Life and Debt (2001)

“Anything that led to the more self-reliance was discouraged.”

Jamaica is touted as a glorious, relaxing exotic holiday destination–a veritable paradise on earth, but the documentary Life and Debt takes a look at the devastating effects of globalization on the economy of Jamaica, and paints a different picture. According to the film, thanks to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), The World Band and ‘Free’ Trade, Jamaica’s agriculture and industry are virtually destroyed.

Jamaica was once one of the many jewels of the British Empire, but when Britain dropped Jamaica from its colonialist agenda and Jamaica became politically independent, a struggle for financial health began. Burdened with debt, Jamaica’s politicians approached the IMF for a loan, and a loan they got–along with a whooping 25% interest, and some stringent rules and regulations about ‘Free’ Trade. The agreement–in essence–stripped Jamaica of the right to regulate trade or tax imports. That may not sound particularly devastating, but the film shows the results, and argues Jamaican industries were “targeted for infiltration and destruction.”

Jamaica is a terribly poor country, but in spite of this fact, we see dairy farmers pouring 100s of gallons of perfectly good milk down the drain as there is no one to buy it. Jamaican milk is now–thanks to ‘Free’ Trade–more expensive than imported American subsidized dry milk. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, the Jamaican banana industry is being squashed, agriculture is dying, and slowly but surely, Jamaica is becoming MORE dependent on imports and LESS able to produce their own products. It’s a bit bizarre to see this beautiful island with its gorgeous climate not able to produce a substantial portion of its own food.

And if that’s not ugly enough, then there’s Kingston’s “Free Zone”–a geographical area that’s set up for foreign businesses–well, sweat shops really, factories in which poor Jamaicans may or may not get paid, their cheques–if they ever get them–will be looted for false taxes and tariffs–and meanwhile the global multinationals who make huge profits aren’t subject to Jamaica’s taxes because the “Free Zone” isn’t actually seen as part of Jamaica. To top it off, if the workers go on strike or protest, Chinese workers are shipped in and the Jamaicans are sacked.

The film’s voice-over written by Jamaica Kincaid is mainly directed towards Jamaica’s many tourists: “You see natives. You marvel at the things they can do with their hair.” There’s more than an edge of blame and guilt directed at the tourists who visit Jamaica, and have a great time–or so it seems from all the beer drinking, dances and eating contests we see the tourists engage in–seemingly oblivious to the squalor and poverty-stricken life of the average Jamaican. The tourists don’t exactly come off well in the film, and the voice-over’s note of accusatory blame creates a bitter edge to the film. I, for one, have never been to Jamaica, and never intended to go–even before seeing the documentary’s explanation of the untreated sewage that bilges into that beautiful blue and aqua ocean.

It’s unfortunate that the film didn’t include more information on the tourist industry. It would be interesting to know where all that money goes and who benefits. There are some juicy interviews with Stanley Fischer from the IMF, Michael Manley, the former president of Jamaica, and even a clip from Bill Clinton as he delivers the coup de grace on Jamaica’s banana industry. As one worker sadly but sagely notes, “Chiquita and Dole” dominate “95% of the world’s banana crop” but they apparently want it all. And the end result is an economy with “no national food security.” The film, directed by Stephanie Black, strongly argues that Globalization has finally achieved a plantation culture and economy that the American pre-Civil War South would have envied. If you’re interested in the subject of Jamaica’s banana industry, I recommend the book Banana Wars: The Price of Free Trade by Gordon Myers.

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Filed under Documentary, Political/social films

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