The Rise of Slums and the Fall of Gardens

5 Apr

In “Planet of the Slums” Mike Davis describes the rapid growth of slums – urbanization decoupled from industrialization and development – in the developing world since the debt crises of the 1970’s and the resulting IMF structural adjustment programs.  However, Patrick Chamoiseau shows in Texaco that this process began long before the 1970’s, with roots in the slavery-based sugar and coffee plantation system.   The structural conditions that facilitated the urban poverty of modern slums began with the exploitive plantation system, where both the fertility of the land and the life of the slaves working the land were extracted in the form of sugar and coffee exported to Europe.  However, because of the rural nature of the plantations, slaves sustained themselves with the agricultural knowledge they brought with them from Africa; even after the natural disasters (e.g. hurricanes and droughts) that devastated the cash crops of Esternome’s béké, the slaves were managed to survive off the food of their “invisible gardens” and knowledge of the land:

The slaves, used to sagging bellies, brought back from invisible gardens enough to stand on their legs.  What’s more, they were able to grab the river’s crayfish, make the lapia fish drunk with a bark juice, trap the flesh of migrating prey.  And though it wasn’t enough for a feast of first communion, this averted the famine for the Béké and his servants on top of hectares of cane and coffee. (45)

After emancipation in 1848, the newly freed slaves temporarily escaped the exploitive French colonial system by fleeing to hills like Noutéka, but after the industrialization of sugar production and the rise of the Factor, “The great conquests of the hills was piteously going down the Factory’s heap of connecting rods, its greasy straps, its tanks and pipes” (140).  The gardens of the hills and the knowledge needed to cultivate them were the only means to truly attain independence from colonial exploitation in Martinique; by abandoning the gardens and their knowledge, many former slaves returned to the new slavery of the Factory.

Yet this knowledge was not completely forgotten, because even in the Quarter of the Wretched, Esternome tells Marie-Sophie through her narration to “the Christ,” “We still held on to scraps of our survival instincts” (191).  Esternome and other former slaves who had remembered how to garden grew “subsistence gardens around Fort-de-France, like in the old days around the plantation…But it wasn’t enough to feed all of City” (191).  Even though they retain some independence through food, the inhabitants of the Quarter of the Wretched still depend on the City for their livelihoods, since “City composed the Quarter with its mound of scraps, made-in-here, made-in-there” (172).  Eventually, as the rate of urbanization increases and more of the marginalized concentrate themselves on the City’s periphery, land available for the gardens declines, creating the modern slums described by Davis.

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