be able to access the crops.

Community spirit

Ma Anna's garden (left) is full of yams, peas, eggplants, noni, arrowroot and many fruit trees. Mama Mirabel (right) picks guavas. Photos by Holly Bynoe, used with permission.

Seeing We Are Mayreau's operations and being able to engage with its team afforded me the time to meet with the community's elders and tradition bearers. Ma Mildred, Ma Mirabel, and Mama Anna shared stories of inter-migration across the Grenadines, continued work on and with the land, and their relationship to family and to God. Spirituality features heavily on the island, with the Roman Catholic Church establishing itself as an early, formidable presence on the island from 1930.

The grandmothers were generous, chatty wisdom-holders who opened their homes to me. I visited frequently, and left with many bags of guavas and stories of people and decades gone by. I actively sought recommendations from We Are Mayreau’s director Marion Isaacs, regarding who in the community had experience with ancestry, education, environmental awareness, storytelling, intangible heritage, and leadership to inform the important conversations we were having.

I also connected with visiting American cartographer Alison Ollivierre, who sits on the NGO's Board of Directors and spent 12 years across the Grenadines facilitating participatory mapping and studying avian life. She is now part of Mayreau's society, putting roots, kindred, and offspring into the Grenadines’ cultural ether. I hope to continue conversing to build more profound and more secure, geographically aware methodological tools and archival imagery to support the ongoing research.

Mayreau resident Phil Ollivierre’s food security hydroponics setup will support greens and vegetables for the community and tourism industry. Photo by Holly Bynoe, used with permission.

I met with everyone from entrepreneurs, educators, and inventors who are questioning heritages, legacies, the bonds of family, and intergenerational delights and traumas, to community genealogists and carpenters working on food security and sea moss production.

My last day in Mayreau was spent on the island's Windward side, viewing gardens that Mayreauans are cultivating. They are growing root crops and staples that are used in traditional Afro-Caribbean cuisine, like corn, peas, yam, pumpkin and okra, to make dishes like cou-cou, ducuna, ground provisions, and various soups and stews that acknowledge the community's heritage.

Visiting the Salt Pond during the rainy season, one can see many sea birds and other creatures thriving in their habitat, including killdeers, yellowlegs, pelicans, terns, booby, and frigates. Photo by Holly Bynoe, used with permission.

Ending my time with a visit to the bird and mineral-rich Salt Pond, brimming from ongoing rains, and walking barefoot after saltwater healing through the farmers’ gardens, felt restorative and peaceful. I look forward to next year's salt harvest with the community in the dry season from March until June, and deepening relational ties with the very spirited and energetic sister island.

Holly Bynoe is an independent curator, writer, educator, spiritualist, Earth Ally and researcher from St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and co-founder of ARC Magazine, Tilting Axis, and Sour Grass.

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