“Our islands are very brittle.” Farmer, environmentalist, community activist and priest Rev. Dr. Frank E. Lawrence makes this observation as his friend, local conservationist Wendy Lee, and I settle down on his verandah in Runaway Bay for a good chat.
Dr. Lawrence is now 83 years old; he talks about a village called Sturge Town, where he has spent much of his life helping residents to understand the importance of sustainable community development.
With climate change tightening its grip on rural areas, he has seen many changes. In many ways, he knows, Sturge Town will never return to the days of his youth. However, Dr. Lawrence believes there is hope for the future — if the right path is followed.
Sturge Town, St. Ann is Jamaica’s second-oldest free village, established in 1839 by a Baptist missionary, Rev. John Clark, and Joseph Sturge, a Quaker philanthropist who was a vocal opponent of the apprenticeship system that followed the end of slavery.
Sturge Town has an Emancipation Street. Each of the 100 or so families of ex-slaves who settled there had an acre of land, on which they grew pimento, coffee, banana, and some sugar cane. It is a hilly landscape, about eight miles from Brown’s Town and 400 meters above sea level; there are breathtaking sea views. The ground is covered with pitted limestone rocks, and the soil is thin.
It was a long, hot summer (or rather, two) for Sturge Town. For the past two years, there were no expected May rains, and no rainfall until October. During the months of August and September 2015, there were some intensely hot days. On one or two days, temperatures soared to 42° Celsius — way above the summer average of 34°. Across Jamaica in September 2015, rainfall was 65% below the island’s 30-year average; the parish of St. Ann had 56% below the parish average.
While high temperatures and low rainfall have been the predominant impacts of climate change across the island, what does this mean for the farming community of Sturge Town? Agriculture there is rain-fed; there is no irrigation and, therefore, rainwater harvesting and the introduction of drip irrigation is a necessity.
Greater use could be made of mini dams and cattle ponds. But there needs to be a complete change of mindset, Dr. Lawrence maintains — a move towards “high value sustainable farming”. He believes this is quite doable, but…
There is a major “but”, indeed. It is the problem of deforestation. Some local farmers persist in unsustainable practices; what Dr. Lawrence calls “careless farming” — the “slash and burn” approach to clearing land. This erodes the soil (especially with heavy, sometimes unseasonable rains), raises temperatures, increases carbon dioxide emissions and reduces carbon storage.
The removal of hardwoods (in particular native cedar trees) that fetch high prices for local furniture and construction continues unabated. So does the cutting of sweetwood and rodwood (wild native species) and any young trees for yam sticks; straight-trunked trees like Spanish Elm (also an indigenous tree) for scaffolding, and sweetwood or pimento for the many jerk barbecues that feed tourists and locals alike.
Bauxite mining, new roads, as well as steady urbanization spreading into the interior of the parish also threaten the forests of St. Ann. The concern with many of these activities is that they bring benefits and profits for people outside the community. This trend does not encourage self-sufficiency and is not sustainable.
Deforestation in tropical regions is seen as a major contributor to climate change globally. According to a working paper published in August by the Center for Global Development, if nothing is done to curb the current trend, tropical deforestation will account for more than one-sixth of the remaining carbon that can be emitted if the world is to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. The carbon emissions that would occur during that process would add up to 169 billion tons — the equivalent of running 44,000 coal plants per year, says the paper’s author Jonah Busch.
Unfortunately, there are no protected areas in St. Ann, but in light of the above, there is no doubt that stronger enforcement of environmental laws is needed.
So what is the long-term solution? In terms of the agricultural paradigm shift that Dr. Lawrence envisages, “Agroforestry is the way forward”. Agroforestry is defined as “the set of land use practices involving the deliberate combination of trees, agricultural crops and/or animals on the same land management unit in some form of spatial arrangement or temporal sequence” (Lundgren and Raintree, 1982).
Diversity, and not monoculture, is key. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) notes that it often combines science with traditional knowledge. Agroforestry is not a “one size fits all” prescription, but has been adapted in many different ways to fit local needs in developing and developed countries.
Dr. Lawrence pointed to crops that have suffered during the drought; the traditional crops of Sturge Town’s founding population are no longer viable. Coffee, bananas and coconut have declined steadily over the years, along with cattle production. Pimento and other spice crops are also struggling.
“People lost a lot of chickens” in the hot weather, noted Dr. Lawrence. A lack of water (and flowers to pollinate) has “badly impacted” beekeepers, also. Those with up to 50 hives are now down to just a handful. The planned importation of the neonocotinoids (pesticides), which are known to be harmful to this important pollinator does not bode well.
So what are the agroforestry crops that might do well in Sturge Town? Among those that do well in the warmer temperatures are the drought-resistant moringa, with all its proven health benefits. “The only thing it doesn’t cure is bad mind,” chuckled Dr. Lawrence.
Soursop trees are known to bear profusely in the wake of drought periods. Guinep trees also did well in Sturge Town; almond and ackee trees flourished. The pomegranate tree is smaller, but has huge health benefits and is very hardy; it also adds salt to the soil.
Flowers — in particular native orchids, for which St. Ann is famous — could be grown in shade houses if necessary, and supplied to tourist centers and nurseries. In terms of vegetables, gungo peas and okras are also viable crops.
Have you noticed one thing? Many of these suggested crops are quite valuable; pomegranate juice and moringa tea fetch high prices in health food stores. If processed, turned into value-added products and marketed properly, they have potential.
If agroforestry moves ahead with the speed Dr. Lawrence hopes it will, it will certainly mitigate the impacts of climate change in Sturge Town — not only through better carbon sequestration, but also through the conservation of water, increased rainfall and, importantly, in soil conservation.
“The forest conserves and enriches the soil for itself, and for everything around it,” Dr. Lawrence pointed out. Reforestation with native tree species boosts biodiversity, including those much-needed pollinators of flowers, trees and crops and predators of insect pests (birds, bats and lizards).
Wendy Lee, an expert on Jamaican birds, adds that the Vervain hummingbird, for example, loves moringa tree flowers. Agriculture thrives on good soil and well-pollinated crops.
Is the Jamaican Government sold on agroforestry, and if not, why not? A USAID-funded project last year, under the Jamaica Rural Economy and Ecosystems Adapting to Climate Change (Ja REEACH) program, targeted 200 hectares within the Rio Bueno Watershed Management Unit. Farmers will have to be educated in sustainable farming — in the USAID project 400 farmers in nine parishes were trained — and close monitoring and assessment will be needed.
Sturge Town is not buckling under the pressures of climate change. Its residents are tough, and credit their longevity to the healing waters of the Marley Spring (now being bottled); there are many centenarians.
It has a proud history. In 2005, the village won the prestigious national Michael Manley Award for Community Self-Reliance. It won first place in the National Better Environments for Social Transformation (BEST) Competition and Programme for 2008 for youth development, cultural heritage, most improved agricultural practices, and best community spirit and self-reliance.
The community may have become more “brittle” to use Dr. Lawrence’s word, in the past twenty years or so. But it is by no means broken. In fact, it is building resilience for the future through sustainable practices.