Food Sovereignty in Puerto Rico: The Resurgence of Agriculture in the Hurricane Ravaged Nation
Steps are being made to promote Puerto Rico’s food sovereignty, recover from the devastation of Hurricane Maria, and reduce the island’s dependence on imported foods.
In 2009, a major economic crisis hit the Caribbean island nation of Puerto Rico. The ensuing seven years (2009 to 2016) saw upwards of 40,000 home foreclosures and a mass migration of Puerto Ricans to the American mainland, eager to escape the economic tragedy and start over.
According to Daren Blomquist, Senior Vice President of U.S. housing data provider, Attom Data Solutions, these high level of foreclosures resulted mostly from the island’s long economic slump, which also produced an unemployment rate of 12%.
One positive consequence of the economic crisis, however – a silver lining – was the shift in industry on the island from manufacturing to agriculture. Eager to create successful local businesses and promote #foodsovereignty in Puerto Rico, many locals started their own farming initiatives.
“We had a very beautiful movement towards agriculture,” said Edwin Almodóvar, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. “Especially after the wave of layoffs, many people started seeing agriculture as a space for business opportunities.”
According to 2016 statistics provided by the governor’s office, income from Puerto Rican farms grew by more than $900 million (a significant 25%) between 2012 and 2014. The amount of acreage under cultivation rose by 50% between 2014 and 2018, generating at least 7,000 jobs. From 2015 onwards, 23,000 Puerto Ricans had farming jobs.
It seemed as though #PuertoRico had found its economic niche and on such a fertile tropical island, the potential was great. Then, in September 2017, category five Hurricane Maria slammed into the island, leaving vast tracts of farmlands totally devastated and small scale, local farms ruined either through physical damage or through the destruction of vital infrastructure and the power grid. Even those farms that were able to get back on their feet within a few months of the hurricane were unable to get their fresh produce to market due to roads that had been rendered impassable by fallen trees and rock slides.
Rebeca Feliciano Bras and her husband, who had embarked upon an agro-business Setas de Puerto Rico (Mushrooms for Puerto Rico) in 2011, had their entire crop wiped out by Hurricane Maria. For seven years, they had been growing fresh mushrooms on their plantation in the mountains of Aibonito, the only farm producing local mushrooms on Puerto Rico. When the hurricane hit, the generator responsible for controlling the environment in which the mushrooms grew was destroyed and the roads by which they transported their produce to market became impassable with fallen debris.
“Without transportation, I couldn’t sell,” said Feliciano Bras.
It took the couple nearly a month to clear a path for them to drive into town to sell their harvest.
Today, even 18 months after the storm – the most deadly in Puerto Rico’s history – the island continues to import about 85% of all its fresh food produce, growing just 15% of what’s consumed locally.
For Carlos Suárez, the USDA’s lead representative in charge of hurricane recovery efforts in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, Hurricane Maria demonstrated the need for the island to establish food sovereignty: to become more self-sufficient when it comes to food production.
“It made the public understand it’s not a matter of if, but when,” that transition should take place.
“We have to raise more awareness,” says Franco Marcano, a mechanical engineer and co-owner of Cosechas Tierra Viva, a local farm that grows baby kale, arugula, cilantro, green beans, and eggplant for local farmer’s markets, restaurants, and private deliveries. “Every year we’re prone to hurricanes, droughts, you name it, and we have to be self-sufficient. We need to depend more on crops that can grow quickly.”
“We already saw that Puerto Rico is susceptible to not having food. Agriculture should be a matter of national security.”
Today, there are a number of efforts underway to promote food sovereignty on Puerto Rico. In addition to the burgeoning number of local farms on the island – many of which have bounced back after Hurricane Maria – the Puerto Rican government is offering incentives to farmers, especially those investing in renewable energy technologies and agricultural techniques that are immune from hurricanes, like indoor hydroponics and aquaponics.
And while the island is likely several decades away from feeding itself, the Department of Agriculture and farmers are hoping and working towards a food sovereign future for Puerto Rico.
About Fusion Farms
Fusion Farms is the first indoor aquaponic farm of its kind on the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico. The concept seeks to transform the unused Puerto Rico Industrial Development Company (PRIDCO) buildings that are scattered across the island into hurricane-protected, vertical #aquaponic farms. Within this contained and controlled environment, vegetables, micro-greens, and herbs can be grown and supplied to the island, greatly reducing its dependence on imported fresh produce. Furthermore, Fusion Farms will be able to supply a fresh, #sustainable source of fish protein, since Tilapia are an essential component of aquaculture.