I was sitting at a table with a group of women farmers from the deep hills of St. Thomas on May 17. They were wearing daffodil yellow and purple T-shirts, and their smiles were just as bright. These were some of the 166 graduates of the Farmer Field School climate-smart agriculture training implemented by the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) with funding from the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the Government of Jamaica. The graduation ceremony (followed by performances, which I sadly missed) was a happy occasion.
Altogether 243 farmers from nine communities in St. Thomas and St. Andrew are now certified in climate-smart farming techniques, with the aim of improving their productivity while protecting their lands and the island’s water supply. Another four communities will also be targeted for training shortly. Last year, 77 farmers from St. Andrew (Content Gap and Westphalia) and from St. Thomas (Penlyne Castle and Windsor Castle) graduated the programme. The work of the five-year Yallahs and Hope River Watershed Management Areas Project sounds like quite a broad mandate, but the work is detailed, hands-on and thorough.
The farmers’ training lasted for 13 weeks and involved partners such as the Environmental Foundation of Jamaica (EFJ), Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA), the Jamaica Fire Brigade, the Forestry Department, the Ministries of Economic Growth and Job Creation and of Finance, Water Resources Authority (WRA), National Water Commission (NWC), the Meteorological Service of Jamaica – and importantly, the farmers’ groups, including the Jamaica Organic Agriculture Movement (JOAM). Non-governmental organizations (the Jamaica Conservation and Development Trust and the St. Thomas Environment Protection Association) have played supporting roles, too.
So, what does the word “watershed” mean, and why are watersheds so important? A watershed is an area of land that collects, stores and releases water to rivers, streams, and aquifers (underground catchment areas, which are plentiful on our island). The upper part of the watershed consists of our mountainous interior and the lower watershed is on or near the coastal plains. That familiar description of Jamaica as “The Land of Wood and Water” sums it up – there is a real connection between the two, one depending on the other.
Jamaicans also depend on the watershed for their livelihoods, and indeed their quality of life. Healthy watersheds keep us healthy. This applies not only to those living in the hills but also to the large population of Kingston and St. Andrew below, which receives 42 percent of its water from the two watersheds. That’s almost half.
The mountainous watershed areas that form part of this project have been seriously degraded over the past few years. Regrettably, farmers have played a large part in their destruction. Cutting down trees, using the “slash and burn” technique to clear land, the overuse of various chemicals and overall poor land management have all resulted in the weakening of the hillsides. The soil erodes more easily, washing away nutrients whenever it rains. Forest fires become more frequent, rainfall and water supply erratic. Life for the residents of these hills and mountains becomes a struggle, exacerbated by inadequate infrastructure that is unable to cope with the challenges of climate change. The island’s rich biodiversity (the many birds, insects, plants and trees that flourish in the hills) has also been seriously affected.
So what did the farmers learn at school? The five women I spoke with from Ramble District, in the Yallahs River watershed, told me that they learned many new techniques, hitherto unfamiliar to them. Contour barriers, Nadine Lindsay explained, help prevent the soil from washing away in heavy rains. Stephanie McGowan was very enthusiastic about the fire prevention activities; wildfires had become a continual worry over the past several years, she said. Fire and flood are two frightening aspects of climate change in their area. Daphne Brown explained the A-frame technique, which helps to peg the contours, conserving not only soil but water. They also told me about ballasted waterways and gully plugs (which use rocks, old tires etc.) to create a channel that directs the flow of surface water and slows it down, when the rains come down heavily.
What do they grow? There was quite a list: gungo peas, plantain, bananas, pineapple (the “sugar loaf” variety), pumpkin, as well as ackees and tomatoes for quick cash. They sell coffee to the Mavis Bank factory; and with RADA’s assistance, they raise chickens, which are their best income earner. Daphne Brown sells in Coronation Market in downtown Kingston on Thursdays and Saturdays. The prices vary considerably. At the moment, cabbage and tomatoes are cheap; but she is getting a good price for East Indian mangoes, which are just coming into season.
I moved on to another table, where a group of women from Windsor Forest sat. They spoke a great deal about the mighty Yallahs River (where once there was a very rough fording, now a bridge). Across the river from them is a community called Somerset, in St. Andrew.
Infrastructural issues weigh heavily on these women. Doreen Laws, spoke out on several matters, including the need for a bridge between the two communities. The roads are simply terrible. The lack of water in their pipes (which are corroded) is a major concern. “We depend entirely on rainfall,” they said, for their crops and homes. Crops struggle in the heat; the women observe (as I have) that even after the rain has fallen, temperatures soar again. Ms. Laws said sadly: “The young ones leave.” Numbers at the local school are declining. The farmers also pointed to the need for an agro-processing facility. When certain fruits are in season they “spoil” – but they could be processed into jam, juices etc.
It was interesting to learn from the Chief Executive Officer of RADA Peter Thompson that overall, around 60 percent of the Farmer Field School graduates have been women, and mostly around 35 to 40 years of age. However, we should recognize a number of young men who were present. All the techniques learned at the field school have been “tried, tested and proven to work,” he said. The farmers implemented them on demonstration plots and their own land.
The Yallahs Hope Project Manager, Nelsa English-Johnson was full of energy. “The environment plus livelihoods create synergy,” she said. She added: “Whenever the river puts on a khaki suit, farmers will cry.” The farmers laughed and nodded. This means the soil is washing into the brown river. “We need to fat up back the land,” said Ms. English-Johnson. In other words, enrich and nurture the soil, in an environmentally friendly way.
Minister of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries Audley Shaw gave a lengthy and at times emotional speech, starting with his family’s agricultural roots in Manchester. He is especially fond of the 4-H Clubs, having represented them at Holmwood Technical High School and at the national level. He stressed the need to create stronger and larger markets for the farmers’ produce, in particular through links with the tourism industry – an ongoing discussion. After leaving the room, he spent time chatting with the farmers outside, amidst many photo-ops.
“Thank you for your courage,” he told the farmers. I liked the word “courage.”
“The soil is our gift from God.”
For further information, please contact:
Patrice Gilpin, Communication Specialist, Integrated Management of the Yallahs and Hope River Watershed Management Areas Project.Tel: 754-7540; Cell Phone: 352-0190; Email: email@example.com
Rosemarie Lee, Manager, Public Education and Corporate Communication Branch Tel: (876)754-7540, ext. 2430; Fax: (876)754-7596; Cell Phone 878-4731; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org