What Rural Jamaican Livelihoods Taught Me about Environmentalism

There’s a saying in Jamaican patois that goes: “Every day the bucket go a well, one day the bottom mus’ drop out.” It’s our way of saying how much more you appreciate something when it’s gone. One can imagine an even deeper appreciation for something you never had to begin with, and it’s the reason I find myself yearning to understand more about the way my parents grew up — in rural, post-independence Jamaica. Before western tourists flocked to the island for packaged vacations, it was, and still is, a nation of industrious families toiling to secure a future. Born of slaves, cultivating once-fallow land left by masters to be productive, cooperative and sustainable. Pooling resources, exchanging surplus goods, purchasing only want could not be grown. Romantic notions of life in the countryside have no home here, it was a hard life, and a short one — you were fortunate to reach 60. But this respect for the land and its richness never left me, even though I never knew the land itself.

My mother and father’s childhood, one of raising livestock and tending native crops for subsistence farming, is seldom seen today. Days began at dawn: goats to graze, water to fetch when the rain enactment ran empty, and pimento seeds to dry in the sun while away at school. My mother learned how to clean a freshly killed chicken with lime juice and hot water (a trick she still employs today), and when to harvest fruit from backyard trees at peak ripeness. Her family sold Graham mangos, bananas, yams, June plums, sugar cane, guinep in modest quantities to families nearby and wholesale buyers who sourced for local factories. My father’s family inherited four acres of land in Saint Andrew parish, enough to farm cocoa, kola nut, coconut, breadfruit, and ackee. Enamored with country life, my mom went on to pursue agricultural studies, serving as Extension worker to support farmers from rural parishes like her own. Over time, my father’s family scaled back their farming, as it became difficult to sustain with his aging parents. My father renounced this life for a new one in the states, save for the occasional backyard gardening he does today.

My parents came of age just as Jamaica transitioned away from an agriculture-centered life towards a service economy that brought mass migration to large cities. As Prime Minister Michale Manley came to power in 1972, and attempted to enact a wave of socialist policies that would strengthen domestic agriculture, disaster struck. Economic downturn driven by spiraling oil prices in the late 1970s led Manley to accept loans from the International Monetary Fund, with predatory terms disguised as “structural adjustment policies.” These loans required Jamaica to cut funding for public services, drastically liberalize the economy, and lift protective price controls for domestic exports like sugar. Such policies also shifted land use in favor of privatization, making it difficult of heritage farmers to retain and access more land. The population employed in agriculture today is as low as 15%, and rural life in a globalized Jamaica looks very different. Spend time in any Jamaican home and you’ll find imported fruits popular in the US — granny smith apples, Valencia oranges — now accessible in grocery store chains cropping up across the island, while native fruits like Otaheite apples and Soursop are harder to come by. Processed foods and fast food chains made their way into the national diet, not unlike other nations battling the same forces of globalization.

The environmental awareness I harbor today has everything to do with the behaviors underlying the rural experiences of my parents. The ingenuity it takes to transform dried coconut gourds into purses for sale to wide-eyed tourists. The cooperative mindset around communal banking like the “partner” system, common in West African cultures as well, that allowed households to build their savings. The respect for how livestock is raised and slaughtered, every usable ounce of meat savored. My life in dense urban cities of the Northeast — with little access to land of my own, trying to “make it” in corporate America — cannot be farther from the life my parents knew. But I honor them by trying my best to live a principled life. Environmentalism is not without its code of ethics, and my north star has always been these values: ingenuity, community, and respect for life in all its forms.

As seen on intersectionalenvironmentalist.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store