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Small-Scale Farmers as Stewards of Useful Plant Diversity: A Case Study in Portland Parish, Jamaica


For centuries, small-scale farmers in Jamaica have managed and cultivated a variety of plants for use as subsistence and market crops, fodder, construction materials, and medicine. Free-listing, casual conversations, guided visits to 35 farm plots and 16 homegardens, semi-structured interviews with 16 farmers, and quantitative analysis were used to identify the factors that most correlate with useful plant richness on these lands. Jamaican farmers reported on average 87 different useful plant ethnotaxa (ethnovarieties, including single-variety species as one ethnotaxon) of cultivated and wild plants growing on all their land holdings, across an average of 62 biologically distinct species. The cumulative acreage controlled by a farmer (total land size), consisting of their homegarden (“yard”) and all their farm plots, explained 61% of the variation in useful plant richness recorded for each farmer (r = 0.78; p < 0.001). In contrast, there was no effect from the farmers’ age, their level of farming experience, or household size. Overall, mean ethnotaxa richness was higher on farm plots than homegardens (p = 0.012) because of their larger size. However, on a per-unit area basis (0.1 acres), homegardens contained more useful plants than farm plots (p = 0.005). While homegardens were important repositories of wild plants that are commonly used as medicines and as regular teas for consumption in the morning, farm plots were important repositories of timber trees. This nuanced understanding of factors that contribute to useful plant richness may help to direct efforts to support local farmers and better utilize the capacity of those farmers who most promote useful plants. These results underscore the complexity of agrobiodiversity conservation in rural Jamaica.

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First, we thank the farmers of Windsor Forest for kindly contributing their time and effort to make this research possible. They are very wise teachers and their patience in explaining their work is greatly appreciated. Also, we are very grateful to Professor Mark Ashton, the Ashton Lab at Yale University and Andreas Oberli, Jamaica, for their thoughtful comments, advice, and support. Patrick Albert Lewis, Andreas Oberli, and Pedro Acevedo are acknowledged for their help with plant identification. We thank the Tropical Resources Institute and the MacMillan Center, Council for Latin American and Iberian Studies, Yale University, for their financial support to Mr. Sander and the National Geographic Society Committee for Research and Exploration (Grant #9339-13) to Dr. Vandebroek. We also thank three anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and feedback. Last but not least, we are indebted to our friends Calvin Parkes and Jason West for their hospitality and generosity during our fieldwork in Windsor Forest, and for cooking the tastiest traditional meals.

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Correspondence to Logan Sander.

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Sander, L., Vandebroek, I. Small-Scale Farmers as Stewards of Useful Plant Diversity: A Case Study in Portland Parish, Jamaica. Econ Bot 70, 303–319 (2016).

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Key Words

  • Agrobiodiversity
  • homegarden
  • swidden agriculture
  • ethnotaxonomy
  • ethnobotany
  • livelihood
  • food security
  • Caribbean
  • West Indies