Puerto Rico & The Quest For Sustainability, Part 1

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Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September, 2017, and its path carved a ruined landscape. Defoliated and downed trees. Cows dead in fields. Homes became a tumbled pile of debris. Nearly 3,000 people were killed.

The immediate need was to gather food, water, and fuel from department depots and deliver it to USDA employees around Puerto Rico, as damaged roads hindered the distribution of available food. How would an agronomist respond?  “I didn’t have enough to give everyone,” Alfredo Aponte Zayas told the New York Times, tearing up at the recollection.

Then a gasoline shortage followed. With travel nearly impossible and fields decimated, nurturing crops became impossible. Soon, the government evicted educated and motivated farmers from their land when they couldn’t pay their loans.

Prior to Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico experienced triple the food insecurity as did people on the US mainland. After the hurricane, people scrounged for sustenance and suffered with thirst.

The Commonwealth recognized it had to transform its agricultural sector, and a perfect storm of desire, ambition, and necessity is starting to reshape island farming in environmentally appropriate and sustainable ways.

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Hurricane Maria wiped out 80% of Puerto Rico’s entire crop in the agriculture sector, with estimated value of $780 million. Thousands of acres of coffee, banana, and plantain farms were flattened. Scavenged root vegetables were exchanged for other goods or shared. Fallen bananas and plantains were collected off the ground and bartered. People gathered to cook together and supplemented their meals with locally grown food.

The densely populated island — 3.26 million people live within just over 3,500 square miles — is situated within “hurricane alley,” that band of warm tropical water that stretches from West Africa to the Gulf of Mexico. Hurricanes gather their strength from ocean heat, so Puerto Rico experiences the most violent forms of these powerful storms.

Federal census data from 2018 (the most recent available) show a decline in the number of farms since 2012. Puerto Rico seems to be going in the wrong direction for food security. Hurricane Maria didn’t help. A 2019 study by Keellings and Ayala concluded that Hurricane Maria brought the largest maximum rainfall event of any of the 129 tropical cyclones to pass within 500 km of the island between 1956 and 2017 and also had the greatest island-averaged rainfall event.

If Puerto Rico is to withstand patterns of future hurricanes, changes must occur. Among them is the need to rethink food sources for its people.

Changes Wrought by Agricultural Necessity in Puerto Rico

We’ve read a lot lately about the importance of taking pride in sustainability. That approach to life is about more than hurricanes and climate pollution. As Puerto Rico examines its globalization tendencies, the image of  former President Donald Trump tossing paper towels in a condescending flip to a crowd after Hurricane Maria remains hard in Puerto Ricans’ psyche. So, too, is the constant reminder around them of how the Trump administration held back post-hurricane federal rebuilding funds for 3 more years.

Food sovereignty now captures the imaginations and drives the ambition of Puerto Rico’s citizens. Food production is commonly seen in Puerto Rico as part of a larger picture to reclaim agricultural and culinary heritage while also declaring self-reliance.

In the late 1930s, Puerto Rico grew 65% of the food it consumed, but the island’s rapid industrialization and urbanization beginning in the 1950s coincided with agricultural decline. Today, it imports more than 80%, most of which pass through one port in Jacksonville, Florida, about 1,200 miles away. Industrial agriculture supply chain issues affect food transport to the island on a regular basis and are exacerbated by extreme storms.

Some say modern industrial agriculture must stay but be balanced by agroecology and the virtues of the sustainability-oriented earlier era.

How Agroecology Can Fortify Puerto Rico’s Farm Sector

Climate change throws question marks into every agricultural decision these days in Puerto Rico. How will fledgling plants react to drought? How could pest infestation ruin crops? What happens if another devastating hurricane makes landfall in Puerto Rico?

As in many places around the world, agroecology is now taking hold in Puerto Rico. Agroecology is a method of farming with nature rather than against it, applying ecological principles to agricultural systems and practices. It promotes diversity, resilience, social values, cultural practices, and circularity. The guiding philosophy is to manage the farm as an ecosystem. This means working with what nature provides rather than against it, such as using the open spaces already available and maintaining the forested areas that have grown up over the years.

If, as so many agronomists hope, Puerto Rico is able to double the amount of food that it produces for its own consumption by 2026, what changes need to take place?

Agroecology in Puerto Rico will evolve to become a process in which farmers are:

  • growing different crops together
  • composting
  • limiting or eschewing synthetic fertilizers and pesticides
  • emphasizing improving rural life

Fast-growing aromatic herbs — mint, basil, and recao, a leafy green commonly used to flavor Puerto Rican cuisine — can become crops that fetch relatively high prices. Slower-growing plantains and root vegetables like yuca and taro can be viable, too, especially as they survived post-Hurricane Maria.

What infrastructure and attitudes are slowly changing?

  • Agricultural collectives and nonprofits are taking hold. The island now hosts more than 70 pop-up and independent farmers’ markets, up from just a handful a decade ago.
  • Urban farms have sprung up in San Juan and Ponce.
  • So, too, have organic farmers’ markets.
  • Fascination with more fresh, healthful, local foods has spread from San Juan to poorer, more remote areas.

Rethinking the identity of farmer as undignified labor is also slowly evolving with Generation Z. “There used to be a disdain for the land,” says Katia Avilés-Vázquez, who is the director of a farming-focused nonprofit called Instituto Para La Agroecología. Traditional farmers are slowly becoming honored and icons of an old and revered culture.

Increasing organic matter in the soil, the residue that living things leave in the dirt, from dead plants, root exudates, microbes, fungi, manure, even decomposing animals and insects, creates a structure that helps water to seep through the soil. You may have heard the term “sponge city” of late. Rich organic soil acts as a sponge, holding onto critical plant nutrients and storing water for dry periods. With more organic matter comes less need for fertilizer, too.

Final Thoughts

Climate smart agriculture is a way to improve food security around the world.

William Gould, who leads the US Agriculture Department’s Climate Hub, says that anecdotal evidence suggests that farms in Puerto Rico employing specific strategies recovered faster after Maria than their counterparts that didn’t. Farms with cover crops or rows planted perpendicular to the slope seemed to suffer fewer mudslides; wind breaks of trees or hedges slightly reduced the destruction of crops.

Almost 5 years to the day after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, Hurricane Fiona made landfall on the island in September. Fiona wasn’t as powerful as Maria, but it dumped huge amounts of rain, which led to flooding, mudslides, and an island-wide blackout that took weeks to resolve fully. At least 25 people died. Every farmer had significant damage. Yet, in areas where small, subsistence-style farming persisted, many crops survived.

No, agroecology won’t solve all of Puerto Rico’s problems with hurricanes and colonialist US rule. But agroecology is one step in the Commonwealth’s quest for sustainability, as every one of these actions brings the island to a better, healthier, more independent place.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack: https://carolynfortuna.substack.com/.

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