Photograph by Ina Vandebroek
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Freshly harvested ackee fruits (Blighia sapida), containing the orange fruit pods and the white edible aril, which is cooked in boiling water until tender.

Photograph by Ina Vandebroek

On Tiny Island Farms, Biodiversity Is a Way of Life

Jamaican farmers grow an average of 87 useful plants on their tiny plots, including a variety of foods, timber, and medicinal herbs.

In the remote John Crow Mountains of northeastern Jamaica, it’s difficult to tell where the lush forests end and cultivated land begins. By growing food in harmony with the wild flora, small-scale farmers in the region are helping preserve crop varieties and other plant species that are unique to the Caribbean island.

A recent study in the journal Economic Botany found that the region’s farmers grow an average of 87 useful plant varieties, including a high number of foods, for one plot of land. Yam, plantain, banana, mango, pepper, bean, coconut, breadfruit, timber, and medicinal plants all grow surrounded by wild trees and shrubs that help hold nutrient-rich soil in place on the mountains’ steep slopes. (The research was funded in part by the National Geographic Society Committee for Research and Exploration.)

Growing a variety of plants like the Jamaican farmers do contributes to food security by maintaining agricultural biological diversity—known as agrobiodiversity for short. Protecting that diversity is becoming more difficult, though, since most of the world’s cultivated land is dedicated to growing the handful of staples we eat. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, 75 percent of the world’s food comes from only 12 plant species.

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Jason West of Windsor Forest carries a bamboo stick to harvest coconut fruits.

“In rural Jamaica, small farms blend in with the forests. In that variety lays the protection of biodiversity. The farmers know that to keep the soil healthy and food production up, they need the wild trees and native shrubs,” says study co-author Ina Vandebroek of the New York Botanical Garden.

Agrobiodiversity can ensure there are many food source options in case something goes wrong with one. The Irish Potato famine of the mid 1850s, which was caused by a blight that devastated the island’s main food source, is the classic example of something going wrong. More recent examples abound: Bananas are cloned (See The Miracle of the Modern Banana), as is agave, leaving both vulnerable to pests or viruses.

“If we depend on only a handful of crops and something happens like a disease wiping them out, then we’re putting our food security at risk,” Vandebroek says. “Why limit what’s available for our diets when having more variety can help us survive as human beings?”

To do this research in rural Jamaica, Vandebroek and her research partner, Logan Sander of Yale University, first established relationships with the local community, so farmers would be comfortable talking about what they grow and why. On farm plots, they found that farmers raise many different kinds of food crops, as well as timber trees, which they can quickly harvest when in a financial bind, while in home gardens, their focus is on medicinal plants that can be harvested when health issues arise.

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Fresh nutmeg fruits (Myristica fragrans) with their red-colored mace coverings that will turn orange when dried.

Despite the Caribbean’s land area being relatively small compared to other world regions, it’s brimming with biodiversity. Cultural traditions vary widely from island to island, which has led to the development of many unique crop varieties and diets (see For Rastas, Eating Pure Food From the Earth Is a Sacred Duty.)

“Even though Jamaican farmers only use machetes to work their lands, it’s amazing the different crops they have independently developed without the help of institutions. It’s a testament to their creativity and skill,” Vandebroek says.

By exchanging seeds—what Jamaican farmers call “catching breeds”—they develop and grow varieties that have been handpicked for their desirable characteristics over generations. If farmers like the taste of a scotch bonnet pepper or if there’s an ackee plant that doesn’t get too mushy after it’s been cooked, they’ll keep the seeds to grow in the future.

Protecting woodlands and conserving crop varieties through agroforestry techniques like the Jamaican farmers use go hand-in-hand. Forests are home to 80 percent of the planet’s terrestrial biodiversity, but modern agriculture has led to massive deforestation and species loss around the world. (See how efforts are being made to preserve and restore trees on farms in Africa: Climate Change Resilience May Mean Planting More Trees).

Vandebroek hopes her work will help garner support for farming in Jamaica and that it brings awareness to how agroforestry protects biodiversity. Government support is much needed, since the region’s roads are so deteriorated that it’s difficult to transport food to local markets.

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Calvin Parkes from Windsor Forest carries bananas from his farm plot to sell.

Getting government funding to build community seed banks could help with preservation too, Vandebroek says. Doing so is important in a place where one hurricane could wipe out all crops and seeds suited to local growing conditions like an earthquake did last year in parts of Nepal.

Vandebroek, an ethnobotanist and a neuropsychopharmacologist, is also interested in researching how people use plants and the biological effects of plants on the body. She recently published a reference book on medicinal plant uses in northeastern Jamaica.

"It is my sincere hope that this book will stimulate Jamaican youth to follow in the footsteps of their farming relatives, and learn from them as much as I did,” Vandebroek writes in her book. “The true riches of Jamaica are in the land.”

Kelsey Nowakowski is an environment and food security journalist based in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. She is a former National Geographic graphics reporter. Follow her on Twitter.