By Jennifer Natoli, Contributor
During the past decade, food sovereignty has been gaining popularity throughout Puerto Rico. Once an agricultural powerhouse, the island experienced a sharp decline in domestic agriculture throughout the twentieth century. In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, people are mobilizing to establish sustainable, dependable food systems.
Food Sovereignty VS. Food Security
La Via Campesina (the peasants’ way in English) is a transnational agrarian movement, comprised of small-scale farmers, that coined the term ‘food sovereignty’ in 1996. Food sovereignty is the right to healthy and culturally appropriate food, produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods. It also includes people’s right to define their own food and agriculture systems. Essentially, food sovereignty was created as an alternative to the food security paradigm. Food security is the physical and economic access to healthy, nutritious food, yet does not include guidelines concerning where the food is sourced from, nor whether it is culturally appropriate.
Hence, food sovereignty goes further than security, as it seeks to democratize access and control over resources (land, water, and seeds). The food sovereignty movement has been a vocal advocate of redistributive land reform, has championed fair-trade, promoted decentralized food systems, and pushed for agroecological farming techniques. Agroecology is an ecosystem-centric approach that links ecology, culture, economics and indigenous knowledge to manage agricultural systems.
Puerto Rico’s Food System Explained
Given the island’s tropical climate, which allows farmers to grow food year-round, it has the ability to produce approximately 90 percent of its food domestically. Surprisingly, Puerto Rico imports 85 percent of its food. Under Spanish colonial rule, agriculture was the primary sector of Puerto Rico’s economy, mainly ‘cash crops’ for export. After the U.S. invaded the island in 1898, this continued for approximately four decades.
In 1914, agricultural productivity accounted for 70 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), yet by 2012 this figure dropped to 1 percent. According to USDA statistics, since 1964 total sales from Puerto Rico’s farms have declined by two-thirds, in constant dollars. This century-long decline is attributable to several factors, including the U.S. imposed laissez faire economic policies (which resulted in the swift expansion of absentee-owned sugar corporations), the inclusion of Puerto Rico into the U.S. tariff system, and a rapid push towards urbanization and industrialization.
Industrialization began in 1947 with the implementation of Operation Bootstrap, which substituted the island’s agricultural economy with light manufacturing, tourism, and services. Tax incentives established in the 1970s, most notably Section 936, further incentivized U.S. direct investment in manufacturing, particularly pharmaceuticals. By the 1990s, Puerto Rico was importing the majority of its food, while becoming the Western Hemisphere’s largest producer of Viagra, a pill that fights impotence.
Economic Recession + Costly Agricultural Imports = Calls for Food Sovereignty
The initial push for food sovereignty coincided with the financial recession that engulfed the island in the mid-2000s. People began to take notice of the prime agricultural land that had been sitting idle for decades. Despite having a per capita income—around $15,200—of nearly half that of Mississippi (the poorest state in the U.S.), food on the island costs twice as much as it does in Florida, the island’s nearest mainland neighbor. Many young people were determined to revive Puerto Rico’s moribund agricultural industry which, they argued, could ameliorate the stagnant economy and high unemployment rates.
Critics have long blamed the Jones Act for the exorbitant costs Puerto Ricans incur on their imported food. The Jones Act, aka the Merchant Marine act of 1920, was designed to ensure a safe network of merchant mariners after World War I, in reaction to the U.S. fleet being destroyed by the German navy. Under this legislation, any vessel can enter Puerto Rico, however transportation of goods between two U.S. ports must be carried out by a vessel that was built in the U.S. and operated primarily by Americans. Hence, food imports must first go to the U.S., get transported from a foreign vessel to a domestic vessel, then rerouted down to the island. These extra steps result in higher prices of food.
Financial Debt Crisis
Puerto Rico has never been granted full autonomy over its economic affairs due to its commonwealth status, which many argue is the crux of its financial woes. By 2015, after a decade of economic stagnation, the small island announced its inability to repay lenders. Currently, Puerto Rico is in dire straits as it grapples with a $74 billion dollar debt to private investors, plus a $49 billion dollar burden in unfunded pension obligations. The debt ballooned over a ten year period as the local government borrowed annually to meet its budgetary needs. During this time, calls for food sovereignty became more prevalent. With rising unemployment, and a 45 percent poverty rate, people began to return to agriculture to sustain themselves and sell agricultural surpluses at farmer’s markets.
The agricultural situation was already bleak before the island was hit with two hurricanes, first Irma, then Maria in September 2017. Hurricane Maria decimated 80 percent of local agriculture, resulting in a loss of $780 million, and increasing agricultural imports to 98 percent. The loss of local agriculture left many communities in Puerto Rico with limited or non-existent access to food. Although aid was sent by a number of different entities and individuals, food did not arrive to many locations, especially outside of the San Juan area. This happened for a variety of reasons, including inaction by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), lack of governmental organization, and difficulty in accessing areas where infrastructure had been damaged by the hurricane. All of this increased awareness that Puerto Ricans were living in a state of food insecurity, which existed before the hurricane, but quickly became accentuated by the large number of people going hungry in this time of crisis.
In the weeks following Hurricane Maria, mainstream media began to give considerable attention to organizations claiming that food sovereignty was the only path forward for the island. Activists and organizers across the island have forged regional alliances and have entered into partnerships with U.S. and international organizations. Activists claim that the environmental disaster has illuminated deeper systemic issues concerning Puerto Rico’s food security.
Two organizations, in particular, are leading the food sovereignty movement; La Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica (Boricuá) (The Boricuá Organization of Ecological Agriculture) and El Departamento de Comida (The Department of Food). Each has been organizing solidarity brigades that travel from farm to farm, helping to clear debris and replant lost or damaged crops.
In the aftermath of Maria, Boricuá has joined the ranks of the Climate Justice Alliance, forming partnerships with organizations such as Greenpeace. Meanwhile, El Departmento de Comida has aligned itself with Denver-based Americas for Conservation + the Arts, which implemented the Resiliency Fund to distribute seeds throughout the island so that farmers can start replanting and rebuilding their damaged farms. These organizations, along with others like them, believe that colonialism and neoliberalism have created structural vulnerabilities leading to poverty, migration, environmental degradation and food insecurity.
As the island recovers and rebuilds, many argue that it is illogical to reconstruct the same model that made the island vulnerable in the first place. Puerto Ricans feel abandoned and do not believe that the U.S. government, nor the vulture capitalists circling the island, will reconstruct in a resilient manner. By sustainably rebuilding the island’s neglected food system, agroecology can serve as a strategic pivot in the process of decolonization and the resilient transformation of the island’s environment, economy and society.