Jessica Canham
Jessica Canham

Our island of Dominica is part of the most complex and connected global civilization in history. Humanity moves billions of dollars of goods and services around the world every day, while war, climate disasters, eco-systems breakdown, and pandemics are becoming increasingly disruptive to our globalized way of life.

One day we may once again be forced to make do with our own resources. We may need to replace imports with what we can access and produce locally. In these times of climate collapse, Hurricane Maria in 2017 showed us we could survive from our land more easily than our wealthier Caribbean neighbours, who were starved of water and food when weather disasters struck. Our small island has some important lessons for the world.

To celebrate our 44th anniversary of Independence, I offer "Four Lessons from Dominica for the World".

Lesson #1: "Koudmen" (Lend A Hand); Build and maintain Community Mutual Aid

An ancestral survival trait that has been maintained in Dominica over hundreds of years, is the tradition of "Koudmen", which means "Lend a Hand". Described by historian Dr. Lennox Honychurch as the "social glue" that holds community together, this form of community-self help is often referred to as "mutual aid". As countries industrialized and became materially wealthier, they lost these woven networks of reciprocity and self-sufficiency. In industrial countries, corporations and institutions have replaced most services and goods that local communities, extended families and kinship groups once freely exchanged.

In contrast, in many Dominican villages we have retained high degrees of self-sufficiency, as people still regularly come together to volunteer their skills, resources and time for the development of the community. We celebrate this enduring spirit of Koudmen during the Independence season on Nov 4th; Dominica's National Day of Community Service.

Lesson #2: When we take care of the land, the land takes care of us.

Dominica's lush rainforest, which still covers over 60% of our island, contains a UNESCO World Heritage Site, incredible biodiversity, and is one of the last oceanic rainforests left in the world. Historically, our mountains were a refuge for the Neg Mawon (African slaves) who escaped the brutality of the colonial masters' plantations and created thriving Maroon communities deep in the rainforest, growing crops and foraging food and herbal medicines. The Kalinago, who lived near the rivers and close to the coasts where they could fish, used the forests for hunting and for timber for their canoes. No money needed!

Many of our elders can identify local medicinal plants that grow wild all around us. Plants that might be considered "weeds" to the untrained eye, often have healing properties. We can maintain this mutually-beneficial relationship with the wild plants, through sustainable foraging, which enables communities to access their nearby forests for sustenance and healing over generations. This local knowledge is an essential survival skill. Our Forest Reserves and National Parks are treasures, and we need to continue to protect these lands from threats (such as deforestation, mining, urbanization, pollution) that have destroyed the forests in neighbouring islands and other countries.

Lesson #3: Grow What We Eat- Food security is in our gardens and in our hands.

The industrial era has created unprecedented separation of people from the land and growing food. The burning of oil over decades has warmed the atmosphere and is fuelling super-charged storms like Hurricane Maria. In many other Caribbean islands people moved away from agriculture en mass into tourism and other service industries. Yet in Dominica, as tourism continues to grow we've remained principally an agrarian society, where subsistence farming is still central to how we feed ourselves and earn a large part of our incomes. I would say that having access to land and growing our own food remains the foundation of Dominican culture and identity. One reason for our current social stability is that property tax is not imposed in most of the rural areas. Poor families are able to keep their family land for generations. This prevents families from becoming disenfranchised, as has happened in many other islands. In Dominica we say that we are "Land Rich and Cash Poor".

Most parts of the globe are not "bread-baskets" like Dominica, with our deep, fertile volcanic soil, plentiful rainfall and a warm tropical climate giving us the ability to grow a seemingly endless variety of crops. Historical influences and cultural retention has ensured that local knowledge and skills in farming remain wide-spread throughout the nation. There is a danger, however, that this knowledge might not be sufficiently shared with future generations. Given the aging farming population in Dominica, there is an urgent need to attract more young people into farming.

Where "permaculture" is now all the rage in the industrial North, we in Dominica have been using permaculture practices for generations; intercropping, composting, using plants to fix nitrogen organically in the soil, protecting soil fertility, rainwater harvesting and more. However, over the past few decades, the use of imported non-organic fertilizers and pesticides have been aggressively encouraged by multi-national institutions and corporations. Industrial fertilizers and pesticides destroy soil fertility and important biodiversity and create pollution in our rivers and in the ocean.

As we are becoming more aware of the need to eliminate harmful practices, I believe we have the opportunity in Dominica to integrate more of our organic agricultural heritage to remediate soils that have been damaged by excessive chemical use, and to ensure that generations to come will inherit healthy land and healthy, sustainable practices.

Lesson #4: Learn Practical Living Skills: "Food-Clothing-Shelter-Health"

In my village of Cochrane, with just 380 residents, we have farmers, plumbers, carpenters, electricians, bee-keepers, stone masons, barbers, nurses, a doctor, teachers, pastry chefs, mechanics, a vet, an architect, seamstresses, and bus drivers. Could your immediate community provide all the needed skills, and resources for everyday life, if you were cut off from the outside world for a few days, weeks…or months?

We learned the answer to this question, in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Looking back on that, I feel it was a practice run for how we would respond to a "global collapse". The entire island was devastated, nearly flattened. Yet within two days community members had restored our village water supply, unblocked the roads, and we worked together to put roofs back on homes, root crops were being shared, members from our village council, farmers group, village health clinic, and disaster preparedness committee all swung into action to ensure the safety and security of everyone. Political differences were put aside, as people came together to provide the skills and the emotional support that were needed, not only immediately following the disaster, but months and even years afterwards.

I've learned that having a wide range of practical skills and knowledge in a community that responds to challenges with cooperative and supportive behaviour, is key to our resilience and thriving.

By: Jessica Canham Dominican National; Cochrane Farmers Group (Board Member); Caapi Cottage Retreats, (Co-Director)