The Caribbean is facing a trio of interlinked crises. The climate crisis is accelerating biodiversity loss and making the region highly vulnerable to extreme weather events. The health crisis has transformed the Caribbean into a hot spot for non-communicable diseases. The third crisis, the food security crisis, is structural and economic, and has resulted in the decline of small-scale and Indigenous farming, leaving the region dependent on food imports.

The Caribbean Food for Climate Justice (CFCJ) Research Group, an ongoing collaboration between scholars from The University of Edinburgh, The University of the West Indies, Heriot-Watt University, and Wild Caribbean; and practitioners and activists from the Caribbean Youth Environment Network, the Indigenous Yamaye Guani (Jamaican Hummingbird) Taíno People, and educators from the 4-H Clubs of Jamaica, is seeking new ways to foster ancestral food heritage in the Caribbean as a potential solution to the trio of crises.

Group photo of facilitators and participants after planting a community garden for the Teaching Climate Justice project.

The first project, entitled ‘Recipes for Resilience’ (AHRC, 2020-2021), connected British Caribbean youth from the Black Open University, UK, and members of the Caribbean Youth Environment Network through songs and stories about Caribbean food cultures and their importance for climate action. This project resulted in a co-created song “Food and Resistance for Climate Resilience,” Food Story Maps, and short informative videos, which were published open access on their website. Initial findings from this project were published in the journal, Sustainability.

The CFCJ research group’s most recent project, entitled ‘Teaching Climate Justice and Resilience through Ancestral Plant Heritage in Jamaica’ (ESRC IAA, 2022), has facilitated a unique and ongoing partnership with the Jamaican Hummingbird Taíno People and 4-H Clubs of Jamaica. For this project, the team co-created teaching and learning resources, including a Recipes for Climate Justice Cookbook, with illustrations by Jamaican children’s illustrator, Ms Danielle Parchment (the cookbook’s layout and cover are being designed by Mr Nicholas Shelton and Ms Maya Wilkinson, respectively).

The Taíno People are Indigenous to the Caribbean, having once been the most numerous Indigenous people on the islands. After colonization in 1492, the Taíno were pushed to near extinction due to enslavement and forced labour, starvation, and disease. In recent years, a resurgence of Indigenous Caribbean identities has led to a reclamation of Indigenous (food) heritage among surviving populations of Taínos and other Indigenous groups in the Caribbean, including Indigenous Afrodescendant Maroon populations. The project supports these recent movements to reclaim Caribbean Indigeneity, as it seeks to foreground planting and cooking Indigenous foods, including well known foods such as cassava, corn, pumpkin, and pulses, as well as lesser-known foods such as ‘stinking toe’ (a fruit) and medicinal plants such as purslane.

Through resources such as the cookbook, the CFCJ research group seeks to raise awareness of the nutritional qualities of Indigenous Caribbean foods and how to cultivate them sustainably, even in small spaces. Food consumption and production in the Caribbean today look very different than that of even one or two generations ago thanks to globalization and the proliferation of fast-foods. Food heritage has changed in Jamaica as more people buy unethically or unsustainably produced food.

“We’re missing out on the notion of eating a rainbow,” says Thera Edwards, a project partner at The University of the West Indies.

The CFCJ research group’s work also seeks to counteract the region’s over-reliance on unethically or unsustainably produced food, while stemming import dependencies.

About 70% of Jamaica’s food today is imported. Dr Marisa Wilson, Senior Lecturer in Critical Human Geography at the University of Edinburgh, is the lead collaborator on the project.

According to Wilson, “Over the past century Caribbean countries have been pushed towards buying foods rather than producing their own food because it’s seen as better for the national (and global) economy. The concept of food security is in line with that sort of hegemonic understanding of how best to provision foods. Food sovereignty is a contrasting concept which is really about revaluing sustainable spaces, which might be more for subsistence and local sale rather than for the global market.”

Chieftainess Ronalda Pairman, who represents her community, the Jamaica Hummingbird Taíno People in the CFCJ research group, described how, prior to mass imports of food in Jamaica, an upset stomach could be traced directly to a particular food item that had been eaten.

“Now a lot of food products have become outsourced, so you don’t know the ingredients, and can’t trace what may be affecting your health,” Pairman said.

Describing the benefits of ancestral herbal medicine, she added, “Our health has become outsourced as well.”

The Teaching Climate Justice project focused on the revaluation of so-called “forgotten foods,” which are foods that are no longer as popular as they used to be, but could be used to combat the interlinked food-climate-health crises. Workshops with educators of Jamaican 4-H Clubs promoted Indigenous solutions to health and sustainability through activities such as a Taíno cooking demonstration, planting a community/school garden, and Indigenous and African storytelling. The experiential, place-based learning carried out for the project drew on Indigenous worldviews of collective well-being and connectedness with the environment to promote sustainability and food security.

“After considering what your plate is supposed to look like, educators from the 4-H clubs were taught how to grow that food themselves,” Pairman said. The workshops sought to “tie a love for the land with an understanding that, if you take care of the land, you’re taking care of your plate [health],” she added.

During the workshops, the Yamaye Taínos shared knowledge of their People, which has been forgotten by mainstream food and agriculture ‘experts’. This included identifying plants for their nutritional and medicinal benefits and for climate resilience, information that will be included in the Recipes for Climate Justice cookbook soon to be published on the group’s website.

“It is their traditional knowledge, and they are not necessarily always going to be open about sharing it; they have been very accommodating,” Edwards said about the Taíno People’s involvement. “We’re promoting foods that are nutritionally dense and we’re trying to steer people away from fast foods, which are nutritionally poor and not biologically diverse”.

The workshops promoted the use of crops that are locally adapted to Caribbean microclimates. Certain parts of Jamaica have a lot of rainfall and certain parts are very dry, so decisions about which crops to plant need to be location-specific to ensure success. Edwards described how planting crops suitable for a very dry climate will save water that was previously used for irrigation, so the community can put this resource towards other uses, like drinking water.

“This is especially important now as we near climate departure,” Edwards said. “We had one of our most severe droughts this year. We want to have crops that can resist that without wilting.”

There’s often water conflict due to different demands on this resource, according to Edwards. Jamaica’s tourism and manufacturing sectors, in addition to agriculture, use lots of water.

Jamaica’s native plants are naturally very climate resilient. According to Pairman, “You don’t have to try hard to grow native plants, as they are typically very low maintenance.”  She referenced a common saying in Jamaica: “The land is so fertile that if you plant a pit, something will grow!”

At the root of the Caribbean Food for Climate Justice Research Group is an unsettling of the history of colonialism that has shaped the lives, cultures and diets of communities like the Taíno and Maroon Peoples. Dr Wilson believes that “Ultimately, it’s about climate justice. And climate justice centres on the health and wellbeing of people as well as the planet”.

The CFCJ research group’s work recently has been picked up by documentary maker, WaterBear, who are now planning a documentary on their activities as part of a wider series on grassroots communities and their creative resilience in the face of the climate crisis. Stay tuned!



The Caribbean Food for Climate Justice (CFCJ) Research Group is a collaboration between scholars from the University of Edinburgh (Drs Marisa Wilson, Kate Donovan), The University of the West Indies (Drs Thera Edwards, Charmaine McKenzie, Nicole Plummer, Patricia Northover, Sylvia Mitchell), Heriot-Watt University (Dr Inna Yaneva-Toraman), the University of California, Los Angeles (Prof Judith Carney), and Wild Caribbean (Dr Anthony Richards), and practitioners and activists from the Indigenous Yamaye Guani (Jamaican Hummingbird) Taíno People (Kasike-iani [Chieftainess] Ronalda Pairman, Kasike [Chief] ‘Kalaan’ Nibronix Kaiman, and their five year old daughter, Tanama) and the Caribbean Youth Environment Network ( Mr Reginald Burke, Mr Adrian Henriques, Ms Shannon Weekes, Ms Chandane Persaud). The CFCJ research group is seeking new ways to foster ancestral food heritage in the Caribbean as a potential solution to the trio of crises described above.