Sustainability When Your Life Depends on It

By Sara Swan, Campus Garden Initiative Intern

I recently returned from a trip to Jamaica. When I say that, people tend to picture me reclining on the beach drinking fruit juice. When I tell them that the trip actually involved days spent traveling on intensely bumpy one-lane mountain roads (terrifying when your bus is headed straight towards another bus, each driver honking manically at the other), they look surprised. When I explain further that I helped transplant native tree species, build a visitor’s center at the eco-lodge where we resided, and planted ginger and medicinal herbs using a machete, Jamaica’s most ubiquitous (and bad-ass) tool, they look even more surprised. When I finally explain that it was all part of an IU service learning course called Roots, Fruits, and Jamaican Ecologies, they understand.

Working on a ginger farm with the president of the BPFA

Through the course, our class talked with, ate with, danced with, farmed with, and fished with the farmers of the Bowden Pen Farmers’ Association. However, if you were to look up Bowden Pen on a map, you probably wouldn’t find it. The town (located in the John Crow Mountains) was drained of many of its residents due to immigration to England, and when Hurricane Gilbert struck in 1988, it completely destroyed what little remained of the town. After the hurricane, the farmers, most of whom hail from the nearby town of Millbank, recognized that their livelihoods and health depended on the environment around them and formed the association to protect the environment, their culture, and their economic stability.

Sunset over the Blue Mountains

The farmers deal with a lot of problems. Awful roads make taking produce to Kingston difficult and time-consuming. Unpredictable weather can cause a crop to fail, and the government provides no subsidies to the farmers (as we do here in the US), so they have little recourse besides their own community and hard work . The progress they’ve made since the group officially launched in 2000 is inspiring and a testament to the hard-working nature of the farmers. They built Ambassabeth Cabins where we stayed, a comfortable grouping of cabins and kitchens powered solely by solar power. They collaborated to grow and to sell ginger for export. They improved the historical Cunha Cunha Pass Trail and other trails in the area to both foster eco-tourism and and to educate children and other residents on their own heritage. They began the tradition of an “Ole Time Stinting” event held every August. They began an agricultural park (called Neem Park) where we helped plant a medicinal plant garden. Finally, they also helped to disseminate warnings about poisoning the water in the many nearby streams and rivers (a method used to catch crayfish). Through engagement with the community, they were able to advise on the dangers of poisoning the watershed and to mobilize community members to report those who did use poison to fish.

Currently, the group is looking for more ways to develop sustainably, and our class has the unique opportunity of helping. We are currently researching other ways for the association members to generate or to save income- such as cottage industries or utilizing common organic waste materials (like coconut and breadfruit husks or banana peels) to create a rich compost that could negate the need to buy fertilizer. However they may use the research we generate, it is comforting to know that it is in the hands of capable and caring people who help one another and their environment, and in doing so provide for their future economic stability.

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