(Stephen Shenfield is an independent researcher and author. He is also secretary of the World Socialist Party US. His articles in this edition of the jonestown report include Jim Jones: an attempt at psychic-political analysis, Peoples Temple and socialism, and Islands of autonomy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
For almost everyone, life at Jonestown was very hard. Working hours were long, accommodation crowded, the punishments barbaric, the food usually monotonous and deficient in protein and vitamins. Were such conditions unavoidable, or could life have been easier?
The number of privileged persons being small and their privileges quite modest, inequality in the distribution of consumer goods cannot have played a major role. Other factors, such as inefficiency, waste, and poor management must have been involved. Much harm was caused by specific decisions that Jim Jones made for reasons that had nothing to do with practicality.
Sustainable under any circumstances?
When Jonestown was established in the 1970s, the prospect of climate change was not yet widely understood. Nowadays we know that rainforests are ‘the lungs of the planet’ and any clearance diminishes a precious natural resource and contributes to global warming.
Even back in the 1970s, however, people who knew about rainforests could tell you that once trees and other natural vegetation have been cleared away the remaining soil is poor. Moreover, the longer it remains exposed, the poorer it gets.
In fact, it should not even be assumed that a large and permanent agricultural settlement like Jonestown in the middle of the rainforest is sustainable under any circumstances. Local populations of Amerindians live in small groups that move every few years from one area to another. Perhaps they know what they are doing.
The Amerindians have traditionally had two ways of adapting to the conditions of their habitat:
- A group leaves existing trees and vegetation in place, sustainably harvests their resources (e.g., nuts, berries, herbs, bark for paper, agave leaves to ferment for an alcoholic beverage), and where possible plants seeds among the trees (Peters).
- A group clears a patch of land, leaves the downed vegetation (slash) to dry, and burns it just before the start of the rainy season (‘slash and burn’). When the rain comes, it puts out the fire, leaving a swidden – a field with a nutrient-rich layer of ash that fertilizes the soil and temporarily eliminates weeds and pests. Over a period of three to five years-fertility decreases due to depletion of nutrients, growth of weeds, and pest invasions. The group then moves to a new area and repeats the procedure there. A swidden takes at least five years and in some cases twenty years or more to recover.
A new sustainable approach to farming in the rainforest has been developed in the area around the town of Nova California in Brazil’s northwestern province of Rondonia. Patches are cleared of trees but immediately replanted with other trees that will bear resources better suited to consumption or sale. In other words, patches of natural forest are replaced by artificial forest (Barth and Milhorance).
All these approaches are sustainable, although the third is the most productive. Any of them can be supplemented by hunting and fishing.
At Jonestown, it was initially planned to clear half of the leased area of trees and vegetation. The remaining half, consisting of low-lying land prone to flooding, land near streams, and land on steep slopes, was to be left alone.
The Farm Plan for the period from October 1974 to February 1976 assigned 120 acres of cleared land to tree crops: 60 acres to citrus fruit, 40 to avocado pear, and 20 to coffee. These were not expected to yield food for consumption until 1979-80. (By that time, of course, Jonestown no longer existed.) In the meantime, efforts were made to obtain oranges, lemons, pineapples, and mangoes from other sources. Much of this fruit was squeezed for juice for the children. In a letter to Jones, Patty Cartmell complains that kitchen staff fail to squeeze out all the juice and allow citrus fruit to spoil (‘Farm Report’).
The Farm Plan assigned 155 acres for the spring planting of crops on open fields (banana and plantain – 30 acres; corn – 20 acres; sugar cane – 10 acres; various vegetables – 95 acres) (‘C-4-a-8 Farm Plan’). An area of 60 acres was set aside for pasture. Of these three uses of cleared land, only the first may have been sustainable.
It cannot be said that no effort was made to improve soil quality. Acting on local advice, the pioneers made the soil less acidic by mixing it with lime-rich broken seashells, two boatloads of which were fetched from a deposit on a reef offshore (Beck). It is unclear how much difference the shells made, or indeed for how long this highly labor-intensive practice continued.
It is therefore uncertain whether Jonestown could have developed into a sustainable enterprise under any circumstances. However, it might have stood a better chance, were it not for four specific decisions Jones made and various patterns in his behavior, two of which I shall describe.
- the choice of a site without easy access to the Guyanese capital;
- reliance on farmers from the American Midwest instead of experts in tropical agriculture;
- too rapid a growth in the population of the settlement;
- setting too short a period for achieving self-sufficiency.
Patterns of behavior
- preventing his people from getting sufficient or regular sleep;
- meanness with money.
The choice of a site without easy access to the Guyanese capital
Jonestown was located in Guyana’s northwestern district, near the border with Venezuela. The agreement between the Government of Guyana and Peoples Temple to site the community in this disputed border area suited the Guyanese government, because they thought a group of Americans settled in the area might deter an invasion. This rationale is reflected in the token rent that the Government of Guyana asked for the lease. That must have pleased Jones as well, who did not like spending a lot of money. And no doubt he saw other advantages in a remote site: it would insulate his followers from outside influences and make it difficult for anyone to leave.
Isolation, however, came at enormous cost. It created what Gus Breslauer calls ‘a logistical nightmare.’
Jonestown was highly dependent on numerous supplies that had to be brought in from or through Georgetown, a dependence that could be reduced – but never eliminated – only gradually and over a long period. It was not a problem of distance as such: Jonestown was only 140 miles from Georgetown as the crow flies. It was a problem of accessibility. No roads connected Jonestown with the capital. The Port Kaituma airstrip was six miles away, but it was suitable only for small planes; the only regularly-scheduled air traffic into the area was biweekly flights into Matthews Ridge, 28 miles away – and even that service could not accommodate large quantities of heavy or bulky goods like sacks of rice and milling equipment.
The only practical way to transport supplies was by cargo boat. The voyage along the coast and then upriver took many hours, especially in stormy weather. Livestock might not survive the journey: ‘We were buying over 1,000 chickens a week and most of them would be dead by the time they got to Jonestown’ (Schildhause). This may well be why Jonestown residents ate chicken twice a month rather than four times a week.
Moreover, due to the lack of easy access, the Jonestown leadership often had to rely on local suppliers to select and dispatch goods as best they could. But not all suppliers could be trusted to meet their commitments. A report dated July 1, 1978 mentions a delay in the arrival of seeds since March; the exact reason is unclear, but appears to have something to do with the untrustworthiness of a supplier. Had a site near Georgetown been chosen, Jonestown buyers could simply have ‘gone shopping’ and brought supplies back by truck.
The rent on a site near Georgetown would have been much higher, but on balance it may have been worth paying. Peoples Temple had plenty of money.
Reliance on farmers from the Midwest instead of experts in tropical agriculture
According to the 1974 Farm Plan, work on the site was initially placed under the management of a committee chaired by Eugene Chaikin, a Peoples Temple lawyer and trustee. The other members were: Ray Jones, who, with 20 years’ experience of farming in the Midwest, was appointed farm manager; Jim Bogue, who had spent 18 years raising beef and dairy cattle; Tom Grubbs, with 15 years’ experience cultivating citrus orchards; and Russell Moton, a graduate agronomist who had specialized in agricultural economics. None of these men had any experience or expertise in tropical agriculture, although Moton was ‘now taking courses’ in that field.
There is evidence that Jones was not aware how different farming in the tropics was from farming in the U.S. There are several accounts of agronomists’ frustration with Jones’ lack of understanding of these differences. Jones insisted that beans brought over from the U.S. should grow, but that did not make them grow. Similarly, most of the pigs they tried to raise died, perhaps because they were not the right sort of pigs for the tropics. Perhaps they would have done better with a pig-like species native to Amazonia, such as the peccary.
The pioneers could surely have benefited from more expert advice. And the advice was there for the taking, from such places as the College of Tropical Agriculture at the University of Hawaii and – closer to Guyana – St. Augustine in the Caribbean island nation of Trinidad. Was the only reason Jonestown made no attempt to involve experts from either of these institutions due to the fact that they were not members of Peoples Temple?
Judging by the discussions recorded in Edith Roller’s journal, agriculture at Jonestown was still in deep trouble in 1978. New sows had been acquired, but more and more of their piglets were dying. The cows were giving too little milk. Had they bought the wrong kind of cows? Had they been swindled? Some vegetables were doing well, others were not. Books about tropical agriculture had been ordered and were arriving, and Jones urged a big effort to study them. But still, many things were going wrong, and no one seemed to know why. Coupled with Jones’ lack of knowledge and experience was his increasing paranoia that the CIA was conspiring against them. The agency’s experiments with weather modification were altering amounts of rainfall in the Northwest District, he claimed, and their saboteurs had infiltrated into Jonestown, secretly injecting poison into the eggs.
Certain crops did thrive at Jonestown – eddoes, sweet potatoes, and especially cassava – but unfortunately, these were foods very low in vitamins and minerals.
Too rapid a growth in the population of the settlement
During the early years (1974-77), the three dozen or so Jonestown pioneers seem to have been making modest progress. According to a progress report issued in the summer of 1977, their expectation was that the settlement would pass through a third ‘intermediate’ stage, lasting one year and bringing the population up to between 70 and 100. Then a fourth ‘substantial’ stage lasting two years would allow the population to grow to about 500 by 1980. However, it appears that they did not anticipate that the settlement was ever going to accommodate more than about 500 people.
Then suddenly, in August 1977, in response to the imminent publication of a critical exposé of Peoples Temple in New West magazine, Jones made an on-the-spot decision to leave the United States for Guyana and move as many members of Peoples Temple to Jonestown as he could as quickly as possible. In the course of a year, 1000 Temple members emigrated in Guyana, almost all of whom lived in Jonestown. Moreover, a large proportion of the new arrivals were either too young or too old to work.
This unanticipated rapid influx of new arrivals led inevitably to a sharp fall in the standard of living. Overcrowding was exacerbated. The quality of food deteriorated, with increased reliance on imported rice. Administration must have become much less effective: the new situation changed the demands placed on it, making previous planning less relevant. The arrival of Jones, with his delusions and his inconsistent and idiosyncratic managerial style, must have had a strong disorganizing effect.
Setting too short a period for achieving self-sufficiency
In the summer of 1977, the pioneers estimated that Jonestown would need at least another three and possibly five years to achieve economic self-sufficiency. However, Jones demanded that self-sufficiency be achieved within a single year – and this despite the setback caused by the unanticipated rapid influx of new arrivals.
In ignoring practical advice from knowledgeable advisers and setting an unrealistically ambitious goal, Jones was following in the footsteps of his idols Josef Stalin and Mao. When the first Five Year Plan was being drafted, Stalin insisted on raising production targets well above what the planners at the State Planning Commission considered feasible. Then he called for ‘completing the Five Year Plan in four years.’ Similarly, during the so-called Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong set the goal of overtaking Britain in steel output by launching a campaign to build ‘backyard furnaces’ that actually produced nothing but useless junk; the diversion of peasant labor led to a terrible famine.
Jones also cultivated the juche (self-reliance) ideology of the North Korean regime, which – in part due to the close relations Peoples Temple had with the North Korean embassy in Georgetown – was more tangible and immediate. It was not more effective.
Preventing his people from getting sufficient or regular sleep
On many evenings during the week, after a full day’s work and a less-than-adequate dinner, everyone was expected to attend meetings – Peoples Rallies – that Jones called at the pavilion. The meetings often continued until after midnight, sometimes even until about 2.15 am. People were expected to stay awake and pay attention, although many fell asleep – or half-asleep – regardless. They couldn’t help it.
On those occasions when the meeting ended very late, Jones would announce that breakfast the next morning would be served two hours later than usual to enable people to get some more sleep, but that no lunch would be provided. They were going to work right through the middle of the day.
The health and productivity of residents must have been affected by their not getting sufficient sleep on a regular schedule. Moreover, they were forced to work through the hottest part of the day. Under tropical or even subtropical conditions it is best – again, in terms of both health and productivity – to work from the crack of dawn until mid-morning, rest through the middle of the day, and then if necessary do some more work in the early evening.
Meanness with money
Although Peoples Temple had millions of dollars tucked away in multiple bank accounts, Jones was reluctant to spend it, especially for the purpose of making life easier for his people. Gus Breslauer describes how money was spent at Jonestown as follows:
Money was spent in a meticulous but sometimes bizarre manner, often on equipment purchased from the Guyanese government, but also on art supplies and uniforms for the Jonestown band, and thousands of dollars of beauty supplies while people were sick and hungry.
One example of Jones’ meanness with money was his reluctance to buy labor-saving equipment. While he did allow the purchase of some items of equipment, a greater willingness to acquire additional tools and machinery would have reduced the requirement for hard physical labor and therefore working hours.
For example, Edith Roller reports in her journal that on March 1, 1978 there was a discussion about the irrigation system. Elderly residents had been moving buckets of water for irrigation by hand, and pumps had been ordered to relieve them of the task. However, some essential parts had been omitted from the order.
Jim said he had never seen the value of getting the pumps. People power has proven able to do the job… Seniors should realize the benefits of vigorous daily exercise.
Another example was the practice of selling high-quality food resources outside the settlement. Edith Roller reports that on January 29, 1978 dinner consisted of rice, greens, and ‘bits of pork.’ There were only a few shreds of pork for each person because only two pigs had been slaughtered while most of the pigs that had survived to maturity had been sold. At the same time, members of Peoples Temple living in Georgetown were sent to produce markets to beg for produce that farmers could not sell because it was bruised or overripe.
It has never been easy to resettle a predominantly urban population on the land. What then if the site chosen for resettlement is in a different region of the world, with whose climate, geology, and environment the settlers are completely unfamiliar? And what if the project is pursued under the uncontested control of a leader who is an ignorant ideologue with little if any concern for practical considerations? Who could imagine a surer recipe for disaster?
The student of ‘communist’ societies is reminded of the damage done to Soviet agriculture due to the influence exerted on Stalin and then on Nikita Khrushchev by the fraudulent biologist and agronomist Trofim Lysenko. Or the plague of locusts unleashed upon China in 1958 when the scientific illiterate Mao got the bright idea of exterminating the country’s insect-eating sparrows.
Perhaps the closest parallel to the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project was the Virgin Lands Campaign that Khrushchev launched in the Soviet Union in 1954. Volunteers from the Young Communist League were mobilized from the cities to bring the uncultivated steppe lands of northern Kazakhstan and the Altai region under the plow. Grain monoculture was imposed on these arid regions despite unsuitable natural and climatic conditions, leading to soil erosion and ultimately disappointing results.
Might Jonestown have survived somehow? We shall never know for sure, because on November 18, 1978, the whole project was aborted.
Barth, Brian, and Flavia Milhorance, These farmers show that agriculture in the Amazon doesn’t have to be destructive, National Geographic, 6/28/2021.
Peters, Charles M. Managing the Wild: Stories of People and Plants and Tropical Forests (Yale University Press, 2018)