Culture Opinion

‘Guava Island’ and The Exploitation of Resources in the Caribbean

"When you’re on your next Caribbean excursion, remember the dedicated folks behind the scenes and the many sacrifices they make for the joy of others."

This piece is written by Jiya Pinder, one of SPICY‘s guest contributors. Jiya is a Bahamian multidisciplinary creative living in New York City. Between photography, writing, and event planning, they derive most of their inspiration from black women of the African diaspora, their history, and their stories. 

There’s no denying the beauty of the Caribbean. Crystal clear beaches, beaming sunshine, and all the amenities to escape from the humdrum of your everyday life. How could you say no to a daiquiri on a beach, a good tan, and some sand between your toes to take away the woes?

While this might sound like paradise, it comes at too high a price to these tropical archipelagos and their population. Currently, the tourism industry is the biggest employer throughout the region, directly supporting just under 1 million jobs and indirectly supporting another 2.2 million jobs, reinforcing years of colonial servitude. The GDP of most Caribbean nations is dependent on tourism and built upon charming visitors. Yet, workers in the tourism sector have little opportunity for upward mobility and minimal access to the very facilities and resources they provide to visitors. As evidenced in Donald Glover’s most recent film, Guava Island, the freedom and quality of life of island populations are often dismissed to not only maintain the island’s tropical splendor, but to keep the economy going.

The film follows Deni and Kofi, a couple who—like the entire population of Guava—produce the island’s chief export: blue silk. The industry and island are governed by Red, a powerful factory owner, who forces the island population to work without breaks as a way to ensure the revenue from the island’s chief export remains in his hands. Embittered by Red’s domination, Deni uses music to express his indignation. In one scene he frustratingly says “What’s wrong with me is that we live in paradise, but none of us have the time or means to actually live here.” This is parallel to the experiences of workers in island economies. Receiving low wages for long hours, workers never benefit from enhanced tourist flow and increase in visitor expenditure. In the Bahamas for example, only 15% of proceeds from a recent Chinese-funded hotel project called Baha Mar made its way back to local Bahamian workers. This reinforces the socioeconomic and racial divide that exists between the owners of tourist facilities and the employees who maintain them.

The monopoly over ownership of resources and abuse of power, as in Guava Island, deny people the opportunity for economic or social advancement. Later in the film, a coworker tells Deni of his plan to save up enough money to move to America and start his own business. Deni then scoffs and says, “Guava’s no different from any other country… Anywhere where in order to get rich you have to make someone else richer is America.” And while this statement may speak more generally to the crippling nature of global capitalism, it also demonstrates the barriers that inhibit the poor in any country. In the Caribbean, where exports, resources, and labor are used to benefit foreigners and the rich, locals infantilize the very Americans they serve. Why would they not want to be on the other side of the equation? While some immigrate to America for a better life (which is possible), they often trade one evil for the next, more or less still stuck under a glass ceiling that hinders their ability to move upward economically.

Beyond the fiscal strain, luxury tourism negatively impacts the environment and local development. These small island nations, similar to Guava Island, often have growing populations, with limited resources and excessive dependence on international trade. Guava’s most precious resource, blue silk, was co-opted after the Red family monopolized its production, which, as Kofi described, “created distrust and led to paradise being lost.” Growth and development on these islands are held back by the monopolization of resources, disproportionately expensive public administration and infrastructure due to their small size, and little to no opportunity to create economies of scale. Moreover, tourism uses large water resources for drinking, cooking, swimming pools and air conditioning, reducing the volume of water available to local people. It also yields a ton of waste. According to the Pacific Standard, “each passenger’s carbon footprint while cruising is roughly three times what it would be on land.” This waste harms local marine ecosystems, taking away from resources that local populations have been using for sustenance for years. A plethora of hotels source their food and cleaning products from abroad, causing a decline in local producers and farmers who cannot compete with the decline in demand and supply. Lack of resources takes away from the quality of life of locals, which begs the question: can Caribbean nations maintain their economy without compromising the quality of life of their populations?

It’s possible, and as participants in the system, we need to demand better—be it sourcing food from local farmers to keep tourist income within the community, or advocating for legislation that ensures that large hotels are owned and managed by locals with locals in mind. There are ways to maintain the economy all while improving quality of life. More importantly, as Caribbean natives, it’s important for us to rally for our interests. Similar to Deni’s protest, we must stand against the powers that be and demand our health, time, and resources be prioritized.

The end of Guava Island delivers the most poignant example of this. After going through with the festival, Deni dies after a short chase with a gunman. Red assumed that killing Deni would allow his factories to stay open for business but in a twist of fate, the entire island takes the day off to celebrate his life. To further defy Red, they come out in their finest attire made of the precious blue silk they work so hard to produce. Inspired by Deni’s revolt the people of Guava Island demand greater freedoms. This film reveals that there’s more to Caribbean islands than the splendor of tropical resorts and luxury vacations. Beneath the façade, there are real people fighting for the opportunity to live and grow fruitfully. So when you’re on your next Caribbean excursion, remember the dedicated folks behind the scenes and the many sacrifices they make for the joy of others.

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