Jamaican resilience

My favorite Jamaican, Cleon Meek, grew up in St. Mary Parish halfway between Montego Bay and Port Antonio on the north shore of the island.  When he woke up as a child, he told me ” We never ate breakfast.  Instead we would just go outside and pick whatever fruits were ripe. We’d eat those all morning as we worked the family’s fields.”  DSCN7546.JPG

Jamaica has every tropical fruit you can imagine.  The national fruit, akee or aki, was imported by the British.  They invented a dish combining aki with salted fish. I had it every chance I got.  It was free at breakfast at both hotels I stayed at earlier this month.

Invited to help the only agricultural college in Jamaica become more resilient and climate smart, we enjoyed a balmy December away from the cold  weather and even colder politics of the US preparing for the Trump years.

The College of Agriculture, Science and Education (CASE) is located on the northeast coast 3 miles from the eco tourism mecca of Port Antonio.  The college operates at three locations from the Caribbean up into the Blue Mountains.  The main campus has fruit, vegetable and animal production which provides nearly all the food for the college’s 1000 students.  A second farm is focused on bananas, pineapples and other tropical fruit.  A third is developing a beef cattle/coconut silvopasture system and refurbishing 3 acres of greenhouses..

The challenges of CASE are the same problems many colleges and universities have: a bureaucratic (not entrepreneurial) mindset and infatuation with the new.  Some professors are focused on drones, remote cameras and GIS applications which don’t fit any but the very richest famers. And those farmers often already know more than the university professors about the technology.  Other faculty and staff are so preoccupied with protecting their positions that they can’t envision new ways of helping the CASE students. Unlike many colleges around the world, CASE has an innovative new President, Derrick DesLandes and many faculty dedicated to helping the  poor rural communities surrounding CASE.

Resilient farms, rural communities and colleges are characterized by conservative innovation.  All resilient systems are innovative.  They must be to survive, adapt and thrive in the face of climate change and the many other disturbances which afflict poor rural communities. Resilient systems adopt new practices and enterprises only when those innovations are consistent with tried and true existing systems.

Resilient systems don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.  They do throw out the  old bathwater and bring in fresh water and soap. Resilient farms and communities are aching for colleges and universities to help them improve their existing enterprises.

In Jamaica, chicken, whether jerked or not, is the most popular food.  They have it at almost every meal.  About a third of all chickens are raised by small farmers in their back yards and on their small plots of land.  Low cost innovations to improve this enterprise could vastly improve the lives of these rural families.  However, some are considering investing in a massive tunnel-ventilated chicken house.  To obtain such facilities, farmers must put up their land and houses as collateral for loans.  Then, to pay back the loan, they must sign contracts with poultry integrators to house thousands of birds jammed into tiny spaces meaning antibiotics are required to keep them from dying of disease.  They must be fed imported feed and not allowed outside to scratch for healthier, natural food.

This system originated in Arkansas when Don Tyson perfected the vertical integration system.  Now known as Tysonization, this process makes farmers dependent on large companies providing feed, chicks and drugs and requiring ever more expensive improvements on their chicken houses.  Those who don’t take out more loans to make the improvements lose their contacts and cannot repay their loans.

The result in Arkansas and many US states had been abandoned chicken houses littering the landscape and farmers losing their land and homes.

Tyson-mimicking vertical integrators now control chicken, egg and hog production in most of the world.  Two have captured about tw0-thirds of the chicken market in Jamaica: Jamaican Broilers and Caribbean Broilers.  JB is the biggest.  It was founded by a graduate of Munro College.  He has offered to donate to Munro College one of the tunnel houses.  I tried to convince them to use more traditional and less expensive houses and teach the principles of poultry growth and biology.

Munro College was my secondary focus. It’s a fascinating place with dorms, classrooms, chapel and offices perched atop atop the peak of the Santa Cruz Mountains with magnificent views of the Caribbean Sea and Pedro Plains.  The location is sunny and windy.  From the headmaster’s office a line of wind turbines illustrate the high levels of technology present in some of Jamaica.

It was founded in 1856 as the Potsdam School (named for the city of Potsdam, Germany) a free school for poor boys in St. Elizabeth Parish as stipulated in the will of plantation owners Robert Hugh Munro and Caleb Dickenson.

It was renamed Munro College during World War I as part of the general rejection of German names at the time. Munro College was established in the fashion of the British public school (what Americans call private boarding schools). Several of the boarding houses take the names of other benefactors or illustrious alumni. The campus has its own chapel.

Over the years Munro College has distinguished itself as a center for excellence in secondary education in Jamaica and the Eastern Caribbean. It is reputed to have produced the most Rhode Scholars of any secondary school in the Caribbean. The most recent Rhodes Scholar from Munro College is Vincent Taylor in 2013.

Munro College is currently the only all boys boarding school in Jamaica. Until independence came to Jamaica, it’s students were from the elite families of Jamaica and included white, Chinese, Syrian and some black students.  Since independence it has moved to being nearly entirely black.

Richard Roper was a transformational Headmaster at Munro beginning as the youngest headmaster ever appointed in Jamaica.  During his 27 year tenure, according to current Headmaster Mark Smith, he spearheaded developments which made Munro virtually self-sufficient in food.  He was succeeded by a Headmaster from England who had little interest in agriculture and focused on producing graduates for the growing professional class in Jamaica. Economist Smith, after negotiating interest rate reduction in a huge debt his predecessor incurred in building unused dormitories, is focused on revitalizing agriculture with farm manager Fullhood Powell and biologist Amorkand Brown.

I only spent two hours at Munro and am eager to go back.  Anyone want to take a trip to Jamaica next year after Christmas?  An enthusiastic Peace Corps volunteer, Paula Lombardo, is organizing a two week work and study trip for anyone who’d like to help small farmers and schools in Jamaica.

For all it’s reputation as a tourist spot, Jamaica is the second poorest country in the Caribbean.  Only Haiti is poorer.

Come down with us and have fun, sun and do some useful work.


Thanks to ACDI/VOCA for inviting me to Jamaica and providing extremely helpful entree to the movers and shakers in today’s Jamaican society.





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