The Maroon nation of Accompong in the mountains of Cockpit country in St. Elizabeth Jamaica is an agriculturally based state with a population of approximately 1000 residents, some 600 of whom are women, primarily entrepreneurs, and about a quarter of whom are farmers.
These 74,726 hectares are home to the largest remaining natural forest in Jamaica, the source of 40% of Jamaica’s fresh water supply, a thriving farming community and an almost “Zen-like” system of communal land tenure that is virtually unheard of in these modern times.
Typical issues of land ownership that are experienced by other smallholder farmers, and particularly women elsewhere in Jamaica and the rest of the world are not experienced in Accompong.
The Maroons are descendants of West African slaves who escaped plantations and merged with indigenous Amerindian communities, eventually winning their freedom and their own sovereign lands, which were legally granted by a mutually signed Peace Treaty in 1739, after winning a war against the British.
The treaty of 1739 ceded land to the Maroon people as a whole rather than to specific individuals and the status quo has remained in place, resulting in a communal system of land tenure that underpins the socially cohesive Accompong community.
“I love farming because it makes me independent. If I want a piece of yam, I can just go out in the field and get it. If I get an order of 1000 pounds of dasheen I can find it,” says Cassandra Peddie, who farms half an acre of land in Gypson.
When I inquire about the size of Cassandra’s land, I quickly learn that there is no such thing as “her land” in Accompong— at least not in the territorial sense that a Westernized, capitalist mind would conceive of it.
Peddie explains to me that if she needs more space to plant, she simply extends the borders of her land and as long as she is not “getting in the way of” someone else’s crop, she is free to plant whatever she wants, where ever she wants.
I ask whether this degree of “freedom” would make her and her colleagues vulnerable to theft and praedial larceny and she explains that no— if someone is hungry and needs a yam, per se, they could simply ask her and she would give it to them.
When I first meet Cassandra, she is at work on her farm, with her family. Pigs and goats roam freely and the women— her mother, sister and their children— share in a culture of affection, trust and teamwork. They show me a mango tree, which marks the boundary of their plot, consisting of a half-acre on which they grow yellow yam, dasheen, coco and plantain.
“The Maroon women are the cradles of our culture, the nourishment of our community and bond us together as a people,” says Accompong Chief Richard Currie of the culture of social cohesion and support that is perpetuated by the women of the territory.
As entrepreneurs, matriarchs and savvy businesswomen, women farmers thrive on the communal system of their tightly knit community, but the lack of water infrastructure and absence of running water in Accompong is an ever-looming threat that impacts yields and income earning potential.
“By the time we get to the spring to fetch water we are so tired and we still have to walk back,” says Cassandra of the arduous trek that she regularly makes with her family by foot. “I have to carry the water on my head or in my hands. It’s not an easy journey to go back and forth. I have to climb up a hill carrying two jugs, each weighing 25 to 30 pounds of water in either hand.”
The physically taxing nature of manual water collection from neighboring springs, makes the lack of water infrastructure in Accompong much harder on women than on men.
“Sometimes I get tired, but I don’t have another job. I’m always a hustler, I’m always working,” says Ann Davies, a mother of four, who farms an acre of land in Hilltop consisting of plantain, dasheen, sorrel, marijuana and callaloo.
When times are good, Ann can sell up to 2000 pounds of dasheen in the market and will sell sorrel and plantains within the community.
But like the other farmers, during times of drought she could potentially lose everything.
“We have to bring the water from far,” she says, pointing to a 400-gallon tank and six drums that she uses to harvest rainwater.
“We have to save money because we know that drought will come, we know times will get rough. Other times we will make money by having a little party but we cannot do it now with the virus,” she explains.
Like Peddie and Davies, Shamora Lennon who has an acre of land in Parade, is forced to fetch water at the spring during the dry months. She loads 12-13 buckets in a car and heads to Magotty, which is half an hour away. Between domestic and farm usage this will barely be sufficient for more than a day.
Lennon says that the lack of water infrastructure in Accompong has affected her income security and ability to guarantee consistent yields from her scotch bonnet, tomato and sweet pepper crops, pointing to buckets of scotch bonnet suckers that are ready to be replanted, but which she is unable to transfer to the soil due to dry weather conditions.
Every week she sells 20 to 30 pounds of pepper via a middleman who takes the produce to Santa Cruz, an hour and a half away and then pays her in cash, but during the dry season she isn’t able to grow tomatoes and sweet peppers at all.
But despite their hardships, the women of Accompong are strong and independent with an empowering sense of ownership and pride in their heritage.
It is not a coincidence that Nanny the Maroon is Jamaica’s only female national hero, whose success as a leader and strategist is celebrated both in history books and represented on the Jamaican $500 bill.
“Maroon women are without a doubt the prime entrepreneurs who provide income to many households in the territory,” says Accompong Chief Richard Currie. “Without our women, we could not survive as a people to this day. Unfortunately they are frequently on the frontlines when economic, heath and welfare issues arise. Our women face many challenges, but due to their indomitable spirits and entrepreneurship, our women have endured and thrived and are the root behind keeping our community together and keeping our culture alive.”