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Exploring Food Sovereignty in Puerto Rico

When I heard about the devastating double whammy of two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico last fall, I understood that the island’s economy would never be the same. As the stories and images emerged, including total destruction of the power grid, impassable roads, and tragic levels of defoliation that erased all vegetation, including home-grown food supplies, I resolved to do whatever I could to support the reclamation and rebuilding effort. Especially the regeneration of soils and crops that had been ravaged by the storms. What, I wondered, was happening to reconstruct and rebuild among the alternative agriculture community?

One of my star students from the 1990s Social Ecology program at Goddard was, I learned, back in his home town of San Juan after over twenty years living in Barcelona and Uruguay and working for the esteemed agribusiness watchdog organization GRAIN. Nelson Alvarez-Febles had completed his MA by publishing an English language thesis critiquing conventional farming in Puerto Rico and a Spanish language agroecological soil management manual, La Tierra Viva, manual de agricultura ecológica, which in 2010 was expanded into a more comprehensive guide for farmers. Though we had not seen each other in the 25 years since his Goddard graduation, we had stayed in touch.

During his work for GRAIN, Nelson became a major voice in the agroecology movement in Latin America and is now a leader in the growing movement for food sovereignty in Puerto Rico. When I contacted him to ask about coming to visit in March, he immediately offered my partner Pete and I a place to stay at his apartment in San Juan and began arranging farm visits and speaking engagements.

I was able to collect a few hand tools and farm supplies, packing one suitcase full of cover crop seeds—thanks to donations and discounts from FEDCO Seeds/Organic Growers Supply, High Mowing Seeds, and Chelsea Green (for a couple of copies of The Soul of Soil). We headed to San Juan the day after Town Meeting in Vermont in early March and returned on Spring Equinox—with lots of winter still to come.

Farms and farmers markets rebounding

After a welcome dinner at the home of Mayra Nieves, former Chair of the Cooperative Madre Tierra (Mother Earth) and Marina Negrón, we had a few days to relax and enjoy our escape from winter near the West coast tourist town of Rincon. As it happens, our modest little beach cabin rental was adjacent to the world-renowned Ann Wigmore Institute, where we were able to tour the organic greenhouse and sprout production facility, and even sample their raw food cleanse breakfast.

The vendors and patrons at the lively Rincon organic farmers market gave me a warm welcome for my talk. We even met up with a couple of friends from Vermont, who were winding up their stay as part of a work brigade organized by Buffalo Mountain Food Coop in Hardwick—of which we are also proud members.

We went on to visit the nearby Cabo Rojo farm run by Julietza Nieves— also a member of the Rincon market and were able to join some folks from another work brigade, riding on the “Guagua Solidaria” (Solidarity Bus) to help small farmers clean up debris and get their crops planted and harvested.

After returning to San Juan, Nelson took us to the University of Puerto Rico Utuado campus, in the mountains Southwest of San Juan. We had a brief tour of the campus and gardens with Mariangie Ramos, who along with her sister Olgalyse are professors at the only college agroecology program on the island – now threatened with elimination due to tightened austerity measures. The college coffee plantation is also certified organic. Twisted frames of their greenhouses loom above the foliage, as they painstakingly rebuild their mariposa (butterfly) rearing facility. About 50 students and faculty came to listen to my talk on “organic farming for the planet,” and asked some very astute questions about the organic industry.

From Utuado we went on to the mountain municipality of Jayuya, a center of coffee production, where we were hosted by Elena Biamon of Finca Gripinas. This 10 acre certified organic coffee farm is also Demeter (Biodynamic) certified. One of the highest farms on the island, it commands a breathtaking view of the landscape, perched on a steep slope in the shadow of Puerto Rico’s highest peak, Cerro de Punta. We were treated to a gourmet locally grown meal, and later inaugurated their new guest house—all solar powered.

We had first-hand views of neighboring hillsides, where conventional coffee growers are encouraged to eliminate the vegetation with glyphosate and replant shade-loving coffee in full sun, which then requires synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to maximize yield. The resulting soil erosion was the most heartbreaking sight—along with the twisted power lines and piles of woody plant debris lining the roadsides throughout the mountains. Nelson explained that virtually all the foliage on the island had been ripped off its branches by the hurricanes. Though the tropical lushness seemed to our eyes to have rebounded, he pointed out that the trunks of trees we could see striping the hills should not have been visible under the forest canopy.

Elena, a microbiologist by training, runs the farm with her husband, a full-time university professor, and the help of one full time worker and assorted visitors, and also serves as President of Puerto Rico’s primary organic growers association, Organizacion Boricua de Agricultur Ecologica de Puerto Rico. Her work project of the day was transplanting little coffee seedlings that she had germinated from her own beans into tubes of compost (also farm produced) to replace the bushes that had been wiped out by the hurricanes.

No production at all this season, and like other fruit and coffee growers, she was cultivating terraced beds of quick-growing annual vegetables to generate some income from their farm.

Returning to San Juan, we were able to take in two organic farmers markets on our last weekend. The Old San Juan market is held indoors until its original plaza location can be refurbished. There we met with Laura Daen, Market Manager, and Yanna Muriel, a Board Member with Boricua. They plied me with questions about the organic movement in the mainland and expressed strong skepticism about the prospects of help from USDA for recovery by organic farmers. Post-Maria their count of organic farms on the island was about 105.

Their focus now is on building the capacity to feed their own people instead of relying on high value organic export crops. To that end they have initiated a Participatory Guarantee Program for local organic producers to provide peer reviewed certification using farmer volunteers as inspectors. This is how most of the mainland based organic programs were started, prior to the National Organic Program. Other projects in the works are an agrotourism program and a pilot organic cotton program, eventually hoping to create a textile processing facility.

One more farmers market talk was scheduled for the Roosevelt Market in the Hato Rey section of San Juan, run by the Madre Tierra Organic CooperativeBuffalo Mountain’s sister coop. This market includes one live poultry vendor, who also happens to be the President of the Coop. A crowd clustered around Marcelino’s booth to purchase newly hatched cheepers of diverse breeds.

There is also a super slick sorting system for recyclables and food scraps, run by Jose Miguel Pacheco, whose father, also former Coop President, operates a private composting business that handles restaurant and home of food scraps. However, the island has no established municipal recycling or composting program.

In general, no staples like mangoes, avocadoes, bananas, or plantains were to be found at any of the farmers markets we visited. Root crops such as ginger and turmeric were common, as well as herbal products, greens, and delicious local foods, lovingly prepared. Stores were well stocked with fruits imported from neighboring islands, but the storms had wiped out a season of local perennial fruit production, normally abundantly available.

Our final farm visit took us to Aibonito, a beautiful town in the mountains southeast of San Juan. Siembra Tres Vidas is a collective managed by three women and a male collaborator. Daniella, Limari, Amalia and Edwin were in the process of moving their farm when we visited. The lease on the original property ended, and a new larger site, leased from the Para la Naturaleza, part of the Puerto Rico Conservation Trust, was being developed as a permaculture based enterprise. We helped move some mulch to the old site, still in production, and then got a tour of the new property—including a view of Puerto Rico’s most spectacular gorge and waterfall in the distance.

Impressions and Reflections

What struck me most on each of these excursions was the warmth and openness of everyone we met, a genuine friendliness that was equally shared with neighbors and strangers alike. I also couldn’t help noticing the large preponderance of women farmers and leaders, all knowledgeable, hard-working, and determined to build resilience at home and socially in Puerto Rico.

We had many excellent conversations during our visit. Nelson is a fount of knowledge about Puerto Rico’s political and social history and has done extensive policy work on the need to increase food production for the inhabitants of this small island. For example, we learnt that in recent years over 85% of food consumed by the 3.5 million inhabitants of the small island is imported, and more after the hurricanes. The island’s economy has been tightly controlled by the colonial politics since the US invaded it back in 1898. Agroecology is seen as part of the movement towards greater Food Sovereignty.

The feeling that most of those we met expressed was one of optimism about the potential for reconstruction and commitment to working towards resilience, along with the sadness at what has been lost and the tremendous obstacles faced. Political activism seems to be rising, as the incompetence and corruption of the island’s colonial rulers has reached outrageous levels. There is also a strong determination in evidence to reclaim the connection with indigenous Taino practices – the community was not completely wiped out by the conquistadors, as is often believed, and mountain farmers are proudly identifying as “jibaros,” a term that means "People of the Forest" in the Taíno language.

Puerto Rico’s ecological farming movement has integrated the support they’ve received since the hurricanes– from organizations such as Farm Aid, Cape Cod Market, and the ReGrow Fund, as well as Puerto Ricans living in the States, and of course the many volunteer work brigades from all parts of the world that have come to install solar panels and help clean up after the destruction. Much more is needed, electricity and water are still not consistently available to everyone, and the US Government supported austerity and political control measures make recovery more difficult. We are only now beginning to learn more accurate information about the horrific death toll from the hurricanes.


One thing that surprised me was the extent of suburban sprawl and middle-class consumerist lifestyle evident – at least along coastal areas that were the first to have power and other services restored. American citizens – true in rural areas and low-income/marginalized communities throughout the mainland – are being subjected to similar austerity regimes and injustices of all kinds. We would all do well to heed the lessons of Puerto Rico and work for local food self-reliance and community resiliency in any way we can.

We are delighted to have the opportunity to host Nelson for a brief visit later this month. He will be speaking about food sovereignty for Puerto Rico at a special fundraising event in Hardwick, Vermont on Friday, June 22nd, sponsored by Buffalo Mountain Food Coop and the Institute for Social Ecology. Visit the Buffalo Mountain Coop for details, and check the links below for more information about the ongoing work towards food sovereignty in Puerto Rico and how you can help.


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