Restoring Jamaica's Water Resources With the Help of Farmers

Nature thrives on Jamaica’s Blue and John Crow Mountains. These highlands are host to hundreds of plants and numerous indigenous animals – birds, reptiles, amphibians, snails, and even endangered butterflies. Amid this rich biodiversity are the Hope and Yallahs River watersheds, which supply over 40 percent of the water used in homes, businesses and farms in the Kingston Metropolitan Area.

Protecting these two watersheds from degradation, preserving their ecological integrity and the key resource they provide has become a priority, as they face threats stemming from agriculture, the extraction of timber and firewood, mining, quarrying and the clearing of land for housing.

Blue mountains

“The problem is that the forest cover has been reduced,” says Loúreene Jones, manager for Integrating Water, Land and Ecosystems Management in Caribbean Small Island Developing States at the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA). “With less forest cover, there are more exposed areas, which causes more erosion and sedimentation. When rain falls heavily, a lot of sediment gets washed away into the catchment areas where the water comes from to supply Kingston with potable water.”

“The water utility company then has to shut down the system, causing water lock-offs,” she adds.

To counter these threats, since 2014 NEPA has been implementing an IDB-supported project, Integrated Management of the Yallahs-Hope Watershed Management Area. In Jamaica, the path to preserving the watersheds is understanding and implementing land management techniques and practices that support sustainable livelihoods, agriculture, and forestry. Through the participation of watershed communities, NEPA has created economic and financial incentives to support sustainable biodiversity and watershed management.

Farmers in particular are fundamental in the restoration and protection of the watersheds. “Targeting farmers, through training, practical demonstration, and incentives to specifically improve their cultivation and soil management techniques and practices is critical to any effort toward reducing erosion within the watershed,” says Yuri Chakalall, IDB Senior Sector Specialist for Natural Disaster Risk Management. “Without this investment in reforestation, farmer training, erosion control and management, water supply volumes and quality will likely face greater variability and decline.”

A beneficiary of the farmer training, Garfield Willis, returned to Jamaica in 2015 after living many years in St. Maarten, a Dutch constituent country in the Caribbean. Back in his homeland, this single father went into farming to provide for his three children.

“My father was a farmer, so it wasn’t that strange to me,” says Willis. “I went into the town one day with only my bus fare and 100 Jamaican dollars (approx. US 70 cents).” 

He walked into a store that sold crop seeds and found out from the owner that parsley would make him good returns. “I took my hundred dollars, bought the parsley seeds and didn’t eat. Then, I went home, sowed them in my yard [in the Blue Mountains] and every morning watered them.” 

To Willis’ surprise, he started to reap plentifully from those seeds in a short time. After going into the market to sell every Thursday, he took account and realized he had made $75,000 Jamaican dollars (approx. US$ 510) from that initial $100. At this income, he could cover his children’s schooling and provide for their needs. He could also invest more into his farm. 

Contributing to his success was the training provided by Yallahs-Hope project. “I grabbed the opportunity when I learned about it, as it wasn’t just about farming, it was about the whole package,” says Willis. Since then he has planted kale, celery and coffee, and envisions continuing to grow his farm as well as saving enough to send his eldest daughter to college. 

Willis’ training taught him to contribute to the preservation of the area, using unfarmed parts of his land to create hillside barriers that prevent soil erosion. It has allowed him to grow his crops in a cheaper and more sustainable way, reusing what would normally be waste on the farm, through techniques such as composting and mulching, thus spending less on fertilizer and pesticides.

Striking a balance between farmers’ livelihoods and the ecological impact of their activities requires investing in their ability to farm more sustainably.

We all like Jamaican coffee, and praise the quality of the Blue Mountain coffee, but when you take a trip up to the source of this coffee, the unintended impact of land clearance becomes very evident,” says Andre Reid, the project’s interim manager. “We tell them, ‘yes, we understand you need to make a living but here’s how we can help each other.’ We say, ‘plant these trees between your coffee trees, then you will see less soil run off and we will get more water.’”

Education has been the key both to overcome farmers’ initial reticence and to provide them tools to preserve the land and resources they depend on. With the help of a partner agency, Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA), a farmer field school saw 402 farmers graduate from training, ensuring that the sustainable practices are implemented, and that 500 hectares of land were reforested.

Forest fire prevention and management were other critical skills the farmers developed to help protect the watershed area.

“The area is prone to large fires. With the help of RADA, the Forestry Department, and the Fire Brigade, one of the things the farmers were taught was how to create a fire line, where they would clear a section around their farm to stop any fire from spreading there. A fire watch group was also created and supported with tools and equipment, so in case of a fire they could put it out,” says Shanice Bedward, former technical director on the project’s farmer training component.

Bedward sees the outcomes of training as a success: “In the long term, even if all those 500 hectares are not maintained, we still would have achieved a good amount of forest cover. Additionally, when I speak with the farmers, it is quite fulfilling to hear them talk about what they learned, how it benefitted them and the satisfaction they got from being a part of this,” she says. 

“I don’t believe they want to purposefully harm the environment or not adhere to best practices, but sometimes they just don’t know, and being able to teach them and expose them to best practices brings awareness. Also, they will probably educate somebody else. Some of them even say this is the first time they have graduated from something and are proud to have that certificate to show,” says Bedward.

“With improvement in land management, we should see a reduction in erosion or the amount of sediment coming downstream to cause catchments and dams to be loaded with sediment, which creates more outages in water supply,” says the IDB’s Chakalall.

“Just as public investments are made to collect, treat and distribute water to consumers, equally significant public investments should be made to ensure that watersheds can maintain their integrity so as to ensure a sustainable supply well into the future”, he says.

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