By Femke Oldham
Do you know what jambolan is? Neither did I. That is, until I traveled to Old Providence Island, Colombia and ate one. Jambolan was one of the many fruits that I ate for the first time during my three weeks on Old Providence and San Andres Islands working on a food and water security project through the Partners of the Americas Farmer to Farmer (F2F) Program last month. The F2F program provides technical assistance to local agricultural producers, producer organizations, and agribusinesses throughout the Americas. Former Greening Urban Watersheds Program Manager Matthew Freiberg and I volunteered to work with a nonprofit organization called the Providence Foundation to assist a group of small inn owners grow organic vegetables and improve the efficiency of their rainwater harvesting systems.
The archipelago of San Andres, Providencia, and Santa Catalina consists of two island groups about 482 miles northwest of Colombia, in the Caribbean Sea. These luscious islands are home to somewhere around 80,000 inhabitants, about a third of whom are of the ethnic group Raizal–an Afro-Caribbean people who are considered to be “native islanders.” I first traveled to this region as a Climate Change Fellow last year to work with the Raizal people on water security issues. Based on my water and climate research work with a group of women inn owners, Matt and I developed our F2F project.
We began our project by interviewing Raizal farmers on Providencia (called Old Providence by the Raizal) to give us a sense of specific practices that are successful in an island community that has not experienced the same levels of environmental and cultural degradation that San Andres has faced. Old Providence is relatively untouched by large-scale development and the native Raizal people are the primary population. In comparison, on San Andres the Raizal are an ethnic minority due to immigration from mainland Colombia.
We were astonished by the abundance of fruits and root vegetables that are commonly grown on the islands and the enthusiastic willingness of local farmers to share farming secrets with two outsiders from another country. Papaya, pineapple, mango, avocado, banana, ginger, plum, yucca, and yams are a few the common crops with which we were already familiar. Breadfruit, nezberry, soursop, sweetsop, sorrel, maracuya, gungu, and noni are a few foods that were new to us. The farmers patiently walked us through their plantations pointing out important plants and teaching us how they start each from seed or cutting, how they care for the plant, and how to harvest the fruits and roots.
After we felt confident in our grasp of basic farming practices on Old Providence, we traveled to San Andres to work with the small inn owners. In contrast to the lush farms of Old Providence, our first visit to the center of town on San Andres was a stark reminder of the ever-growing disparity between wealthy foreign proponents of the luxury tourism industry and the native islanders. Large-scale resorts and duty free shops dominate the local economy and have had disastrous impacts on traditional island lifestyles and on the environment. Many of the younger Raizal are moving away from traditional farming work for more modern jobs in the tourism industry. Consequently, very little food is produced on the island and the Raizal are experiencing nutrient deficiencies as they now have to import expensive, lower quality food.
Our project aimed to address the Raizal’s food security issues while also advancing their ability to benefit from the island’s tourism-based economy. We hosted a series of community meetings and workshops on sustainable, small-scale horticulture practices, including hands-on planting of commonly used herbs and easy-to-grow vegetables like cilantro, peppermint, green onion, basil, oregano, spinach, collard greens, and bell pepper. In addition to food security, growing a small garden will enable native innkeepers to provide high quality organic produce to their guests– giving them a competitive edge in the lodging market and promoting an eco-tourism model.
To grow food, you need water, so we also attempted to tackle the issue of water security. To do this, we conducted home rainwater harvesting system assessments. For each assessment, we visited the inn to take a series of measurements and conduct an interview with the owner to analyze the efficiency of their current rainwater system. Our aim was to help the inns move away from using bottled water or water supplied by the unreliable local water company. A few of the common recommendations we made in these assessments were to increase rainwater storage capacity by adding additional tanks or cisterns, to install larger gutters, and to install a water purification system such as an active carbon or UV filter.
The Providence Foundation will follow up on our recommendations and seek resources to help the inns carry out the efficiency upgrades. We look forward to checking in on the progress of these projects over the coming months and are thankful to have had the experience. It reminded me of how interconnected we all really are. Just like The Watershed Project, people on remote Caribbean islands are also working to protect the health of their watersheds through rainwater harvesting and organic gardening.
Oh, and if you’re curious about jambolan, you can read A LOT more about it here.
Photos (from top): Femke under a breadfruit tree; Femke and Matt with youth workshop participants; two workshop participants add soil to re-purposed plastic bottles that are now being used as planter boxes; a farmer shows how to prepare a pineapple cutting for transplant.