THE ECONOMY OF SOUFRIERE
In years gone by, Soufriere was known as the “bread-basket” of St. Lucia. When the sugar industry became the back-bone of the economy during the years of sugar and slavery, it was in the parish of Soufriere that the greatest number of sugar plantations was established.
(Source: Breen Henry H. St. Lucia: historical statistical and descriptive p. 291)
In fact, it was in Soufriere that the greatest number of plantations could be found. Apart from having the most sugar plantations Soufriere also boasted the most cocoa and coffee plantations as well.
(Source: Thomas Margot, From Slavery to Freedom: Some aspects of the impact of slavery on Saint Lucia, Saint Lucia National Commission for UNESCO, 2006 p. 36)
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Soufriere continued to prosper in the 1800’s with the period being marked by heavy trading and economic prosperity. Production of cocoa, copra, sugar and coffee, which began in the 1700’s continued; while even grapes and wine production were introduced.
After emancipation, Soufriere became a quarter of small estates owned by the old French families and poor, black subsistence farmers. Within months of emancipation some of the freed slaves were back working the land as free labourers. They were joined by a few East Indians who came as indentured labourers. Some of the freed slaves moved to areas like Zenon and Fond St. Jacques to undertake small scale subsistence farming and to build their homes and plant small garden plots; some combined paid labour with subsistence farming, while others worked as artisans and some others undertook subsistence fishing.
During the apprenticeship period (1836) two (2) Antiguans Messrs. Bennet and Wood begun sulphur mining operations in Soufriere. Five hundred and forty (540) tons of sulphur were exported that year. Within the next four years an additional 220 tons were exported. According to records, a tax of 16 shilling per ton of purified sulphur exported from the colony saw the death of the industry.
The 1890s was a period of great hardship for sugar. Production which had been falling since emancipation even with the use of indentured labour was now hit by the dilemma of plummeting prices in Europe due to the Equalisation Act of 1846 (allowed non West Indian produced sugar into Britain at same duties as West Indian produced sugar) and the introduction and support of commercial beet production in Europe by European governments. The estates in Soufriere were badly affected and the planters forced to return to crops like coffee and cocoa, while alternative crop production was expanded and others explored. To this end, coconuts which were first planted in the 1870’s begun to gain prominence and production of citrus and nutmegs were tried.
As sugar production in Soufriere continued to decline and coconut production increased, commercial production of bananas, which was doing extremely well as an alternative cash crop in Jamaica, begun in 1922. However, it was during the 1960s and 1970s that banana production got its biggest boost.
With coconut production on the ascent during the 1950s, in 1959, a few farmers from within and outside Soufriere, decided to start up and operate a coconut oil factory in Soufriere. In addition to some 353,000 imperial gallons of coconut oil produced at the factory, copra was also shipped from the island.
During the 1960 -70’s Soufriere became increasingly cut away from the major commercial movement of the island. The construction of the east-coast road; the state of disrepair of the west-coast road; better harbours at Vieux Fort and Castries; the construction of airports in Castries and Vieux Fort; continuous migration of people, old and young to Castries and overseas, especially after the fire in search of employment depleting the district of its enterprising, educated and skilled people; loss of the significance of agriculture due the growth of supermarkets and imported fresh produce all resulted in the isolation of Soufriere. The development of Vieux Fort with its banana hinterland and Gros Islet with its beaches, marina and hotels, further hurt Soufriere and the town was relegated from its longstanding position as second town to Castries to fourth.
With declining fortunes from agriculture, the local economy received a much needed boost from tourism in the mid 1970s. Soufriere’s natural beauty and lush vegetation provided the ideal backdrop for the establishment of several small hotels such as Anse Chastanet, Ladera and Stonefield.
Fishing and agriculture are still significant contributors to the economy of Soufriere and the livelihood of its people. However, the majority of the people are involved in the tourism sector since Soufriere is without doubt the tourism capital of Saint Lucia because of its many attractions: the geothermal system in Soufriere, the pitons and the Diamond waterfall (Saint Lucia’s non-beach attractions). When Saint Lucia is marketed as a tourist destination the sites in Soufriere are used to the fullest. Without Soufriere Saint Lucia’s tourism package would be uninspiring, dull and vapid. Soufriere’s sites provide variety and uniqueness to the package.
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