In Jamaica Maroon communities occupy a precarious position both in terms of where they live and the politics of Jamaican society. Similar to other societies it is influenced by the political and societal decisions made in the past.
Maroon communities are descendants of African refugees who escaped slavery from 1655. By the 18th century some established themselves as free people and made peace treaties with the British Colonial government in Jamaica. The question of food production and food preservation gets entangled with Maroons’ historical land claims.
The Maroons live separate from the rest of Jamaica and the Maroon village of Accompong doesn’t pay land taxes to the government, so roads for transporting crops to market are not maintained.
Food security is a major problem for Maroons mainly due to post-harvest loss and protecting preserved food stuffs, which is a widespread issue amongst communities in the tropics and sub-tropics.
Improving food security
Researchers from the School of History, Classics and Archaeology, School of Biology, School of Civil Engineering, School of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development and the University of Kassel, investigated ways to improve food security for the Maroon communities in Jamaica mainly by helping them to conserve traditional methods of food preservation.
These methods, once widely used, are now at risk of being lost. Developing solutions to help Maroon communities achieve food security is where history, engineering and biology can together make a difference to their livelihood and survival.
Food preservation methods such as solar drying could reduce food insecurity for Maroon communities as well as help boost their local economy. This could help Maroon farmers with their current situation where they grow the same crops and harvest them at the same time, resulting in surplus and market saturation.
It wasn’t always this way. In the past there was a national government initiative that developed farming cooperatives for all farmers. While these were not without problem in some ways they were more sustainable than policies implemented by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which forced farmers to compete with each another.
“There are lots of interesting ideas for technological or agricultural interventions but they will struggle to be successful if they don’t take into account people’s past experiences and understandings of the past”, says Prof Diana Paton, of the School of History, Classics and Archaeology.
Dr Barbara Sturm and Dr Helen McKee travelled to Jamaica to learn about traditional methods for preserving food and how science could potentially help preserve Maroon heritage and increase food security.
Helen interviewed Maroon farmers and their families about their current farming practices whilst researching how this changed from previous generations. Barbara researched the engineering aspects of food preservation techniques and the use of renewable energy.
Together they worked with communities to develop sustainable solutions for food preservation to help reduce starvation and poverty.
One of the problems confronted by Maroon farmers is that they mainly rely upon intermediaries known as ‘higglers’ who collect farm produce and take it to market for them, but higglers are not always reliable. Dealing with higglers exposes farmers’ produce to changes in climate and market volatility.
“The issues that Maroon farmers face in taking their produce to market, i.e. high fuel costs, lack of access to suitable transport and adverse weather conditions, are also faced by higglers. Combine this with the fact that higglers dictate prices makes Maroon reliance on higglers unsustainable”, says Dr McKee.
The Maroon community would traditionally dry many of their crops to survive the hurricane season. Other methods include burying crops, and storing them in caves to keep them cool. However, today these methods are rarely used other than for herbs or medicinal products.
“Some of the Maroon communities are currently actively working on re-introducing preservation, particularly drying, jam and juice making. Their target markets are not within Jamaica itself but they hope to be able to produce niche products to be marketed in the USA and Europe with the UK as their primary target market”, says Dr Sturm.
“Our research has allowed us to gain insight into the realities of Maroon and non-maroon rural communities. We were able to learn a lot from our conversation partners and could share our expertise with them,” says Dr Sturm.
Researchers have identified ways that could assist Maroon communities in improving their way of life. Technology for preservation and renewable energy integration is often unaffordable. However, one of the communities that researchers worked with invested in a cassava drying system that uses solar panels to generate electricity and process heat.
Researchers are also pinpointing the target market for excess produce and helping in the preservation of crops for Maroon communities.
“We aim to raise further funding for a future project in which a solar energy expert can work with the communities and train them to use, e.g. a solar tunnel dryer, to increase their food security.
We would also like to begin an oral history project in which the cultural and social aspects of this work can be recorded whilst training young Maroons in how to record the oral history of their own communities”, says Dr McKee.
This research is from the project ‘Resource Efficiency in Jamaican Maroon Communities: A Historical and Scientific Inquiry’ funded through our Directed calls.