Sound the Abeng: At The Brink of an Environmental Misstep in Jamaica

Conniel Malek, Director, True Costs Initiative

More than likely, you are familiar with the music of Jamaica’s iconic Bob Marley, its world-class beaches and the dominance of the Jamaican sprint demi-god, Usain Bolt. You might even know that near the middle of this island lies a bountiful rainforest, known as the Cockpit Country, which is the home of 90% of the global population of black-billed amazon, a parrot endemic to Jamaica. But you might not know about Nanny, the most significant figure in the history of the Jamaican Maroon struggle for freedom.  If you don’t know about Nanny, you should.

Queen Nanny, as she is reverentially referred to, was the formidable leader of the Jamaican Maroons, a term which was used by the British to refer to escaped slaves who formed communities in the forests and mountains of Jamaica. It is believed that she was born in the latter half of the 17th century in what is now present-day Ghana and that she was brought to Jamaica not as a slave but as a free person. She and the Maroons led most of the slave rebellions in Jamaica, helping to free slaves from the plantations. In 1739 the British government ended the first Maroon Wars by granting land to the Maroons under a Treaty. Since then, the Cockpit Country has been the home of the indigenous Maroon community which has been given significant autonomy by the Jamaican government. I remember learning about Nanny when I was a little girl growing up in Jamaica and being just as enamored with this relatable, Caribbean “wonder woman” as with the natural beauty of the Cockpit Country.

But the Cockpit Country is under immediate threat from bauxite mining in a way that would make Nanny turn in her grave. Over the past few years, the indigenous Maroon community, civil society and much of the public have called for a clear boundary of protection against mining, quarrying and prospecting around the Cockpit Country. Bauxite mining is not new to Jamaica. Jamaica is the one of the world’s top ten bauxite producers. But the concern with protecting the Cockpit Country’s unique biodiversity highlights the tension between touted economic development and environmental stewardship and protection of finite and indigenous natural resources. Since 2013, public consultations have been held on establishing a defined boundary around the Cockpit Country. There is significant opposition to such development in the Cockpit Country because of the devastating effects such development is likely to have on the country’s watershed, residents’ displacement and devastation of livelihoods. Currently, the Jamaican government has promised an anxiously awaited response to the petition. It took the Jamaican government almost two hundred years after Nanny’s death to make her a national hero. We cannot allow a similar delay when it comes to protecting this unique Caribbean natural resource. We should not wait until the inevitable environmental degradation is no longer a nagging worry but a dire reality to sound the alarm and resist the instinct to sacrifice the environment for short-term profit.

It took the Jamaican government almost two hundred years after her death to make Nanny a national hero. We cannot allow a similar delay when it comes to protecting unique Caribbean natural resources. We should not wait till the inevitable environmental degradation is no longer a nagging worry but a dire reality to sound the alarm and resist the instinct to sacrifice the environment for short-term profit.

Nanny’s strategic leadership of the Maroons and her indomitable spirit can teach us several lessons today:

We must be vigilant, and we cannot wait for Governments to bestow protection of the environment and enshrine it in law. We must be our own advocates. The Cockpit Country has the highest diversity of plants and animals than anywhere else on the island. It is the source of six major rivers and is a critical water resource for the whole of western Jamaica. Cockpit Country supplies critical fresh water for Jamaica, estimated at 40% of the water needs of six western parishes, and 40% of all Jamaica’s underground water resources. This clean water is generated and accumulated by the forests of Cockpit Country. The water then soaks down into rivers, sinkholes, caves and the aquifer deep underground. Mining will negatively affect agricultural livelihoods, air quality and will pose a real threat to the health and well-being of thousands of Jamaicans.  The 1739 Treaty signed between the British Government and the Maroons was a direct consequence of the decades-long Maroon resistance against British troops. Treaties and government regulations are instigated and maintained only with continued people power and constant self-advocacy.

Stay connected to and respect the land. Nanny was an incredible strategic leader and she utilized the unique characteristics of the Cockpit Country. She trained her Maroon troops in “the art of well-planned and effective ambushes that repeatedly decimated British armies” (Gottlieb, 2000). They used their expert knowledge of the terrain and ingenious use of camouflage to hold off the British for longer than any well-armed of the day ever could. Nanny teaches us that when we know our land, when we appreciate how it supports and sustains us, we have no choice but protect it.

We must connect environmental protection movements to each other – One of the most important strategic tools of the Maroons was their use of the abeng, a horn shaped instrument, as a method of long distance communication.We need to strengthen the connection between the human rights and environmental protection advocates in the wider Latin American and Caribbean region. What can the work to ban metallic mining in El Salvador teach Jamaica? What can the advocacy work surrounding the La Colosa mine in Columbia teach Jamaica? It is imperative in times like this that there is more movement to movement communication. That is the only way to learn from each other’s mistakes and strengthen the global movement to protect earth rights.

When we know our land, when we appreciate how it supports and sustains us, we can do nothing but protect it.

Nanny is an indelible part of the cultural, political and military history of Jamaica. I would argue that she is also part of the ecological fabric of the country as well. Her staunch protection of her people is inextricably tied to an appreciation and reverence for the land which fed, protected and housed her people. Let us learn from Queen Nanny. Let us sound the alarm that our natural treasure must be protected. Let us sound the abeng.

About the Author - Conniel Malek Esq. practiced as a corporate attorney and is now the Director of True Costs Initiative, a Boston based organization committed to advancing corporate accountability and strengthening legal systems in the Global South.