How Puerto Rican grassroots organisations are working towards a sustainable future
By Braedie Atkins, GLOBUS Correspondent
For many Puerto Ricans, their ‘teacher’ was Maria – A Category 5 hurricane that hit Puerto Rico in September 2017. In addition to causing huge destruction, Maria unveiled how their import-dependent economy was not fit for an island ever more prone to natural disasters. It was the sheer devastation that Maria brought in its wake that led to grassroots groups coming together to push for a sustainable, resilient and community-based nation. A Puerto Rico for Puerto Ricans. However, this practise of combining community and sustainability must not be confined to the territorial limits of this archipelago in the Caribbean Sea. The work of these groups in Puerto Rico could be a match made in heaven for both adapting to, and mitigating the current climate emergency that truly knows no borders.
The first demand that these groups made was for energy sovereignty. Before Maria, Puerto Rico, a country surrounded by waves, covered with sunlight and prone to strong winds was almost entirely powered by foreign fossil fuels – 98% of its electricity supply coming from renewables imported via San Juan (Energy Information Administration, 2019). After Maria, the Port of San Juan was blocked with 10,000 containers unable to make it to the mainland, leaving the Island without power. For the people of Puerto Rico, campaigning for a switch to renewables isn’t about meeting global emissions targets or because of climate change fears; it’s about survival. Without power, the elderly cannot plug in their oxygen tanks, residents can’t access their phones to call for assistance, and hospitals cannot function.
As an alternative, residents have proposed the #50ConSol campaign, in which Puerto Rico would get 50% of its energy from the sun. Furthermore, decentralised micro-grids have been proposed, which would stop the entire energy system collapsing in a future storm. According to Monica Flores, a graduate in environmental studies at the University of Puerto Rico, democratic resource management is the island’s best hope (Klein, 2018: 11). In addition, the United Nations Climate Action and Support Trends Report has also noted how rehauling energy systems is about more than just switching to renewables: it’s about diversification, climate proofing and increasing public awareness (2019: 21). With energy sovereignty, Puerto Ricans have a say on where their energy comes from and how this energy is allocated.
The calls for change on the Island don’t stop with energy. Residents are also calling for greater food sovereignty. Due to the underutilisation of arable land, coupled with the lack of local food processors and distributors that are able to compete with US agri-businesses, the island has to import 90% of its food (Nina, 2016; Klein, 2018). Moreover, Katia Aviles, an agroecological farming advocate, told Naomi Klein in her book, ‘The Battle for Paradise,’ that “a lot of conventional farmers are starving right now, even though they have an amazing amount of land” (2018: 36-37). Why? According to Maria, current farming methods are heavily focused on maximum productivity, and not on making produce climate-proof.
This has been a known problem since the 1920s and 1930s when US-owned sugar plantations were completely destroyed (Villanueva, 2015:). Yet, instead of mitigating these problems through innovation or investment into agriculture, the economy was moved towards industry, slashing jobs and leading to 500,000 Puerto Ricans migrating to the US in the 1940s and 1950s. ‘Operation Bootstrap’, as it was coined, papered over the old cracks that are now exposed – and causing huge problems for the Island 90 years later.
So, what is the alternative? Once again, harmony between community and sustainability is being stressed by Puerto Ricans through the adoption of agro-ecological farming. This new method combines traditional farming methods that promote resilience and biodiversity alongside the building of community ties between farmers and residents. For example, trees and grasses with long roots are planted around the crops to act as a natural barrier to winds. Root vegetables become staple foods, as they stand less chance of being destroyed. Actions such as these meant that small organic farms were better able to stand up to the floods and wind experienced during Maria, and as a result acted as lifelines for the communities. Elizabeth Yeampierre, Executive Director of UPROSE, Brooklyn’s oldest Latino community organisation, stated how this way of thinking isn’t just a model for Puerto Rico, or even countries that face similar weather risks – but a model for the world (Klein, 2018: 42). The way Puerto Ricans stopped the status-quo, thought about and then changed the way they sustain themselves is an example of how communities can adapt to the threats climate change pose.
But, what is stopping Puerto Ricans from actually putting these ideas into practise? The answer has been the same for the last 500 years: colonialism. Often characterised as the ‘oldest colony in the world,’ Puerto Rican’s have historically found it hard to envision the bigger picture, or to imagine what they want their country to look like, as colonialism is everyone’s national experience (Trías Monge, 1997). Over the last 150 years, Puerto Rico has become entirely dependent on the US – all major policies are decided by Congress, despite the fact residents are not able to vote in US elections. Pertinently, Kaplan notes how the US views Puerto Rico as a foreigner domestically, but when in the international arena, the island becomes a part of the US (Kaplan, 2002). In other words, Puerto Ricans pay taxes to the USA, but should not expect any aid if there is a natural disaster – unless you can count Donald J. Trump throwing paper towels into a crowd as ‘aid’.
There is a battle being waged in Puerto Rico – US neo-colonial rule versus the desire for increased self-sufficiency and strengthened community links. The former grants you bags of Skittles in food aid packages; the latter provides Puerto Ricans autonomy and increased protection. Puerto Ricans are deciding what they want their society to look like whilst simultaneously teaching the world that any conceptions of development must consider local communities and the environment. Their next job? Take this match made in heaven global.
BBC (2017) Puerto Rico: Trump paper towel-throwing ‘abominable’ (Available from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-41504165 ) [Accessed on 31st October] Environment Information Administration (2019) Puerto Rico. (Available from: https://www.eia.gov/state/?sid=RQ ) [Accessed on 29th October]
Kaplan, A. (2002) The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture. in Villanueva, V. (2015) Puerto Rico. Journal of Cultural Economy, Vol. 8:1, p. 66 (Available from:https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17530350.2014.942348 ) [Accessed on 31st October]
Klein, N. (2018) The Battle for Paradise. Chicago: Haymarket Books
Nina, D. (2016) ‘Manifiesto contra el colonialismo en Puerto Rico’ in Benach, J., Diaz, M., Munoz, N., Martinez-Herrerea, E., Pericas, J. (2019) What the Puerto Rican hurricanes make visible: Chronicle of a public health disaster foretold. Social Science and Medicine, Vol. 238 (Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0277953619303521?via%3Dihub ) [Accessed on October 31st]
Trías Monge, J. (1997) Puerto Rico. The Trials of the Oldest Colony in the World. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT. (Available from: https://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr=&id=IjaRKo2XUsEC&oi=fnd&pg=PR7&ots=shk2CBWgbc&sig=2fKT-LlFVmQLu4QsvwC_GoOXHN0&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false ) [Accessed on November 1st]
United Nations (2019) Climate action and support trends report. (Available from: https://unfccc.int/sites/default/files/resource/Climate_Action_Support_Trends_2019.pdf ) [Accessed on October 27th]
Villanueva, V. (2015) Puerto Rico. Journal of Cultural Economy, Vol. 8:1, pp. 62-74 (Available from:https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17530350.2014.942348 ) [Accessed on 31st October] Wikipedia (2019) Hurricane Maria. (Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hurricane_Maria) [Accessed on October 26th]
Header Image by Tatiana Rodriguez via Unsplash