Disaster Capitalism & Food Imperialism in Puerto Rico

Scaling Up Agroecology in Puerto Rico

By Andrew Kang Bartlett

Organización Boricuá co-founder, Dalma Cartegena, with coordinator Jesús Negrón Vazquéz, has been teaching agroecology at this public school in Orocovis, Puerto Rico. Boricuá won the 2018 Food Sovereignty Prize.  Photo: author

The Presbyterian Hunger Program is eager to support the expansion of agriculture that cools the planet, cares for God’s creation, and prioritizes the needs of producers and eaters. Agroecology is that approach and we are excited about the work of Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica de Puerto Rico (Boricuá) to scale up and scale out such farming across the archipelago.

In case you are not familiar with the term…
Agroecology is an agricultural approach and a major pillar of food sovereignty. It is based on the traditional knowledge of those who cultivate the land and a way of life. Agroecology works with local ecosystems, for example, improving soil and plant quality through available biomass and biodiversity, rather than battling nature with chemical inputs. We believe its practice is critical to addressing global hunger and increasing communities’ access to basic resources such as land, water and seeds.  [For more background, see ‘What is Food Sovereignty?‘ or my introductory article – Food Justice Through Agroecology]

Seedlings getting ready for transplant into rows at Finca Josco Bravo. Photo: author

Food Imperialism in Puerto Rico

The history of food and agricultural in Puerto Rico has been dominated by colonial practices and policies. This history pushed Puerto Rico’s lush soil into cash crops for exports and reduced self-reliance and viability for producers.  This history of food imperialism is covered by Katia Avilés-Vázquez and Jesús Vázquez-Negrón from Organización Boricuá, who co-authored a paper called ‘Peasant balances and agroecological scaling in Puerto Rico coffee farming’, along with Nils McCune, Ivette Perfecto and John Vandermeer.

The lack of sovereignty played out with disastrous and deadly results during the hurricane season of 2017.

Puerto Rico’s lack of national sovereignty was an immediate barrier for receiving emergency aid from neighboring countries, due to colonial legislation of the US federal government (Jones Act 1917) that bars any ship not of US make or bearing the stars-and-stripes from landing in the San Juan port. But even before the twin hurricanes of Irma and Maria tore down hillsides, sliced through highways and leveled forests in September 2017, Puerto Rico was agonizing in eye of an invisible cyclone: a debt crisis that the US government had used to usurp the already-feeble capacity for policy-making of the Puerto Rican government in order to push through neoliberal shock therapy. (N. McCune et al., 2019)

This was only the latest in a series of interventions by the U.S. that have increased dependency and damaged the islands and their people.

Indeed, Puerto Rico has a long history of being a guinea pig of the colonial-modernization project. Centuries after the sweat of enslaved indigenous and African peoples made plantation agriculture profitable, Puerto Rico continued to provide cannon fodder, offshore tax havens, and lands for contaminating with depleted uranium. As the corporate food regime has reached a high level of development, the democratic veneer of Puerto Rico’s status as a “free associated state” of the US has practically disappeared, revealing dramatic levels of poverty, vulnerability, and dependency. (N. McCune et al., 2019)

The history has been one of serial colonizations, indirect control through neoliberal policies and economics, and the current period, which the authors call the ‘US direct disaster colonialism regime’. It is important to view the history and its impact on food and agriculture from 1945 to understand the need for agroecology and greater food sovereignty.

Spanish colonial period (1502–1898)

US direct military occupation (1898–1917)

US direct colonial regime (1917–1945)

US indirect colonial regime in context of Cold War (1945–1992)

Structural reform of Puerto Rican economy begins slowly after 1940, and accelerates with Operation Bootstrap, in 1947. Export-focused industrialization based on US corporate direct investment and tax breaks creates powerful pull factor to stimulate migration from the countryside, as do programs to encourage migration to US mainland (Berman Santiago 1998). Later, in the 1970s, the inclusion ofPuerto Ricans in federal food stamp programs pulls more labor out of the countryside, as farm wages are not necessarily competitive with livelihood strategies of full dependence on anti-poverty programs. Sugarcane production is the first victim of the new development strategy, while USDA policies support industrial farming – medium and large-scale monocrops (mainly plantains and coffee) begin to push out small farmers in regions of the island previously characterized by peasant production.

With the advent of food stamps, there occurs a simultaneous leap in food consumption and food imports: local producers were unable to take advantage of the increased purchasing power of food consumers, as supermarkets came to control food consumption (Carro-Figueroa 2002). In 1989, Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica (Boricuá) is formed by a diverse group of Puerto Ricans actively participating in struggles related to environmental justice, independence and health who decided to focus on ecological agriculture as a material basis for sovereignty.

US indirect colonial regime in neoliberal period (1992–2016)

As the need to portray Puerto Rico as an unmitigated success wanes in the post-Cold War period, several of the policies that guaranteed ongoing US capital investment in the island also disappear, particularly the tax breaks entailed in Section 936 of the Federal Tax Code. By the time the final provisions of Section 936 are phased out in 2006, the island’s pharmaceutical industry has entered a crisis that would continue over a decade later (Schoan 2017). Industrial employment declines, and the service sector proves unable to produce adequate employment opportunities. The government used triple-exempt bonds to compensate for the loss of industrial income. At the same time, the US military maintains a large number of military and military intelligence facilities, including the base in Vieques, where it bombs the inhabited island with conventional and chemical weapons until international outcry leads to a moratorium in 1999 (Lindsay-Poland 2009). The Vieques base is even rented out to the militaries of other nations to carry out live-ammunition exercises, with no compensation for the local population of farmers and fisher people who endure an ongoing crisis of cancer and other chronic diseases.

In the meantime, the agricultural subsidy regime which had become firmly established, begins to give way (Borkhataria et al. 2012), with less technical assistance, more paperwork, less state support for cooperatives, etc. The quantity of small farms continues its downward trend. Large land purchases by transnational corporations takes place, and massive production of GMO seeds is carried out by Monsanto, Pioneer, Dow, Bayer and Syngenta. Puerto Rico Coffee Roasters, fully owned by Coca-Cola, is founded in 2008 and purchases the 11 largest local brands, effectively monopolizing the market for green and roasted coffee. Puerto Rico has a higher ratio of Walmart stores to unit land area than any US state or indeed any country where Walmart is present (Cintrón Arbasetti 2014).

US direct disaster colonialism regime under fiscal control board (2016-present)

In light of Puerto Rico’s unpayable sovereign debt and a shrinking economy, Obama signs the PROMESA Act into law, effectively claiming federal control over Puerto Rico’s public policy, and designates an unelected seven-person fiscal control board to negotiate, in the name of Puerto Rico, the largest bankruptcy in US history. The PROMESA board, or junta as it is known in Puerto Rico, is untouchable to Puerto Rican law as it enacts a privatization and austerity program that threatens public education, health care and social security on the islands (González 2017).

By 2016, 85% of the food consumed in Puerto Rico is imported. In 2017, up to 90% of crops are lost due to the catastrophic damage inflicted by Hurricane Maria (Robles and Ferré-Sadurní, 2017). Supermarkets experience shortages for months as the situation becomes a humanitarian crisis. Meanwhile, both US and Puerto Rican governments lose prestige because of their mishandling of the crisis and incapacity to revitalize agriculture in time to prevent acute economic shortfall among small and medium farmers.   (N. McCune et al., 2019)

Ecological Agriculture in Puerto Rico

Responding to this crisis, Organización Boricuá has been instrumental is supporting “a vibrant resistance movement of small-scale farmers, food workers, students, and consumers.” (ibid.). Yet the authors caution that much must change to turn the tables to a more equitable and ecological agriculture. Taking advantage of the unique nature of peasant farming – ‘peasant balances’ – is a critical part of making such a shift. Let me note that while peasants may sound like a thing of the past, in fact most of the food in world is produced by peasants and, worldwide, their real numbers may in fact be increasing.

“The social relations that structure agriculture will need to be dramatically transformed in order for Puerto Ricans to recover and manage their own food systems, and one of the first steps has been for movements to find ways to work outside the formal, commoditized economy (Félix, Rodríguez, and Vázquez 2018). (ibid.)

Jesús Vázquez-Negrón and Ian Pagán-Roig talking in the middle of Finca Josco Bravo in Toa Alta, Puerto Rico. Photo: author

Peasant balances was a new concept for me and many pages of the paper are devoted to this. A couple short sections provide the gist of this important reality. Agricultural economist Alexander Chayanov (1888-1937) carefully studied the workers and internal organization of peasant family economies and here are his findings.

Chayanov (1986a) found that, unlike capitalist economies in which each factor of production can be represented in monetary values, peasant families operate “natural economies” based on the interaction of labor and ecological processes in which a gambit of non-monetary concerns are present in decision making. Despite being embedded in market economies, peasants are able to autonomously decide what and how to produce, based on internal calculations and priorities.

Chayanov contrasts this to the dominant form of agriculture within the capitalist framework.

In the prevailing context of agrarian capitalism, farms are compelled by competition and production costs to capitalize: maximizing the generation of surplus value even at the cost of future productivity. In contrast, even while existing within larger capitalist economies, peasants create economies with internal organizing principles that limit the effects of competition and avoid production costs by maintaining access to non-commodified factors of production, such as land and labor, as well as “historically guaranteed” factors provided by their own previous labor cycles, such as well-adapted seeds and animal breeds, fertile soil and homemade plows. (ibid.)

Boricuá, with its network of farmers, activists, academics, allies and a dozen or so agroecological farms and markets, tries to take advantage of peasant balances as it develops local food economies, a land ethos and sense of belonging, and expands agroecology in Puerto Rico. While the network is inter-generational, many are young people. Their idealism and enthusiasm does not diminish the challenges before them.

Ian Pagán-Roig, farmer at Finca Josco Bravo, takes a break to talk with Jesús and me about the agroecology training they just completed in December 2018. Photo: author

The capacity of young people to enter peasant farming may depend on their ability to “become peasants” by applying balances that previous generations were unable to do. The long apprenticeship toward becoming a peasant farmer is extremely challenging in the austere environment of post-Maria Puerto Rico. Becoming a peasant farmer is much more of a conscious decision, and even a formof principled political and social resistance, than ever in the past (Van der Ploeg 2013). One of the flagship agroecology schools, Proyecto Agroecológico El Josco Bravo (Organización Boricuá member project), was facing an eviction order and incipient criminalization process at the time of fieldwork, despite its impressive achievements successfully training hundreds of young people in the arts of agroecological peasant farming. (ibid.)

Proyecto Agroecológico El Josco Bravo is led by farmer and trainer, Ian Pagán Roig, and in March,  PHP staff and PHP advisory committee members will have a chance to visit with him. (See Revival of Natural Farming in Puerto Rico from my previous visit to Finca Josco Bravo.)

Along with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and Presbyterian Self-Development of People, PHP is financially supporting the expansion of Organización Boricuá at this opportune time to stand with Puerto Ricans as they struggle to build self-reliance, resilience and food sovereignty.

Check out this excellent report – PROTESTA Y PROPUESTA: Lessons from just transformation, ecological justice, and the fight for self-determination in Puerto Ricofrom our partners, Grassroots International and Movement Generation. The report is from a funders’ delegation to Puerto Rico this spring and it advocates for philanthropy to invest in Puerto Rico’s social movements as the best solution to the archipelago’s climate and humanitarian crises.

Related Articles:

Puerto Rico, Climate Change and Food

Revival of natural farming in Puerto Rico


Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)