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A rebellion by young farmers who revolutionize Puerto Rico’s agriculture| Agriculture
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A rebellion by young farmers who revolutionize Puerto Rico’s agriculture| Agriculture

Inside a large greenhouse, plants poke out from holes in long tubes.

Puerto Rico was once a vibrant agricultural hub due to its tropical climate, rich biodiversity and sustainable farming traditions.

Today,Less than 2% of the workforceAgriculture is the most important sector, with thousands of acres of arable lands unused. Puerto Rico consumes 85% of its food imported. Groceries prices are among the highest in America and two in five people were affected by food insecurity last year. Denise Santos, who runs Puerto Ricos Food Bank, stated that unemployment is high, prices are high and that migration from the island can be very dangerous.

Puerto Rico is a mountainous Caribbean archipelago. It is also one the most affected places by extreme weather, such as storms and floods. Drought. 2017 Hurricane Maria decimated the islands and caused hunger as ships could not dock at the affected ports.

In the face of so many difficulties, a new wave is emerging in Puerto Rican youth that is interested in food and farming. This is part of a larger movement demanding social, political and environmental justice. Agroecology, small-scale sustainable farming, is causing a revival in locally grown produce. This, according to chefs, farmers, entrepreneurs, and researchers, can help revive the local economy, improve food sovereignty, and both adapt and mitigate the climate crisis.

What is agroecology and how does it work?

Agroecology, which is low-impact agriculture, uses nature and local conditions to produce food sustainably. It preserves biodiversity and soil quality and draws carbon out of the atmosphere.

  • It involves a collection of farming principles, practices, and proceduresThese can be adapted for any ecosystem, microclimate, and culture. This is the same way of life that has been used for thousands of years by peasant and indigenous farmers. Agroforestry, where crops, livestock, trees and crops are combined, is a way for farmers to maximize ecological conditions. This includes a fruit tree orchard, which aids water retention and shade crops, as well as providing fertilizer for the earth.

  • Crop rotation and crop coverage are fundamental.This holistic approach considers the well-being not only of the Earth but also the producers and local communities that eat the food. Every component of any ecosystem, including the farmers, is dependent on each other. This is just like nature. Contrast this with intensive industrialized farming, which guzzles and depletes the soil and uses fossil fuels (for fertilisers and powering machinery), to control the environment to produce monocrops genetically identical to each other.

  • Advocates claim that agroecology provides locally driven solutions a multitude of interconnected crises such as food insecurity and biodiversity loss.

  • Agroecology refers to the practice of agroecology. A social and/or political movementTo influence public policies to ensure sustainable farming benefits from government support (tax cuts, subsidies and bailouts). This is currently supporting the dominant industrial agriculture system, which is a major contributor to biodiversity loss. Accounts account for more than a quarterGlobal greenhouse gases.

Inside a large greenhouse, plants poke out from holes in long tubes.
Frutos Del Guacabo’s hydroponics greenhouse is used to grow a variety herbs and greens quickly without soil.Photograph by Nina Lakhani/The Guardian

Ricardo Salvador (director of the Union of Concerned Scientists food-and-environment program) stated that it would be better to transition away from the industrial agricultural system that is polluting the environment and producing fossil fuels.

We profile three agroecology farm owners who are trying to change the way Puerto Ricans eat.

The school is transforming a new generation

El Josco Bravo, Toa Alta

Ian Pagn Roig founded the Institute for Agronomy after he graduated with a degree. This is the science of soil management, intensive crop production, and soil management. Josco Bravo project2004. In the wild Toa Alta mountains. Puerto Rico’s universities and government officials dismissed agroecology as a hippy movement at the time. So Pagn-Roig opened a farm and a school to radicalize a new crop of farmers.

We were raised in a colonial system and told that if the US didn’t exist, we would starve to death or become like Cuba. Pagn-Roig (32) said that while our ancestors and lands were exploited and agriculture was discredited, we now see sustainable agriculture and food sovereignty in a rebellion.

Puerto Rico was colonized by the Spanish in the early days. They exploited the natural resources of the island for four centuries, violently displacing indigenous people and forcing the migration of enslaved Africans to the island until 1898 when the Americans took it over.

A farmer uses a hoe in a field under a bright blue sky.
A farmer prepares his land at El Josco Bravo, an argoecology farm located in the Toa Alta mountains.Photograph by Nina Lakhani/The Guardian

Both occupying and liberating forces made huge profits from cash crop plantations. Campesinos were forced work in such harsh conditions that their parents encouraged them to study hard so they wouldn’t end up becoming farmers. The stigma and poverty associated farming encouraged the US to implement its industrialization program in the middle of the 20th century. This led to a large exodus from rural areas as more farmers switched to factories. Puerto Rico’s economy became reliant on manufacturing and then tourism, abandoning its farmland.

Pagn-Roig stated that the agroecology revolution in the island is about psychological, social and political transformation to achieve food security and political independence. It recognizes our land and people are our most valuable resources.

The program has graduated more than 600 young people in the past eight years. More than half of them are women, a radical departure from industrial agriculture, which is dominated predominantly by men. The course is now offered at several universities on the island. All students learn scientific principles and sustainable production techniques within a larger social and environmental justice framework. Industrial agriculture remains dominant,However, agroecology is gaining more prominence in mainstream politics as global warming forces farmers to adapt or die.

Education and innovation are two of the most important aspects of a farm. Extremely unpredictable weather is the new norm. They rely upon an artificial lake that was created after the worst drought in Puerto Rico’s history (2014 to 2016). They are now building a greenhouse to protect their vegetables from heavy rains, which has caused several crops to be lost this year. Genetic diversity is essential for natural adaptation to changing environmental conditions. A small team is currently testing 30 varieties, including cabbage, broccoli, onion and pickling cucumber, to determine which vegetables are most resistant to heat and pests.

A man stands in a grassy field lined with tropical trees.
Ian Pagn Roig, a graduate in agronomy and founder of the Josco Bravo project, in 2004.Photograph by Nina Lakhani/The Guardian

The school hopes that the school will celebrate the 1,000th graduate during its 10th anniversary. However, access to land and capital continues to limit the potential for small-scale farmers.

After Hurricane Maria decimated 80% of the island’s crops, Organizacin Boricua (the oldest food sovereignty and farm justice network, where Pagn-Roig is a board member), organized solidarity brigades to clean-up and repair farms in order to allow them to quickly begin producing food for their communities. Many small farmers were forced out of business because access to federal funds was still difficult and bureaucratic. Additionally, land prices rise as developers and speculators profit from tax incentives and desperate times.

Josco Bravo is located 20 miles west from San Juan. Only 5 acres of the 69 acres that were rented by the department of agriculture are being cultivated. Although the densely vegetated terrain is very fertile, it requires significant investment to clear. There’s also no irrigation system and limited access to roads. The government won’t rent smaller plots. Accessing credit is difficult as large areas of public land remain abandoned.

Pagn-Roig explained: We saw with Maria that it was very risky for us to be dependent upon imports for our food. There is enough good land in Puerto Rico that can sustain our fruit, vegetables, and starchy dietary requirements, but we lack capital and political will.

Fresh food for the locals

Gaki Colectivo Agroecolgico, Dorado

The Gaki project was created by four Josco Bravo graduates. Its main goal is to increase access to healthy, affordable food for the poorest communities. The farm is located just off Dorado’s highway, in an economically divided municipality that has multimillion-dollar beach houses and families who live hand-to-mouth in houses with no indoor plumbing.

The land belonged to a New York-based Order of Nuns. They agreed in 2017 to rent them 11 acres for a symbolic $1 per acre per Year. This was after they had almost given up on finding affordable space. It was a mess from years ago. They were still cleaning up after Maria, which left many without food, shelter, or clean water. They were able to share their first crop of papaya, beans, yuca, and plantain with families who were hungry at the beginning 2018

Left: Marissa Reyes Diaz stands in the sun on a lush field at Gaki project farm. Right: Marissa Reyes Diaz holding small green sweet peppers in her hands.

Agroecology is a form of resistance to colonial capitalism. Here we are trying to rescue collective work and reject individualism by reconnecting people with the land and food and building trust and solidarity, said Marissa Reyes Diaz, 32. She is a biology graduate and also works for El Puente: Latino Climate Action Network. (All four members have second jobs.

Agroforestry is a key focus. There are many species of fruit trees that smell good, as well as other crops. This creates small ecosystems that keep nutrients and rainwater in the ground. Diversity increases a farm’s resilience because different crops are susceptible to different pests, climate extremes, and soil deficiencies. Although the orchards helped them survive two very dry spells so far, it’s not enough to sustain the farm and grow it, even with rainwater tanks, and water from a neighboring farmer. The biggest obstacle to long-term success is water, so they are trying to raise $40,000 for a well to connect to the underground aquifer.

A farmer squats in the grass next to four large rainwater tanks.
To irrigate their farm, the Gaki farm uses rainwater tank water and water from a neighboring farmer.Photograph by Angel Valentin/The Guardian

Gaki is more than a farm. It’s a community hub that allows neighbors to enjoy the green spaces, try new produce like beets and turmeric roots, and taste fresh tomatoes. Locals can volunteer, while others exchange their food waste (used to make compost) for vegetables. Prices remain affordable. They’ve held festivals with live music, art exhibits, self defense classes, yoga, dominos, and built an emergency shelter with solar panels for the next climate disaster. Reyes-Diaz stated that agroecology is not just about producing food. It’s also about maintaining our physical and mental health, and spiritual well-being.

The top chefs’ foodies

Frutos del Guacabo, Manat

Angelie Martinez & Efrn Robertles are foodies and not farmers. Robles, an engineer mechanic, and Martinez a chemist started hydroponics as a way to grow herbs, watercress, lettuce and other vegetables on a small amount of land. They have introduced livestock over the years and expanded their techniques and crops. But the close relationship with chefs is still the core of the operation, which now includes a distribution network that includes approximately 50 small farmers and more then 200 restaurants.

They focus on niche produce that chefs cannot find elsewhere. They grow sishito peppers, which are a sweet, spicy Japanese variety that is sauteed in sea salt. And the amazing habanada, which is a relatively new creation by an organic breeder. It looks, smells, and tastes just like the fiery habanero, but without the heat. Robles, 40, stated that they can’t compete with the main peppers and chillies so they focus on specialty products and consistency. This is what chefs want.

Left: Herb- and lettuce seedlings that were grown in small spongy blocks without soil sit on a table in direct sunlight. Right: Two goats look at the camera from a pen.

His favorite plant is the yellow lemon drop, a brightly colored solid flower. It is also known as the toothache or toothache plant. The natural anesthetic it contains temporarily numbs your tongue and gums, much like mild pins and needles or popping candy. As a palate cleanser, chefs often add crushed petals to drinks and sorbets.

The farm hosts open kitchens. This is where chefs show what they can do with non-native ingredients, such as lemon balm, turmeric, or eggplants. Farmers then explain what will grow in the microclimates. Puerto Rico’s popular farm to table movement has been a success by connecting small farmers all over the island with some of its most famous chefs.

Robles says that high-end restaurants are an important part of changing dietary habits. We work with top chefs in order to inspire enthusiasm for new produce, which then reaches cafes and communities.

The soil in the northern part of the island is sandy. This is why passion fruit trees are planted in tyres with compost to protect delicate plants and herbs from the coast winds. Amaranth is an ancient seed that is gaining popularity in the Americas, but isn’t very popular in Puerto Rico. It is planted at strategic locations to control pests. Rabbits and sheep can be raised for meat and goats for milk, cheese, dulce de leche. However, we are trying to create new breeds to suit Caribbean conditions.

A man walks through a large greenhouse filled with long white tubes where plants are growing through hydroponics.
Efren Robles is cofounder at Frutos del Guacabo. This farm caters to chefs as well as restaurants.Photograph by Nina Lakhani/The Guardian

They are now experimenting with an intensive, but quite sustainable farming method that has its roots in ancient civilizations such as the Aztecs and Mayans. Aquaponics is the practice of raising fish such as Tilapia in tanks, and then circulating the nutrient rich water to nourish the soil-free plant beds with herbs and salad greens before returning the water to the tanks.

However, Puerto Rico’s innovative small farms, farmers markets and pop-up kitchens, as well as vegetable box schemes, are becoming more popular. It is difficult to compete in an economy that favors local producers. Foreign investments and US exports.

Robles stated that eating is a political act. Reducing our dependence on imported food can help create a more sustainable, locally-based economy and an environment. We have a long way to go, but I’m going to keep trying.

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