Publications

The legacy of traditional rice cultivation by descendants of Indian contract laborers in Suriname

Ramdayal, Melissa; Maat, Harro; Andel, Tinde Van

Summary

Background
Some 35,000 indentured laborers from India were recruited to work on plantations in Suriname between 1868 and 1916. It is likely that most were familiar with farming before they were shipped to this former Dutch colony in the Caribbean. Around 1900, those who did not return received a piece of land where most of them started growing rice as a staple crop. Agronomists characterized their traditional landraces as inferior and infested with weedy rice and started to ‘purify’ these landraces. No research has been done on whether these ancient rice varieties still exist. We aimed to document the rice varieties (both landraces and more modern cultivars) grown currently or in the recent past by (descendants of) Hindustani smallholders in Suriname, their origin, morphological and agronomic characters, local uses and cultural and spiritual relevance. Given the rapid decline in small-scale rice cultivation in the past 40 years, we wanted to know why people continued or abandoned rice farming and what aspects of traditional practices still survived.
Methods
We interviewed 26 (former) small-scale Hindustani farmers and asked about the varieties they cultivated and traditional agricultural practices. We collected seed samples, local names and associated information, and compared these to information from agricultural reports from the colonial period. We also interviewed 11 Maroons, one Javanese farmer, and three persons of mixed ethnicity, who were somehow involved in the cultivation of East Indian rice varieties.
Results and discussion
Hindustani smallholders in Suriname largely lost their traditional rice landraces. Most of the interviewed farmers grew modern cultivars, developed after 2000. Some cultivars from the 1950s were still planted for fodder, but these were heavily mixed with weedy rice and other weeds. Maroon farmers in the interior, however, still actively cultivated varieties with names like ‘coolie rice’, which probably descend from landraces introduced by the Indian contract laborers, although this needs to be confirmed by molecular research. Although traditional cultivation practices seem to have been lost, smallholders still retain pleasant memories of the manual planting, harvesting, and processing of rice, as well as the gender-based practices and beliefs associated with the cultivation of the crop. The oral history of former rice farmers and traditional rice varieties (possibly obtained from Maroon fields) could play a role in museum settings as living vehicles for memories of the descendants of Asian contract labourers in Suriname and Guyana.