Edward “Firstman” Wray welcomes me at the Rastafari Indigenous Village he co-founded, located in Montego Bay, Jamaica. The Rasta hand gesture Edward displays in this picture is a downward-facing triangle symbolising balance. The Rastafari believe in a balanced lifestyle, in which one lives in harmony with nature. They are often seen dressing in the colours red, green, gold, and black, which symbolise the life force of blood, herbs, royalty, and Africanness. As people who seek to live and thrive directly from the land, and who keep an “I-tal diet” which is a natural, plant-based, non pollutant diet, the Rastafarians have a lot to teach us today about caring for the environment. Yet, today, the same consumerist systems they denounce are threatening them and their future on the island. HIDE
A map of the nine Rastafari sovereign states across Jamaica hangs proudly near the entrance of the Rastafari Indigenous Village. The Rastafari community has gone through a lot in the past century. In 1958, British police engaged in several arrests and evictions of Rastafarians, most of which on grounds of possession of cannabis, or marijuana, a sacred plant which the Rastafari use regularly. At the time, reports of alleged violence in the media, and public discourse, which vilified the so called "anti-social" aspects of the Rastafari lifestyle, meant that public opinion largely sided with the police. From April 11-13, 1963, The Coral Gardens incident, also known as the Coral Gardens atrocities, Coral Gardens massacre, Coral Gardens riot, and Bad Friday, took place. Jamaican police and military forces detained Rastafarians, killing and torturing many across Jamaica. Exact numbers are not available, but estimates place the number of detained individuals "as high as 150". These traumatic incidents, and the public’s generally negative opinion towards them, have led the Rastafari community to retreat to settlements like this one, which Edward founded in 2007. HIDE
A resident, Queen I as she is called within the community cooks a pot of ital/plant-based stew on a cobblestone stove. Rastafarians are mostly known by locals and tourists for their use of recreational herbs, such as marijuana. But there is a lot more to their lifestyle. They follow practices, which minimise their environmental footprint, such as eating a plant-based diet, and practicing sustainable and organic farming, involving agroforestry, companion planting and rainwater harvesting. This cobble stove uses dried wood as a sustainable source of fuel for cooking, which is sourced directly from the nearby forest. Although there are many Rastafari communities around the world, and beliefs can vary across communities, this close relationship to the land is characteristic of the Rastafari lifestyle. shopping_cart BUY
A fallen tree lies by the Barnett River, located near the Rastafari Indigenous Village. The Barnett River is the primary source irrigating the village’s farm, and is also used by neighbouring communities for recreation, as well as supplying water for cooking and washing, and for spiritual activities. Today, the river is drying up due to recurring drought. Not only this: a highway is being built nearby, and tremors caused by construction activities are thought to have caused this tree to fall down. Firtstman tells me this is ‘destruction disguised as development’. HIDE
‘Firstman’ and Leo Artese, a renowned shaman and plant medicine healer from Brazil, host a plant medicine ceremony with several guests at the village. Through this ceremony, people are hoping to connect with their ancestors, and seek healing through medicinal plants. The village has been in a process of constant evolution since its inception in 2007. As well as being home to several families, it is open to visitors, and accommodates people in guest cabins. One may think ecotourism is the only way through which the Rastafari are able to sustain their lifestyle, but it serves a bigger purpose. The community would be able to support themselves without guests, but welcoming others into the community allows them to preserve and promote their culture through exchange, and through building more facilities on the land.
3000 feet above sea level, on the highest mountain range in Jamaica called Blue Mountain, sits another of the 9 Jamaican Rastafari settlements, called The School of Vision. Its founder priest Dermot Fagan is one of the 50+ adults and children living here at Zion Hill. Unlike the Rastafari Indigenous Village, the School of Vision community does not suffer the effects of man-made deforestation - this is the benefit of building a settlement high-up, and away from mainstream society. The people who live here primarily follow an agrarian lifestyle and seek self-sufficiency, through selling root wine and ganja around town to bring in extra funds. shopping_cart BUY
School of Vision founder Dermot and two other resident farmers are seen working on their community farm, a key source of food for this off grid community. The microclimatic conditions of the mountain provide perfect conditions to grow food, and streams and rivers from which to collect water for domestic and irrigation purposes. This community is entirely sustainable. Dermot’s decision to build the School of Vision in this part of Jamaica has shielded the community from most of the impacts of climate change. Unlike at the Rastafari Indigenous Village in St. James, there are plenty of trees to mitigate heat on this mountain. shopping_cart BUY
Back in the Rastafari Indigenous Village, community members show me a development of the new nearby highway, and its impact on the river and nearby community. It appears none of the residents were contacted or briefed about the implications of this new highway development before it started. The organisation building the new highway hopes that the development will shorten transit time from this part of Jamaica to other parts of the country. But there are negative effects, too: construction has caused pollution in the river, and deforestation. It seems separating oneself from mainstream society isn’t possible entirely at the Rastafari indigenous village. The community’s holistic approach to living, and growing food will certainly help them tackle climate-related challenges, but what about other man-made changes? HIDE
I want to end this essay with a portraits of my friend, Kareece Lawrence, a curator and organiser of plant medicine ceremonies and wellness retreats at the village. Kareece in her role has served as a bridge between this community, and other international indigenous communities across the world, allowing the passing down, protection and promotion of knowledge around medicinal plants. Being a woman in a male dominated space, and someone who believes in helping people to tell their stories, and in supporting indigenous culture, Kareece inspires me with her fierce and passionate energy to be brave and fearless. ‘Living in connection with the earth inspires love, and love changes the world… love is the key that unlocks closed doors.” she says. Kareece wears a big smile a characteristic of the joy of the Rastafari people that is unbreakable and resilient, ever living, ever pure, in spite of the old and new challenges encountered. Their energy has allowed them to rise up and thrive throughout the times, and will help them build for the future. But will Jamaica harness and incorporate this knowledge into future climate action and adaptation strategies?