Boricuá: Agroecology and the return of family farming in Puerto Rico

Eric Holt-Giménez | 05.15.2013

Over a hundred years ago, my family lost their coffee farm in Puerto Rico when Hurricane San Ciriaco destroyed the crop and the bank refused an extension on our production loan. On the heels of the U.S. military occupation, it was a land grab (like the ones tearing up the continent today) and it eventually drove my young grandmother to immigrate to New York City. She was part of a large, painful agrarian transition that transformed Puerto Rico—an island of rich soil, abundant water and a 12-month growing season—into a food-dependent nation.

My first visit to Puerto Rico was in 1981. I practiced my Caribbean Spanish, saw remnants of cane and pineapple plantations, met my great-aunt and learned our family’s story. In the three decades since my visit, globalization has ravaged the island of Borinquen, destroying livelihoods and reducing the amount of local food production to only 20 percent of total consumption. From producing over 20% of the island’s GDP in 1950, agriculture generates less than 3% today. Imported industrial food has sent the indices of health-related diseases skyrocketing. The levels of child obesity on the island are now 26%.

Last week I was invited to open the 6th annual Symposium on Agroecology in Utuado, deep in the island’s mountainous heart. Co-hosted by SOCLA (the Scientific Society for Agroecology in Latin America) and the University of Puerto Rico, the 3-day Symposium included scientific presentations of agroecological work carried out by Puerto Rican researchers, a visit to the experimental station, and an agroecological “brigade” to a local farm for a day of hands-on learning, mutual aid, good food and a workshop on Campesino a Campesino, the Farmer-to-Farmer Movement.

Puerto Rico has a lot of tropical forest in its central mountains, and a lot of agricultural land in various states of production. It also has a burgeoning class of new “jibaros” (smallholder farmers) and a group of academic and urban allies who are committed to agroecology and food sovereignty for the island.

In Puerto Rico, like elsewhere, people are taking back their food system. On one hand, consumers are demanding good, healthy local food. On the other, new, mostly young farmers are growing it.

It is not an easy proposition. Puerto Rico’s agroecosystems have been ravaged by centuries of plantation agriculture and Green Revolution chemicals. Islanders are accustomed to imports—even for tropical fruit, tubers and rice. Many modern-day puertorriqueños see family farmers as a sad reminder of a poor and painful history. That scores of young people are returning to the land in Puerto Rico, struggling to establish new forms of production, is a sign of a new but significant shift in the island’s food system.

On a farm high in the central mountains, the young farmers of Boricuá, the Puerto Rican ecological farmer’s movement, wanted to speak with me about Campesino a Campesino, the farmer to farmer movement that has spread sustainable agriculture to hundreds of thousands of farm families in Latin America. I had to admit up front that while I had the privilege of working in the movement for over 20 years, I learned much more from the farmers than they did from me. They were my teachers long before the University of California awarded me a doctorate in agroecology. I was able to share Campesino a Campesino’s history and basic principles of “walking” on the two legs of innovation and solidarity, “working” with the hands of protection and production, farming with a heart and seeing and speaking as a movement. These translate into; starting small, going slowly, experimenting on a small scale, achieving rapid, recognizable results and ensuring the “multiplier” effect of farmers teaching farmers.

In Puerto Rico, like elsewhere, people are taking back their food system. On one hand, consumers are demanding good, healthy local food. On the other, new, mostly young farmers are growing it. This “re-peasantization,” long ignored by mainstream rural sociologists has now been extensively documented, worldwide. Its repercussion in the changing structures of our local food systems is undeniable. The “Jibaro-a-Jibaro” movement in Puerto Rico is on its way to forging food sovereignty on the island, and I have a new set of teachers.

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