Georges Félix tells why farmers in the Caribbean are turning down dependency and taking up the yoke.

The foods we choose to consume and the strategies we use to produce our food are driven by political choices. And those choices either hinder or benefit the rest of society, the environment, and the economy. So highly-diversified farming systems will clearly promote more habitats for biodiversity and opportunities for soil formation than monocultures produced with toxic herbicides and other chemicals. And buying fresh vegetables from a local farmer has very different environmental and economic implications to buying a burger from McDonald’s.

We need, therefore, to ask ourselves to what extent are we, as consumers and producers, engaging in food and farming as a political issue rather than just a technical approach. These are the questions being addressed by advocates and practitioners of agroecology – a movement that questions dependency on externally-acquired agricultural inputs. It also promotes social and environmental justice through dialogue between science and local knowledge and practices.

In one of the largest Caribbean islands, Puerto Rico, rich, natural resources have been the bases of its people’s livelihoods, involving subsistence farming, cash-crop production, construction materials, fisheries, and tourism. But where Puerto Rico once thrived with agriculture, nowadays food production, represents barely 1% of its GDP.  Largely as a result of US dominion over its islands Puerto Ricans have been drawn away from agriculture and into manufacturing and other industries over the past 70 years to create a near-total dependency on food imports .

Coffee and sugar - a bitter aftertaste
Puerto Rico has never been politically sovereign. It was a colony under the Spanish Crown for more than 500 years until the end of the 19th century and then, until the present day, a second-class, US territory without representation at Congress.

The Spanish period encouraged coffee production for European markets. History recalls that Puerto Rican coffee was a favorite at the Vatican City, which is a testimony to the excellent produce from the island’s farming families. Those same families produced most of the food consumed in Puerto Rico. While coffee growing brought heavy deforestation, it shows that Puerto Ricans were (and are) capable of being self-sufficient in food. Moreover, technological sovereignty for food production was also a reality during that period through the use and management of animal traction.

Red-coated cattle, imported from Europe at an early stage of colonisation in the early 1500s were prominent in rural areas, and served a triple purpose for farming families: tillage, meat, and milk. When the US declared Puerto Rico an overseas territory in 1898, the island was transformed from a peasant-economy, to one following Cuba, Jamaica, Barbados and other Caribbean islands into becoming an industrial cash-crop system producing sugar cane. This led to the creation of conventional agronomy at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez, and the introduction of heavy machinery for sugar-cane processing. Puerto Ricans became US-citizens in 1917 and the local government obtained a fictitious autonomy as the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico under Governor Luis Muñoz Marín in 1952.

The natives were downgraded through structural oppression and disregard for Puerto Rico’s cultural heritage, language, and flag. Seeking true independence from the US, the Nationalist movement headed by Don Pedro Albizu Campos and encompassing activists from other sectors, including peasant farmers, was silenced in the most inhuman and violent ways by the US and the Puerto Rican governments. Naturally, resistance emerged especially in the rural regions of the islands, where the economic transformation and industrialisation forced rural-to-urban migrations. Consequently, in the 1960s, major towns of the island overflowed with resource-poor inhabitants – often peasants – who were pushed to accept jobs in the textile and other manufacturing industries. Food production in Puerto Rico declined and food imports grew, eventually reaching an outrageous 85% dependency and a near-complete lack of food sovereignty. Fortunately, things are changing now.

But agroecological farmers from all over Puerto Rico are actively reclaiming land, resources and knowledge. In doing so, they are exercising sovereignty in concrete ways and across politics, energy, technology, and food. 

And there remains a 15% local production in green plantains, eggs, milk, and meat. However, most of these products are generated through industrial agriculture methods which include single-crop systems along with heavy use of chemical fertilisers, and herbicides. Organic production is absent from the government’s plans and the ingredients of Puerto Rico’s basic dish of  rice and beans have not been grown locally since the 1970s. Hence, since its inception in 1983, the food sovereignty and agroecology movement, catalysed by the Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica, has called-out the lack of sovereignty in the agricultural sector.

Farmers from all over Puerto Rico are actively reclaiming land, resources and knowledge. In doing so, they are exercising sovereignty in concrete ways and across politics, energy, technology, and food.

By promoting a technical shift from industrial to organic techniques, the movement consolidated its actions toward acknowledging peasant agriculture across the territory as well as reclaiming the importance of adapted technology for smallholder farmers. Moreover, the agroecological movement has demonstrated its position as an ally of all forms of sovereignty in Puerto Rico, including the quest for political sovereignty from the US for the “oldest colony” in the world.

Within the agroecology movement in Puerto Rico, farmers Omar Iloy and Augusto Feliciano, from Proyecto La Timonera in Lares, are reclaiming “forgotten” knowledge, techniques and materials around the use of raza criolla bulls for the sustainable tillage of agricultural soils. (photo credit: Verónica Barrajón Santos, 2020)

Modern-day urban dwellers in Puerto Rico are strongly linked to their rural ancestry. Therefore, the struggle for food self-sufficiency, technological sovereignty, and political independence should not be limited to rural areas. The links between Boricuá and global organisations such as the peasant farmer federation, La Via Campesina,have generated a spirit of internationalisation that reinforces thinking globally while acting locally.

After Hurricane María in 2017, agroecological producers re-established their production faster than conventional farmers, partly due to strong local and international networks. Seeds were re-sown, extra hands volunteered for reconstruction, and solar energy was massively introduced at little cost.

Finally, the farmer-to-farmer knowledge sharing has been complemented by higher education programmes that are currently forming future farmers and technicians. The Degree in Sustainable Agriculture provided by the University of Puerto Rico at Utuado is one such example. However, it seems that government officials are looking at ways to dismantle the public education system, starting by reducing funding and are threatening to shut down the Utuado campus. It is crucial for Puerto Rican agroecology movements to maintain and reinforce this one-of-its-kind study programme.

Farmer-to-farmer knowledge sharing has been complemented by higher education programmes that are currently forming future farmers and technicians.

The many projects that contribute to community empowerment in Puerto Rico through the practice of agroecology are establishing unprecedented ways of self-organisation, alternative knowledge development, and eco-friendly schemes for food production, in rural and urban areas. The re-introduction of red-coated cattle (vaca criolla), the valorisation of native seed-saving systems, the rescue of peasant farmer’s knowledge, and the expansion of organic markets across the territory show that agroecology works in Puerto Rico. These initiatives not only make food and technological sovereignty a reality, but they also provide inspiration for others to move toward low external input sustainable farming systems.

 

 

Georges Félix

Georges is a French-Puerto Rican activist and researcher on agroecology and agroforestry. His work focuses on the design of resilient food systems and the restoration of peasant farming systems in …

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