“It’s a bold and ambitious journey that I am about to embark upon,” says Chief Richard Currie as he pauses pensively to take a sip of coffee.
It has been less than 72-hours since his oath of office was taken as the youngest leader ever of Jamaica’s Accompong Maroons and the new colonel, age 40, enthusiastically shares his thoughts on the land, water, farming and the birthright of his people.
Outside the window, banana trees wave a warm Accompong welcome while flora bask in the cool mountain breeze. And somewhere, on a segment of this compound that I haven’t seen, is a tank filled with rainwater and secondary catchment that the Chief employs for domestic use.
Chief Currie presides over 74,726 hectares of Cockpit Country— the largest remaining natural forest in Jamaica. This land is home to the Leeward Maroons, descendants of the West African slaves who fled harsh plantation conditions and the indigenous Amerindians who they banded with, fighting colonists with guerrilla tactics, such as camouflage created with the tint of the heart-shaped cocoon bead that the Chief is currently wearing around his neck, and the secret language of the abeng, a type of bugle made out of a cow horn, used to blow coded messages. It was these tactics that eventually won the Maroons their freedom and their own sovereign lands.
The Sovereign State of Accompong is home to lush green hills, rivers, springs, streams and other natural water sources, unique biodiversity and crops that do not grow elsewhere in Jamaica.
But despite being the source of 40 per cent of Jamaica’s fresh water supply, Cockpit Country itself has no running water.
The irony is mind-boggling.
“Our community is at least fifty-years behind,” says Currie of the monumental task of implementing the infrastructure to alleviate the water stress faced by the strong farming community and its citizens.
Seventy per cent of Accompong’s residents are subsistence farmers who grow crops such as yams, bananas, breadfruit, potatoes, ginger, turmeric, tomatoes, cabbage, callaloo and peppers, using traditional African farming techniques.
Each household farms for itself and the extras are sold, but if there was a major crisis they would be in trouble.
“We are at risk because our systems haven’t enabled us to have the infrastructure behind the agriculture,” Currie explains. “This is the only thing between us and total food security.”
Well, that and water.
While the clay soil in Accompong is not ideal for many farmers, it effectively retains water during dry periods, and traditional techniques for digging and water storage have proven effective in the absence of infrastructure in the area.
“As a last resort, we literally haul water from water holes that are nearby, but with the proper planning and resources, all of this can be resolved,” says Currie.
The last estimate to run water into the community, received from the National Water Commission in Jamaica, was $1.2 million US dollars.
“I have so much work to do but so little to do it with,” says Currie of the cost to provide what the United Nations has deemed a basic human right— that elsewhere in Jamaica would be provided by the government as a public service.
But Cockpit Country is considered by the Maroons and by many of those in the wider community to be a sovereign nation within the nation of Jamaica.
In 1739, a treaty that was signed by Maroon leader Cudjoe, under the leadership of British governor Edward Trelawny, granted the Maroons land between Trelawny Town and Accompong in addition to political autonomy and economic freedoms, making the Maroons the first free black people in the Western Hemisphere.
Maroons do not rely on the Jamaican government for food security, social welfare or infrastructure and so the onus is on the new Chief to develop his economy and build out systems and safety nets that had not been put in place by the previous administration.
“The Maroons were the catalysts of emancipation; we were the leaders of liberation. That’s what we stand for,” he says. “Our treaty is built on sustainability and perpetuity and our only path to development is through economics and commerce built on those same principles.”
Currie, who holds a degree in Banking and Finance from the Mona School of Business at the University of the West Indies and has 15-years of corporate experience, sees commerce rooted in the bounties of Accompong’s God-given resources as the primary route to the economic advancement of his people.
“The earth is the lord and the fullness thereof. Our sovereignty is derived from the freedom of our lands, so what ever we do with our lands is of imperative value to our security as a people,” he explains. “I want to transform our economy in a sustainable way so that we can preserve our culture, our heritage and our legacy that is built on this heritage.”
Nutraceuticals, wellness tourism, agro-processing, alternative energy, ganja and the sale of fresh produce are commercial endeavors being explored by the new Chief.
Food, he recognizes is one area in which his people have a distinct competitive advantage.
“A lot of our foods have inspired the epicurean nature of the wider Jamaica,” he says. “We as indigenous people learned to live from the land so we had different means of preserving and cooking our foods, which in turn influenced local food culture.”
Currie lists corned pork, pepper pot, jerk sauce, roasted tubers and run down as examples of Jamaican foods that were adopted from the Maroons.
Accompong’s hard to traverse elevated terrain basks in an unusually cool climate with unique volcanic and clay soil types that Currie says cause foods grown here to have “more potency” than those on the flat lands. Cockpit Country is also unique in its ability to grow crops that are not frequently found in other Caribbean climates, such as berries, strawberries and mushrooms that grow wild among the networks of springs and streams.
Accompong’s topography also protects its citizens from many of the typical environmental threats posed by climate change and encountered by flat land farmers. In October and November 2020 there was significant rainfall that wiped out the crops of farms on the outskirts of Cockpit Country. Accompong was not affected negatively and local farmers relished the opportunity to hydrate the soil and get good catchment.
“To me, Maroon country is Jamaica’s contingency for food security and that is how we should be positioning ourselves,” says Chief Currie. “As a diplomatic engagement I would seriously look at how the Maroons could be a source of food security for the nation.”
Among the crops that Currie says could be easily brought under the umbrella of sustainable development are ginger, breadfruit, yams, castor oil, sorrel, potatoes, peppers, bananas, plantains and turmeric.
Recent talks with potential overseas partners have revealed an interest in Cockpit Country-branded food products but planning and infrastructure is required to facilitate fulfillment of the demand.
“We have the land, we have the labour, we just don’t have the capital to complete the circle of productivity,” Currie explains.
But what is lacking in infrastructure and development the Accompong people make up for in their strong ethos of family, community, birthright and respect for the earth.
Currie’s father, who he lost to a car accident when he was just seven, was a farmer, a Rastafarian, a “freedom fighter” and an Accompong Maroon. Currie’s mother, who hails from the Beth Salem Maroons taught him the meaning of family, birthright and spirituality.
Despite their revolutionary history, the Maroons of today are a peace-loving nation.
While the word Maroon originates from the Spanish cimarrón, meaning wild, and despite Jamaica’s well-documented issues with violence, Accompong has had only three murders in the past five years.
The only untamed thing about the Maroons is their connection to the land.
“We have arguments today, but then we are sitting at the same bonfire tonight and we are eating from the same pot tomorrow,” says Currie with a laugh as he finishes his cup of coffee.
“If we live in balance with nature and each other then nature will provide for us in a similar balance. This is the true meaning of freedom.”