An Overview of Jamaica’s Natural and Cultural Heritage


By Damian Shirley


When we think of heritage we think of things we inherit. As such, words such as birthright, legacy and inheritance are sometimes used interchangeably with ‘heritage’. For example, a family inheritance that has been passed down from older generations, such as a particular method of cooking or a special recipe, may be regarded as that family’s heritage, legacy or the birthright of younger members of the family.


Jamaica too has legacies which are important to the country. Such legacies are regarded as national heritage. Just as how special family traditions are passed on from older family members to younger ones and are an important part of that family’s identity, similarly, Jamaica’s heritage comprises possessions inherited from our ancestral groups and are deemed important in identifying who we are as a nation. These possessions can either be tangible or intangible. Tangible, as the word suggests, are those things which are perceptible by touch and may include buildings and other articles (artefacts). Intangible, on the other hand, are those things not perceptible by touch and includes practices, expressions, knowledge and skills which have been inherited.


Jamaica Day 2018 celebrations will see us celebrating Jamaica’s natural and cultural heritage. These areas are basically sub-groups of the areas (tangible and intangible) discussed above:


Jamaica’s natural heritage relates to those aspects of Jamaica which were created by nature. This includes Jamaica’s flora (plants), fauna (animals) and environmental features that contribute to the unique diversity of life forms on our island. These are influenced by a variety of factors including our topography, terrain, geology, climate and natural hazards. Jamaica is ranked fifth (5th) in the islands of the world regarding our endemic plants, and also has a high occurrence of animal species uniquely found here. The Cockpit Country and the Blue and John Crow Mountains (BJCM) provide ideal examples of areas in Jamaica that showcase aspects of our diverse natural heritage. The BJCM, for example, Jamaica’s first and only World Heritage Site, boasts the title of the Caribbean’s “biodiversity hotspot” because of the numerous species of flora and fauna found in this area, some of which are nowhere else on earth. Endemic plant species includes lichens, mosses and some flowering plants, while some faunal species include the Coney, the Giant Swallowtail Butterfly, the Jamaican Boa or Yellow Snake and several species of birds, reptiles, amphibians, and aquatic life forms found in our numerous springs and rivers. The awareness, appreciation and preservation of these for future generations are necessary as they inform us of our uniqueness and ecological importance.


Jamaica’s cultural heritage is very broad and relates to both the tangible and intangible aspects of our heritage. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defines cultural heritage as “the legacy of physical artefacts and intangible attributes of a group or society that are inherited from past generations, maintained in the present, and bestowed for the benefit of future generations.”[1] Jamaica has a multitude of buildings, historic places, monuments, and artefacts which are important in defining us as a nation born from various ancestral groups. These all form a part of our tangible cultural heritage (TCH). As explained earlier, intangible cultural heritage (ICH) are those things not perceptible by touch and includes practices, expressions, knowledge and skills. Specific examples could include music, dance, storytelling and folk culture, religion, craft, language and food preparation.


All these areas of heritage are related and are not practiced or displayed in a vacuum. Using the Cockpit Country and the BJCM as examples, the Maroons, who lived in both these areas, were able through their skills and knowledge to utilize the flora and fauna in the area for medicine, food, homes, tools, weapons and various other instruments. The original or first generation of Maroons not only left behind artefacts (TCH) that would have provided insight into their way of life but also passed on their knowledge and skills (ICH) to successive generations, allowing them to continue with various aspects of their ancestral traditions. Therefore, descendants of the original Maroons are able to use aspects of their ICH (skills and knowledge) to utilize the natural heritage (flora and fauna) of these areas to satisfy their daily needs. In satisfying these needs, homes; tools; weapons; and various instruments (TCH) are created.


It is for these reasons that the area known as the BJCM has been recognized by UNESCO as being unique and having important cultural and natural significance to humanity; thus it has been named a mixed World Heritage Site. Information on both the natural and cultural heritage of this World Heritage Site can be garnered from the various government agencies mandated to research, promote and protect aspects of Jamaica’s heritage. The Institute of Jamaica (IOJ) is one such entity, with divisions such as the African Caribbean Institute of Jamaica/Jamaica Memory Bank (ACIJ/JMB) and the Natural History Museum of Jamaica (NHMJ) mounting major exhibitions on this heritage site.

The Blue and John Crow Mountains World Heritage Site.