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PhD candidate @ University of Pittsburgh


Matthew Plishka is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Pittsburgh and a current Social and Public Policy Fellow with The University of Pittsburgh’s Centre for Latin American Studies. His research focuses on the Jamaican banana industry in the early to mid-twentieth century. In particular, he analyses the spread of Panama Disease on the island and the ways that smallholders, planters, and colonial officials responded to the disease and interacted with one another as a result of it. He has recently published an article in the Journal for the History of Environment and Society titled ‘Malignant Microbes: Using Environmental History to Connect the Fields of Plant and Human Epidemiology.’ He has received research grants from The American Historical Association and American Society for Environmental History.

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Agriculture and epidemiology


Afro-Jamaican Smallholders and Panama Disease in 20th Century Jamaica

This paper explores how Jamaican smallholders grappled with Panama Disease, a fungus that infects and kills any banana plant it comes into contact with, in twentieth 50 century Jamaica.. It argues that Jamaican smallholders were the human heart of the multispecies assemblage that formed around the disease. These smallholders cultivated many of the bananas exported and relied on the trade for much of their income. Throughout their days, they interacted constantly, both knowingly and unknowingly, with the microbes behind Panama Disease and the plants it affected. Through their constant mobility, both to and from the island and across it, smallholders acted as carriers for the pathogen, as it latched onto their boots, cutlasses, and clothes. On their farms, they worked to manage the disease once it was discovered, having to choose between their vernacular knowledge about cultivation that offered little in terms of disease mitigation and the imposed orders from colonial officials that would result in the forced destruction of often the entirety of their crops to prevent further spread. Faced with this difficult choice, many smallholders opted to abandon the potential profits of bananas in the hopes that sugar, which could be grown without problem in Panama Disease infested soil, would provide a stable base for economic success. This decision, repeated by countless smallholders throughout the island, put Jamaica’s agricultural outlook on a path that resulted in a shift towards sugar and away from the volatility of banana production, resulting in a sugar renaissance.

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