Can farming save Puerto Rico’s future?

As climate change alters how and where food is grown, Puerto Rico’s agro-ecology brigades are a model for sustainable farming

Our climate is changing, and our approaches to activism and politics have to change with it. That’s why FERN, in partnership with The Nation,  is launching Taking Heat, a series of dispatches from the front lines of the climate justice movement by journalist Audrea Lim. Lim will explore the ways the communities that stand to lose the most as a result of climate change are also becoming leaders in the climate resistance—from the farms of Puerto Rico to the tar sands of Canada, from the streets of Los Angeles to Kentucky coal country, communities are coming together to fight for a just transition to a greener and more equitable economy. At a time when extreme weather events and climate policy impasse are increasingly dominating the environmental news, Taking Heat will focus on the ways climate change intersects with other social and political issues, showcasing the ingenious and inventive ways people are already reworking our economy and society. There will be new dispatches every few weeks.

Hurricane Maria sent Magha Garcia back to the beginning. In 2010, a brigade of 18 farmers had helped her cut trees, open roads, build a cistern and start a plant nursery for her new farm, Bosque Jardín Pachamama, on 13 acres of land in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico. Five years earlier, she had been living in the city of Corozol when mass layoffs hit. She lost her job as a social researcher, and wondered what to do next.

Garcia was 45, an age when capitalism “doesn’t consider you a person who’s producing anymore,” she said, unless you’re someone with knowledge capital, “a consultant or adviser.” That was not Garcia. Her future in the city looked grim. She had been raised on a farm, in a family of farmers. “Better start growing my own food,” she decided.

In September 2017, Hurricane Maria dumped more than 30 inches of rain on parts of the island, destroyed about 80 percent of Puerto Rico’s crop value, and left some towns without power for more than six months. Most distressingly, an accurate death toll remains elusive; though the government’s official toll lists 64 people as having died from Maria, some studies have come up with counts over 4,600.

Garcia’s roots survived—ginger, cassava, taro, yams—but most of her fruit trees were ruined. Soon thereafter, another farmer brigade arrived at Garcia’s farm, helping clear felled trees and restore a measure of order. She lives alone on the land, and doesn’t have a lot of money. Government help was slow to come across the island — the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been accused of being absent in the days after the storm — and ultimately inadequate. Without the volunteer help, rebooting “would’ve been really challenging,” she said.

In the absence of robust government aid, these brigades have helped repair and restore countless farms since the storm. Some are affiliated with the Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica de Puerto Rico, a network of small-scale farmers that counts Garcia as a member, and that has been promoting the practice of agro-ecology on the island since 1989.

A farmer brigade at work after Hurricane Maria. (Used with permission: El Departamento de la Comida)

Agro-ecology is an approach to farming that promotes diversity (through crop rotation, polycultures, or livestock integration), uses natural systems (like planting flowers to attract insects that will manage pests), and relies on farmers’ knowledge of local conditions. The result can be higher yields at lower cost, along with more efficient use of resources and space, self-regulating agricultural environments, and self-sufficiency for farmers. (Not only could farmers feed themselves, rather than just grow commodity crops for export, but they wouldn’t be dependent on commercial seeds and chemical pesticides and fertilizers.)

This holistic approach treats farming as a component of its surrounding ecology, unlike the industrial monoculture model that seeks to maximize profit and efficiency, often at the expense of the environment. The negative effects of industrial farming are well-documented: pollution from fertilizers and pesticides, depleted water sources, degraded soil.

Furthermore, the global food system is responsible for around a third of the world’s man-made greenhouse-gas emissions, largely from agricultural production, the manufacture of fertilizer, and refrigeration. And the changing climate is already forcing farmers to adapt, and has even pushed some off desertified, water-sapped lands. The growing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, like Hurricane Maria, have been linked to climate change.

Agro-ecology isn’t the only way of farming that utilizes a holistic approach. Yet in Puerto Rico, at least, there is a harder-to-quantify piece of the agro-ecology movement that is crucial to its success: the farmer brigades.

These brigades not only act as crisis support and mutual-aid recovery teams, but are also facilitators of adaptation and climate-smart policies. As Garcia explained, the brigades did not just arrive when she was building her farm, or rebuilding it after the storm. Anytime farmers in the Organización Boricuá network need help, she said, they invite others to come with proper shoes, tools, eating utensils and a dish to share. She considers her farm to be something she shares with other Organización Boricuá members, in the sense that everyone—farming in different micro-climates throughout the island—can offer or accept help as needed, and either share or receive crops in times of abundance or scarcity.

This sharing model has roots in El Movimiento Campesino a Campesino that began in Guatemala in the 1970s and has since swept through Mexico and Central America. Its values of solidarity and communal approach to production, consumption and ownership are a stark contrast to the individualized, private property-oriented mindset that predominates throughout much of the United States.

At the end of the workday, the farmer hosting the brigade usually gives a workshop. Garcia’s most recent workshop introduced the many varieties of taro root, and how she harvested them from wild areas to plant on her farm. This was important because many of the newer farmers are young, and some don’t know how to eat the root, much less farm it.

As the climate and ecological systems are transformed, this knowledge-sharing among small farmers will be indispensable. What crops are most resilient? What methods work? Similar interactions between farmers and the people they feed are part of the ecosystem, too. And they are at the heart of agro-ecology.

 

Tara Rodríguez Besosa didn’t understand this when she helped start a multi-farmer CSA in San Juan in 2010. But she quickly learned.

She was working at the stand of her mother’s farm CSA at the local farmers’ market, and began meeting farmers, discovering new vegetables and learning to cook them at home. She realized that, were it not for her job, she might never have known about these ingredients, much less have access to them. Most people shop at the island’s supermarkets, which are full of cheap, packaged foods from global exporters and the U.S. mainland. Rodríguez Besosa also noticed that the organic produce at the city’s farmers’ plazas (permanent establishments, unlike the pop-up farmers’ markets) came from California, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, but not Puerto Rico. To understand what had happened to agriculture on her island, she began to read.

Starting in 1898, U.S. colonialism cleared a path for the corporate takeover of Puerto Rico’s agricultural land. But in the 1940s, Operation Bootstrap, a series of projects designed to modernize the territory’s economy, promoted a shift away from agriculture toward industrialization, and many farms closed. By 2012, 83 percent of the island’s farms were smaller than 50 cuerdas (48 acres), but those farms amounted to just a quarter of Puerto Rico’s agricultural land — and that land continued to be concentrated into fewer hands. The result is that Puerto Rico now imports about 95 percent of the food it consumes (before Maria, it was 85 percent). And because of the 1920 Jones Act, which requires all goods shipped to Puerto Rico to be transported on U.S. vessels, imported foods are costly.

By 2010, Rodríguez Besosa had learned enough to take action. She created El Departamento de la Comidain San Juan, an online distribution company and CSA connected to local, organic farms. When she began posting photos of the produce online, people asked, “Where can I eat it?” And before long, La Comida had added a restaurant with a menu that shifted depending on available produce, in an effort to reduce food waste.

But Rodríguez Besosa, now 34, decided not to reopen the restaurant after it was flooded by Maria. The farmers she worked with had nothing to sell, and, more important, their safety and livelihoods were at risk. Instead, she began raising money for small farmers and the long-term development of agro-ecology, utilizing the newly launched Puerto Rico Resiliency Fund. And as volunteers streamed into Puerto Rico, the fund also started its own brigade, coordinating visits to one or two farms a week.

A community garden in San Juan, shortly after Hurricane Maria. (Credit: Tara Rodriguez Besosa)

The brigade didn’t just visit farms. In April, the members drove to the Berwind Elementary School in San Juan, which now also houses the students from Berwind Middle School, which had been damaged by Maria. The teachers were struggling; one classroom held three separate classes at once. And despite the overcrowding and heat, some rooms didn’t have fans, says Carol Ramos, a graduate student at the University of Puerto Rico’s School of Planning.

Ramos is working on a pilot project to introduce bottom-up decision-making into the school, no small feat for a school system used to top-down decision making. And it involves agro-ecology. On the three acres of green space attached to the school — highly unusual for Puerto Rico — Rodríguez Besosa’s brigade helped build a greenhouse that can be transported back to the middle school once it has been repaired. Inside, pumpkin, beans, tomatoes, sunflowers, oregano, guanábana, coconut trees and melon are growing, and students will care for the plants at home over the summer.

This is important for Ramos because agro-ecology is about more than just food. It is about “food sovereignty, which means you can decide politically where, how and when do you want to grow food in your country,” she said.

Still, much of Puerto Rico’s agricultural land remains in the hands of large corporations, and political and policy change comes slowly, if at all. A debt crisis, exacerbated by austerity measures that President Obama signed into law, was slamming the island even before Maria.

But for Ramos, dismantling the “colonial context” involves learning to make political decisions, including at the community level. What food should we grow? Should we compost? Where, if anywhere, should chemicals be used? And what better place to start than by teaching these ideas to students—empowering the next generation of leaders?

With over 500 million family farms producing about 80 percent of the world’s foodthis is another way of asking whether agro-ecology’s lessons in democracy—and the human relationships it engenders—can be scaled up? “We’re being bought out, literally, and not only through corporations and bonds, but also our land,” said Rodríguez Besosa. “Every day, I see another person that’s not Puerto Rican purchasing something around me, either in the city or country.”

Yet her own story gives Rodríguez Besosa hope that change is possible: She had just bought her own farm this spring, after Maria jeopardized her plans for a time. “I’ve seen the importance of getting something that can be owned by a Puerto Rican,” she says.

Lead image: Loíza, Puerto Rico, March 17, 2018. Nine months after Hurricane Maria destroyed 80 percent of the island’s crop value, farmers and entrepreneurs are working together to rebuild the agriculture sector, steering away from commodity crops and toward a model of sustainability. (USDA Photo by Preston Keres)

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