Xaymaca is the Arawak (Taino) name for Jamaica. It means “Land of Wood and Water.”
The Women’s Resource and Outreach Centre (WROC) has a small and unpretentious office in Kingston. And it has an outstretched arm, too – eastwards, over the struggling community of Bull Bay and its dusty environs to the rich pastures, rivers and hillsides of St. Thomas. WROC’s outreach program, which seeks to empower women (and men) in rural communities, grew from the organization’s Sustainable Livelihoods program eastablished after the devastation of Hurricane Ivan – a particularly vicious storm – in 2004. But WROC has actually been working in several communities in St. Thomas since 2001.
Sustainability is a key word here – and another one which came to mind when I visited the area last week is resilience. Resilience in the deepest sense of the word: drawing on reserves of strength, stretching and getting pulled out of shape, and “bouncing back.” But the bouncing back might not be a complete recovery; after a hurricane, things are never quite the same again, and never will be. One might perhaps be unable to return to how things were before. But one has armed oneself with skills, with resources – and with the strength – to be able to create and carve out an altered, adjusted life. It is about no longer depending on those elements that were – but that may never be (quite the same) again.
These are the complexities of climate change. As we headed out of the city, there were signs everywhere. As we crossed the Harbour View Bridge, I remembered the destruction of Tropical Storms: Nicole (2010) and Gustav, two years earlier. Last week, a trickle of water had worn a narrow path along one side of the wide, dry riverbed of the Hope River, which opens up into a rough and restless stretch of the sea coast on the other side of the long Palisadoes spit that takes you to Kingston’s airport. The Donald Quarrie High School, named after the Olympic champion athlete who came from Harbour View, sits precariously, on a flat area, now much too close to the sea. Huge waves flooded the school compound and several classrooms just last year during Hurricane Sandy; the school wants the Chinese engineering company that built up the Palisadoes spit to build them a sea wall. In 2007, Hurricane Dean stirred the waves to such fury that the sea knocked a huge hole in the schools’s Industrial Arts Department; while not far away, a once desirable housing development (Caribbean Terrace) has been steadily torn apart by successive storms since Hurricane Ivan. You can still see some of the solid concrete homes, overturned by the strength of the waves, knocked sideways like abandoned small toys.
Did you notice how many storm names I mentioned in that last paragraph?
The main coastal road took us across the dry Yallahs River, where as you cross the now-raised fording you look inland to the spread of hills, dark with forests. But the palette is different now; the landscape of St. Thomas is colored auburn, blond. As the road passed close to the shore at Roselle, we noticed that bulldozers were busy, piling up huge stones where once there was a rocky but attractive fishing beach. The ocean was always strong and lively here, with “white horses” piled up to the horizon. But we used to stop sometimes at the beach, where fishermen sold their catch. On the other side of the narrow road, a delicious waterfall slides over rocks, creating a natural (but not at all private) shower for local residents. That waterfall was small and modest last week, barely enough for a good wash.
At last, we reached the quiet village of Trinityville, having turned off the road and driven through pastures that showed the effects of prolonged drought. An arc of irrigation water hung over brown fields. As we drew closer, the exquisite rounded, green hills that I admired on my last visit came into view, now sunburned and dry. The several rivers we crossed en route were low, their waters trickling among dry boulders.
But when we arrived in Trinityville, they had enjoyed a shower of rain that morning. The air seemed to want to turn into water; humidity dripped from the trees. We met Ernest Grant, a goat farmer who had benefited from WROC’s sustainability project, with two of his animals. Guided by WROC’s energetic outreach officer Nkrumah, we then visited a greenhouse, tucked away among tangled foliage behind some houses, and flanked by large black water tanks (a regular feature of our landscape these days). There we met Lenford Brown and Clinton Bailey. They were growing 426 tomato plants in the greenhouse, which cost around J$1 million. They were also starting a seedling nursery, where young sweet pepper seedlings were already flourishing, with the assistance of the Digicel Foundation; delicious romaine lettuce was also growing nearby.
Mr. Brown and Mr. Bailey were hoping for more rain. They would like to have more greenhouses, expand their operations. They are also hoping to expand the market for their produce, although they already sell to local “higglers” (traders) and to those outside the community who sell in Kingston’s markets. The logistics of selling to hotels are not workable; roads in the area are poor, and it would simply take too long for the produce to reach its destination. There are no large (or even small) hotels nearby. The local market fluctuates somewhat, but it is there.
Mr. Brown, an astute and highly-focused graduate of the nearby Robert Lightbourne High School, has a business plan. He believes in value-added products. He has helped develop a tomato jam or ketchup. WROC also launched a delicious guava ketchup (sauce) at the Denbigh Agricultural Show in 2010; the project was funded by the European Union and Christian Aid to provide income to the rural residents. Now, guava is a resilient and abundant crop in the area, growing virtually wild; and it is nutrition-rich, with many possibilities for value-added products.
We moved on, climbing a little further to the village of Somerset, set a little deeper in the hills above the gently chiming Somerset River. There we met Joslyn (not sure if I got the spelling of his name right), who oversees another WROC project sponsored by the European Union, to build check dams.
What are check dams, you may ask? Well, they are small dams, built across gullies or water channels or ditches, to “check” the water flow. During storms or heavy rains, the water gushes madly down the hillsides, sweeping everything in its path. Crops, forested areas, even homes are damaged and destroyed, and entire hillsides with precious soils can be eroded, washing away into nothing and swamping the valleys below. The check dam slows the waters down; it creates pools, and the overflow slips over – often to another check dam below, which again slows the water and prevents that furious, destructive torrent.
From Somerset, we walked up the hill to one of the check dams under construction. On the way up, we saw the kind of damage that the dams are designed to counteract: the hillside torn away by landslides, exposing tree roots; and a house that had been abandoned years before when the hillside pushed down on it.
And here was the dam. The men joked loudly as they worked, shoveling cement under a bright blue tarpaulin. Another man walked up the steep gully from the site of another dam to be built lower down. At the end of the path, we met a group of women, sturdy and strong, who gave us a demonstration of how they carry river stones from the huge pile at their feet down to the dam, hand to hand, to be cemented into the structure. This turned out to be an interactive project; the whole group of us joined in, passing the large stones along. The visitors found this amusing; the women were serious in their work.
The higher slopes were a dull brown, with bright green fans of bamboo still flourishing where other trees had been cut down. Farmers are moving higher up in the hills to grow their cash crops, Joslyn told us – ackee, coffee, pear. It is cooler up there and the rainfall is better. Nevertheless, we saw many fruit trees in the village – “fruit trees are always cared for.” Mules and donkeys are still valuable in these parts, we were told; there are no roads – at least none suitable for cars – and to reach their farming plots on the higher slopes, farmers must hike for two hours or more on the animals’ backs. They have to do it. It’s a change for them, but they are adapting.
And what of the native trees, the hardwoods that used to flourish in this beautiful watershed of the island? There are very few remaining. During the 1980s, the Forestry Industry Development Company (FIDCO) operated in the area. According to locals and environmentalists alike, FIDCO’s logging operations, while replanting with fast-growing pine trees, did untold damage to Jamaica’s forests. The state agency, established in 1978, was finally wound up in 2000. A reforestation project is now under way; but again, to make the young trees take root and grow properly, proper irrigation is needed. Without water, the wood cannot flourish. And it is hard, very hard, to repair the damage.
We walked back down the hill for lunch, passing a small office made from a container, where a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer, Sarah Marshall works on a number of community environmental awareness projects. She’s doing great work, especially with the schoolchildren, we were told. As we ate our flavorful chicken and rice and peas and drank delicious fresh carrot and orange juice, delicately flavored with ginger, I reflected on the mysterious, quiet beauty of Jamaican country life.
Times change, the climate is changing; but I strongly feel that the women and men of Trinityville and Somerset are ready for whatever the future brings. With the ongoing support of organizations such as WROC and with adequate funding, these communities can face the future. They understand what is needed, and they are ready. I am filled with admiration for them all.
Thank you to WROC, and to the visitors from the Seven Hills Outreach Center in Boston, Massachusetts for allowing me to hitch a ride on their bus. And especially, my grateful thanks to the people of Trinityville and Somerset, in the living, breathing hills and valleys of St. Thomas.
You should go and visit them soon.
http://wrocjamaica.org/focus-areas/sustainable-livelihoods: WROC Sustainable Livelihoods
http://www.forestry.gov.jm Forestry Department, Jamaica
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E7APrx74afw Hurricane Sandy damages Donald Quarrie High: Jamaica Observer/video
http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20100704/news/news5.html Caribbean Terrace a shell: Gleaner, 2010
http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20110901/cook/cook1.html Check out Beechwood’s Gourmet Guava Sauce: Gleaner, 2011
http://www.jamaicaelections.com/general/2002/articles/20021016-5.html The dawning of truth: article by environmentalist Peter Espeut/Gleaner