Jamaica – Land of Wood and Water by Dr Parris Lyew-Ayee Jr

Jamaica – Land of Wood and Water

By Dr Parris Lyew-Ayee Jr, Director, Mona GeoInformatics Institute, University of the West Indies.

Dr Lyew-Ayee's article from the Grand Jamaica Homecoming Passport Souvenir.

The name Jamaica is derived from the original Taino word Xaymaca, meaning “land of wood and water”. So while popular references on Jamaica commonly invoke its culture, music, sports and personalities, Jamaica, as such, is literally defined as its physical and natural resources; everything else came afterwards. These resources abound, and provide in a plethora of ways. Simple natural beauty come in the forms of our beaches and landscape scenery, with pristine white sand beaches, the product of erosion of limestone and composed of many shell and coral fragments; to the rugged and misty landscapes of the Blue Mountains and the Cockpit Country, the former featuring a tropical rainforest ecosystem, the latter a dry limestone forest, with both regions associated with significant water systems such as the Rio Grande, Black River and Martha Brae River.

The land existed before the people of Jamaica, before any of the unique and endemic flora and fauna. As such, it is very difficult to separate the land from any other discussion or reference about Jamaica, since it is so connected to the island’s ecology, archaeology, history, industry, and general society. For over 65 million years, the island of Jamaica has evolved, from volcanic origins through to later carbonate deposition, tectonic uplift and faulting, all resulting in its present day character and form.

Jamaica’s history is intricately connected to its land. The first settlers of the island, the Tainos, had lifestyles and livelihoods closely connected to the land, which provided resources, but also formed the basis of their cultural evolution. The Spanish and British colonists developed agricultural systems on Jamaica’s river-formed alluvial plains, whose flat land and fertile soils allowed for easy cultivation. The Maroons originated as former slaves brought in to work the plantations escaped to the surrounding hills (in the Blue Mountains and Cockpit Country), whose rugged and impenetrable terrain prevented recapture, and where their descendants still live today, complete with a rich and vibrant culture. Post-emancipation, former slaves formed free villages in less rugged areas (but away from the plantations on the plains), forming the first small-scale rural agricultural economies in Jamaica.

Towards the 20th and 21st centuries, the land continues to provide, forming the fundamental basis for three of Jamaica’s top income-generating activities – tourism, bauxite, and agriculture. Jamaica’s scenic beaches attract thousands of tourists and direct investors in tourism, including hotel and attractions operators. Its natural harbours allow for the construction and development of cruise shipping ports, and its intrinsic natural attractions – Dunn’s River Falls, Rio Grande, Martha Brae, etc – form the basis for venturing inland from the beaches and experiencing a different side of Jamaica.

But the land is also custodian for much mineral wealth beneath the surface. Bauxite, the ore for aluminium, is found in abundance in Jamaica, which is the largest producer in the Western Hemisphere. Jamaica’s limestone, which accounts for nearly two-thirds of Jamaica’s land area, is one of the purest limestones in the world, and whose calcium has global pharmaceutical potential.

In addition to the cultivation of sugar cane from the colonial era on the rich alluvial plains of Jamaica, Jamaica’s world-famous Blue Mountain Coffee is a product of the unique land in which it is grown. In fact, ‘geographic branding’ of products is increasingly popular globally, where a product’s distinctiveness owes as much to the land in which it was produced as its ingredients or component parts. Appleton Rum, named after the estate in the western parish of St Elizabeth, is another geographically-branded product of Jamaica with international renown.

The land is also associated with several spectacular catastrophes, most notably the 1692 earthquake which completely destroyed the city of Port Royal, then known as the ‘wickedest city on Earth,’ and which hastened the formation of the city of Kingston early in the 18th century. This city was then devastated by another earthquake in 1907, which left a lasting architectural legacy on the city. In addition to changing fundamental building practices (most buildings then were built with brick), most buildings in Kingston post-date the 1907 event, since so many did not survive that temblor. And the land also punishes those who do not fully understand it, even from non-earthquake disasters. Hurricanes, which are not directly spawned by the physical island of Jamaica, generate storm surges, which have repeatedly destroyed communities in Old Harbour Bay, Rocky Point, Portland Cottage and Caribbean Terrace in Harbour View, where settlements have developed in decidedly low-lying coastal plains, some at the mouths of rivers.

As Jamaica celebrates its first 50 years of independence, and with that, self-determined stewardship of the land, the country should reflect on the history of its association with the land, but also look ahead to the challenges that lay await in the future, especially the matter of climate change. As in all things, Jamaica cannot afford to solely look at the physical land in isolation, but connect this to society, the economy, and strategic priorities looking ahead. One thing is for sure, however: the land cannot be ignored.