Local entrepreneurs push for agricultural self-sufficiency in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria
Hurricane Maria proved to many how food-insecure Puerto Rico is. The islands are severely vulnerable to natural disasters, and residents face food insecurity when shipments of food are blocked or delayed from arriving. The storm destroyed 80% of all the islands’ crops and damaged coffee plantations and dairy farms. Moreover, 85% of the islands’ food is imported, and after the disaster damaged roads and ports, many suffered from food shortages.
While farming in Puerto Rico became more popular after the 2009 economic crisis, there is still much to be done on the way to agricultural self-sufficiency. Local officials have been aware of the weakness of being dependent on imports for food. “Our island depends on food imports — that’s a point of vulnerability. We have a critical situation,” said former agriculture secretary Myrna Comas Pagan in 2015. The imported food is also more expensive for islanders thanks to the Jones Act, which dictates that all merchandise transported between US ports must be carried by US containers. The urgency of the situation has been a catalyst for local farmers and entrepreneurs to push for greater agricultural self-sufficiency.
Hurricane Maria became an incentive for many who were already backing food security and eco-agriculture movements to kick things into high gear. Eduardo Burgos and Franco Marcano ran a ‘smart farm’ before the storm, meaning that they used sensors to track temperature, wind, and air pressure around crops, and then they would irrigate the plants according to their needs. After the storm, they decided to take the next steps, and now the farm is fully run on solar energy and the irrigation system runs on rainwater. This way, when the islands’ water and power don’t work, they can still produce.
Another Puerto Rican Agro pioneer, Tara Rodríguez Besosa, co-founded El Departamento de la Comida in 2010, which was a community supported agriculture effort and sustainable restaurant, until the storm destroyed the restaurant beyond repair. After the disaster, she launched The Puerto Rico Resilience Fund in collaboration with Americas for Conservation of the Arts. The two-year project aims to help farms around the islands become more sustainable and resilient. The fund supports “Solidarity Brigades,” which go to 2-4 farms each week to help restore them, as well as install solar energy, latrines, and rainwater collection systems to make them more sustainable. They are also working to collect and distribute seeds to farmers to increase polyculture and crop diversity. For anyone interested in helping, the fund accepts donations through PayPal (or by check, instructions are on the website) and they are also looking for corporate sponsors.
Small farmers and entrepreneurs aren’t the only ones pushing for more food independence, as government organizations are involved as well. Carlos Suárez, the US Department of Agriculture’s lead representative in charge of hurricane recovery efforts in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, has been living in Puerto Rico since the hurricane passed through. He is working to increase food production through the coordination and support of agro-entrepreneurship. More than 800 farmers have taken part in workshops teaching them how to revamp their farms and applications for financial assistance programs as the number of farmers have tripled.