Was Jonestown a self-sustaining community?

Although Jonestown was a thriving community, it never reached its goal of being self-sufficient, and likely would have continued to have difficulties in reaching that goal, even without the catastrophe of November 18, 1978.

The land under cultivation and food production was flourishing, but couldn’t keep up with the challenge of feeding a thousand people three times a day. Pictures from Jonestown, such as those included in the 1978 booklet, Jonestown: A Model of Cooperation, showed lush gardens and fields, although the claim that the farm was producing more than 25 food crops apparently reflected the project’s plans rather than its reality. The chickery produced both eggs and chicken, and the piggery was a source of pork and ham.

Nevertheless, one of the purposes of the Temple’s permanent presence in Guyana’s capital of Georgetown was to receive food shipments from the States and to acquire local foodstuffs that Jonestown did not produce, including other meat and fish, rice, flour, sugar, and basic staples in the community’s diet.

With the initial construction of Jonestown completed – the early pioneers had built the facilities on their own, and was resourceful in creating an elementary infrastructure – people could explore ideas for some light industry, both to reduce dependence on the outside world and to generate products for sale in Georgetown. By November 18, the community had established soap- and toy-making enterprises, and was in the process of developing a small commercial sawmill.

Still, it was dependent upon the outside world for its survival. In September 1978, the last month for which there are complete figures, 173 Jonestown residents received more than $36,000 in Social Security checks, and this money went to support the project. The community also relied upon continued financial contributions and business profits from Temple enterprises in the States.

There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that the community was originally designed to accommodate about 700 people, not the 1000 who showed up, and especially not with so many people arriving in so short a time, during the summer and early fall of 1977. Secondly, as the demographics of Jonestown show, its population was both disproportionately young and even more disproportionately old, with a resultant squeeze on the number of able-bodied young and middle-aged adults who could actually do the work.

Finally, reports about food from individuals living in Jonestown describe a precipitous drop in quality and quantity beginning in 1978. This drop indicates an unwillingness to dip into the Temple’s millions of dollars in bank accounts, and may reflect the existence of plans to put a murder-suicide plan into effect when the time seemed opportune.