Maroon sovereignty: An environmental justice issue
The Maroons have been on the forefront of environmental protection as it relates to potential miningactivities within the Cockpit Country. (Photo: Jason Tulloch)

THE recent altercation between the Trelawny Town Maroons of the sovereign State of Accompong and the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) has once again reignited the conversation about the placement of Maroons in Jamaican society.

The main question and topic of conversation seems to be about whether the Maroons are a sovereign State based on the 1739 peace treaty between them and the British during the colonial era.

As no expert in law, I will refrain from attempting to answer that question. Instead, I am choosing to reframe this conversation as one about environmental justice and the recognition of Maroon indigeneity that ascribes a level of trust in the people whose cultural and religious mores have imparted a significant level of protection on one of Jamaica's most precious and last remaining collections of natural resources.

The Maroons have long been recognised as an indigenous people by the United Nations based on their distinct cultural and religious practices — compared to the rest of Jamaica — as well as their long-identified quest for self-determination and relationship with the environment.

Indigeneity is not just about ancestry, otherwise the entire world population could be considered indigenous and indeed, in the wider context of planetary systems, humans are indigenous to Earth.

The conversation that we need to have is not about whether the Maroons are a sovereign people, as that can be easily determined based on the Jamaican Constitution. What we need to examine is: Why is it important to the Maroons to be treated as a sovereign people, even if they are not a sovereign nation and why does it matter to the wider Jamaican population if they are?

Sovereignty from the perspective of environmental justice transcends the legal definition and does not only speak to political or diplomatic relations. It is about the power of a people to determine their own systems of production, their relationship with the land they occupy, and a reimagined relationship between peoples with State powers.

If we consider our recent history, the Maroons have been at the forefront of environmental protection as it relates to potential mining activities within the Cockpit Country. In fact, the Cockpit Country was a legally unprotected space until 2017, after over a decade of contention between the Government and the residents of the area. The charge to define and protect the Cockpit Country was led by the Maroons following news of impending mining within the area in 2006 which had been approved in 2004.

What we have before us is a stand-off between the State and its citizens (considering the Maroons are not living in their own sovereign State) over the cultural value of the land which they've occupied for centuries. It is no doubt that the value ascribed to the land in the Cockpit Country varies depending on who is asked. We have had interests in tourism, mining, conservation, and preservation; however, to the wider Jamaican population these could matter less as they are far removed from the potential implications of environmental degradation of the Cockpit Country — or so it is thought.

As a people whose lifestyle makes them directly dependent on the environment, the Maroons have long held a position as environmental stewards in Jamaica. Notwithstanding, the relationship between the Maroons and their land has imparted the significant benefits of sustainable water resources, biodiversity protection, and economic potential for the rest of Jamaica. The rest of us cannot claim such contributions and that's a major point of difference between the Maroons and other Jamaicans.

In the wake of climate change, the concept of climate justice has been thrown around by many a Government and for many a reason. Climate justice is one of many branches of environmental justice, which is not to be misconstrued with legal justice as applied to the environment or environmental matters.

Environmental justice is a broad system or theoretical perspective used to assess decisions for their disparate impact on vulnerable and marginalised groups. One of the 17 principles of environmental justice is that there must be recognition of “a special legal and natural relationship of native peoples to national Government through treaties, agreements, compacts, and covenants affirming sovereignty and self-determination”. Hence, Minister Horace Chang's admission that he knows nothing of Maroon lands makes him and the wider Government complicit in attempts to erase the culture and heritage the Maroons.

If we are serious about protecting our environment, we must be serious, also, about recognising those who have lived in unison with the land, those whose practices have not degraded our environment, those whose lifestyles are in fact sustainable. The Maroons are the purveyors of just sustainabilities that we need in Jamaica amidst all the unease today regarding the uses of our environmental assets by our Government.

So, to the lawyers and others who are hell-bent on letting us know that the Maroons are not a separate nation and to the historians who continue to remind us that the Maroons agreed to help capture and return runaway slaves, these matters pale in comparison to the fight we have in front of us. This fight is beyond a law that didn't think to consider the implications of a colonial treaty on independent Jamaica.

We care about the sovereignty of Maroons because, unlike the Jamaican Government, they have a reason to care for the environment. The Maroons are willing to fight to protect what other Jamaicans will not. Without Maroon sovereignty — the guarantee that they control what happens within the borders of the Cockpit Country — we risk further devastation to our natural resources.

While thinking about the water crises we suffer yearly during the dry periods, remember that 40 per cent of Jamaica's surface water sources originate in the Cockpit Country. Let us support those who have been ensuring that generations of Jamaicans have access to pieces of Jamaica that have not yet been leased or given to outsiders. 

Emme Christie is transdisciplinary environmental specialist and associate director of the Jamaica Climate Change Youth Council. Send comments to The Jamaica Observer or christiemario@gmail.com.

Minister Horace Chang's admission that he knows nothing ofMaroon lands makes him and the wider Government complicit inattempts to erase the culture and heritage of the Maroons. (Photo:Philp Lemonte)
By Emme Christie

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