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Building Community Capacity in Puerto Rico Through Food Sovereignty Advocacy

For almost two years now, media outlets have been acquainting the U.S. public with the conditions in Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria made landfall in September 20, 2017.1 Less prominent in these accounts, however, are discussions about how, instead of creating the conditions reported, this disaster brought to the surface the limited capacity of the local government to tend to the needs of its constituents as well as the long-standing federal neglect of the affairs of the territory.2 As the scope of the crisis and unmet needs emerged, local residents and community organizers stepped up to fill this institutional vacuum.3 Food sovereignty advocates and organizations were key factors in these grassroots relief and reconstruction efforts. This article discusses how food sovereignty advocates in Puerto Rico mobilized a network of community stakeholders to respond to the hurricane crisis and how this context is shaping their efforts to promote a locally responsive food system. For this, the article describes the socioeconomic circumstances on the island before Maria’s landfall, how previous moments of crisis fostered attention to food system issues, and how agroecology and food sovereignty frameworks are informing current efforts to reconnect food consumption and agricultural production and to promote community participation in the food policy process.

New Crisis, Old Problems

Conditions were already turbulent in Puerto Rico when the hurricane hit. Since 2016 the island had been facing fiscal restructuring and austerity measures implemented by a congressionally appointed Financial Oversight and Management Board (Oversight Board). The organization of the Oversight Board was the culmination of a decade-long economic downturn that significantly reduced Puerto Rico’s government tax base and increased its reliance on complex borrowing mechanisms.4 This downturn resulted from the phaseout of the 936 provisions of the IRS tax code, which incentivized the operation of U.S. corporations on the island. By 2006, when these provisions finally expired, many of these corporations ceased operations, plummeting the island into an economic crisis from which it has not recovered. In 2015, Puerto Rico’s government officially declared itself incapable of meeting its debt-payment obligations.5 The Oversight Board was the U.S. government’s response to the bankruptcy of its territory. With this measure, Congress sought to avoid what experts call “the biggest municipal default in history.”6

During the past decade, rising unemployment and deteriorating standards of living also led thousands of Puerto Ricans to abandon the island. The crisis forced many of those who stayed to confront the vulnerabilities resulting from Puerto Rico’s political and economic organization. Chief among these is the island’s import-dependent food system. As the recession heightened, awareness about and attention to the limitations of the local food system increased among researchers, policy makers, and the general public.7 Food advocacy organizations also began advancing solutions to this issue by promoting a renewal of local agricultural production through alternative models that focused on connecting community actors and addressing local needs.8

However, this is not the first time that a crisis has forced attention to the problem of Puerto Rico’s food imports dependency. Addressing this issue became a cornerstone of agrarian reform efforts launched during the 1930s and 1940s as a response to the crises of the Great Depression and World War II. By that time, imports dependency had been shaping Puerto Ricans’ diet for many years. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the utilization of most of the arable land to cultivate export crops—coffee, tobacco, and sugar cane—led to increasing reliance on imports to fulfill people’s food needs. This trend toward increasing imports and reducing land utilized for food crops cultivation was accentuated during the first decades of the twentieth century.9 By the 1940s, local nutrition and agriculture experts pointed to the health and economic effects of this imports dependency and contributed to the articulation of agrarian reform plans to improve people’s diets and increase local food production. However, by the postwar years, these plans to promote agricultural diversification and greater food self-sufficiency became increasingly incongruous with the structural shifts provoked by the government’s new economic development strategy of industrialization.10

The implementation of these policies framed the local and international promotion of Commonwealth (Estado Libre Asociado—ELA) status, constituted in 1952, as Puerto Rico’s decolonization model. Under the ELA, Puerto Rico’s government was granted some degree of local administrative autonomy, but the island remained under the sovereignty of Congress. Many scholars have argued that the inauguration of the ELA legalized and consolidated Puerto Rico’s colonial status, effectively turning the island into a modern colony.11 Based on technocratic, top-down models and constrained by the contours of the island’s relationship with the United States under the ELA, the food policies implemented during these years failed to address the vulnerabilities of the island’s food system. The political and policy emphasis on industrial development limited the reach of plans to promote agricultural diversification. Moreover, the preeminence of U.S. commercial legislation and regulations over the Commonwealth’s dispositions and the power of the agribusiness sector to influence local and federal agricultural policies profoundly shaped Puerto Rico’s food system.12

Dependency on food imports continued to increase during the second half of the twentieth century. The predominance of food imports led to a marked increase in the consumption of processed products. The extension of the food stamps program to the island in 1974 further facilitated the introduction of U.S. packaged, canned, or frozen foods into Puerto Ricans’ daily diets.13 Scholars have noted that the implementation of federal food policies like the Nutritional Assistance Program as a palliative to the island’s persistent poverty have affected local agriculture by further disengaging local food consumption from local agricultural production. Cheaper canned, frozen, or processed foods took over the increased demand facilitated by these programs.14

Devising a Community-Centered Model of Food Production

By 2014, experts estimated that about 80% of the food consumed in the island was imported through and from the United States.15 In the context of the post-2006 economic recession, the concept of food sovereignty and the practices of agroecology provided advocates with models and techniques to promote a more sustainable, healthier, and locally responsive food system. As scholars and practitioners note, food sovereignty goes beyond ensuring food availability, accessibility, utilization, and stability (the four dimensions of food security) to prioritize “how food is produced as well as its cultural context.”16 Globally, grassroots movements and farmers are taking a leading role in defining and promoting food sovereignty as both a goal and a set of principles to bring about a healthy and sustainable food system. These efforts are exemplified by the 2007 Declaration of Nyéléni, which defines food sovereignty as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.”17

Food sovereignty served Puerto Rican food advocates as a framework to understand the security, public health, and development repercussions of food imports dependency as well as to articulate a farmer- and community-centered model of food production. The idea of food sovereignty addresses nutritional, environmental, and development concerns that, while not new, acquired new urgency post-Maria. In these conditions, community and grassroots organizations are expanding their efforts to champion agroecology as a promising strategy toward food sovereignty. According to scholars, “agroecology is an approach to agriculture which ultimately seeks to transform the food system” by allowing “farmers to develop farming practices that are sustainable, socially just, and that provide for their economic interests.” As such, more than merely the application of agricultural sciences and technologies, agroecology “is inherently political, social, and economic in nature.”18

Researchers investigating the experience of agroecological famers in Puerto Rico before and after Maria showed that they are “motivated by a desire to enhance environmental and human health, strengthen social relations,” and advance food sovereignty principles. For them, food sovereignty became both an aspiration for Puerto Rico and a framework for understanding the political and economic conditions on the island. Working toward food sovereignty for these groups means increasing the supply and accessibility of locally produced healthy food “through farmer and community-centered agroecological food production.”19

The Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica (Boricuá) is one of the leading organizations promoting agroecology as a strategy to decrease the vulnerability and increase the resilience of Puerto Rico’s food system. Boricuá is a 28-year-old grassroots farmer and activist group that played a strategic role in the immediate response to the hurricane by organizing volunteer brigades to assist farmers and their communities. Boricuá is the Caribbean chapter of the international Vía Campesina movement and, since its creation, has worked to connect farmers, educators, community organizers, and food sovereignty advocates throughout the island. It coordinates the work of “solidarity brigades” to support farmers, agricultural workers, and community groups. In this way, Boricuá creates a local community of food sovereignty workers and advocates while inserting their work into international discussions. Boricuá also organized the first agroecological market on the island to facilitate accessibility to local agroecological products. In the aftermath of the hurricane, organizations such as Boricuá drew from the knowledge, experiences, and relationships developed through the previous years to devise a community response to the hurricane crisis, help farmers become more resilient to future disasters, and further the food sovereignty agenda.20

Strengthening Farmers’ Networks and Promoting Community Engagement in Food Policy Conversations

The hurricane crisis and the food shortages it provoked fostered a new sense of urgency among food sovereignty advocates. While groups such as Boricuá had been actively working to intervene in Puerto Rico’s food system for several years, the hurricane crisis brought a renewed attention to the vulnerabilities of the food supply, its public health effects, and how the current socioeconomic system limited efforts to address these issues. Apart from tending to the immediate needs of their communities, food sovereignty organizations have continued to advocate for sustainable solutions to increase local food production and decrease imports dependency. As part of their advocacy, these organizations work with local residents, farmers, and professionals to promote interventions that take into account the island’s agroecological conditions and climate change vulnerabilities.21 This emphasis on agroecology allows advocates such as Boricuá to connect hurricane recovery and reconstruction to broader efforts to promote a more resilient agriculture and a self-sufficient food system.

For example, through the work of its Food Sovereignty Brigades, Boricuá is building a network of farmers throughout the island and showing them how agroecological farming methods could help increase the efficiency and resiliency of their farms. By connecting farmers to one another and providing them with education, advice, and capacity-building support, Boricuá seeks to increase the number of farms that adopt sustainable methods as well as to integrate the production and distribution of agroecological products throughout the island. Boricuá also facilitates community involvement in conversations and activism around Puerto Rico’s food system and about how agroecology can serve as a tool to promote social justice. For this, Boricuá conducts outreach events across the island to familiarize residents with agroecological products and to educate the community on how agroecological methods can help to promote a resilient, sustainable, and healthy food system. With this work, Boricuá seeks to create links between consumers and local agroecological food production and to foster community participation in agricultural policy processes.

This work caught the attention of entities outside Puerto Rico such as the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance, which awarded Boricuá the Food Sovereignty Prize in late 2018. This prize recognizes groups working “to democratize food systems in the U.S. and abroad” by advancing solutions that draw from the capacities and agendas of those “at the grassroots level” who are “most impacted by the social costs and environmental impacts of industrial agribusiness.”22 There are other signs that these efforts, and their resonance since Maria made landfall, are having an impact. According to Puerto Rico’s Agriculture Secretary, one of the goals of the current government is to decrease food imports from 85 to 70% in eight years.23 His predecessor intended to achieve a similar goal and implemented several initiatives to address the vulnerability of the food system.24 While the local government’s capacity to put these plans into action and achieve meaningful results is considerably limited under the current fiscal restructuring regime, advocates see the integration of these issues into policy makers’ agendas as an important step to promote accountability and elevate their grassroots efforts.

As advocates have emphasized, and given Puerto Rico’s historical challenges in addressing the vulnerabilities of its food system, achieving food sovereignty is not “something you can do alone, it’s about building community with farmers” and with the people who consume their products.25 As this article shows, during the past decade, Boricuá and affiliated groups have sought to create this community by supporting the development of a network of food sovereignty organizations, agroecological farmers, and local experts. This network became a crucial element of the community response to the hurricane emergency. In the posthurricane context, these groups are revamping efforts to reconnect local food consumption and local agricultural production and to open avenues for community engagement in food policy conversations.



1Clement, S., Zezima, K., & Guskin, E. (2018, September 12). Residents see a failure at all levels of government. The Washington Post.

2Sosa Pascual, O., & Mazzei, P. (2017, October 22). Huracán María: Dónde falló el operativo de respuesta. Centro de Periodismo Investigativo / Miami Herald.; Rodríguez-Díaz, C. E. (2018). Maria in Puerto Rico: Natural disaster in a colonial archipelago. American Journal of Public Health, 108(1), 30–32.

 3Villarrubia Mendoza, J., & Vélez Vélez, R. (2018). Cambio desde abajo y desde adentro: Notes on Centros de Apoyo Mutuo in post?María Puerto Rico. Latino Studies 16(4), 542–547, 543.

4Marxuach, S. (2016). The endgame: An analysis of Puerto Rico’s debt structure and arguments in favor of enacting a comprehensive debt restructuring mechanism for Puerto Rico (policy paper). Center for a New Economy.

5Corkery, M., & Williams Walsh, M. (2015, June 29). Puerto Rico debt crisis splits Congress on party lines and draws muted response from White House. The New York Times.

6Slavin, R. Casey, J., & Tumulty, B. (2016). A promise yet to be fulfilled: Two years of PROMESA. The Bond Buyer

7Aponte, M., & Vélez F. (2011) La Isla Vulnerable: Un Bochorno Nacional. 80 Grados.

8Setrini, G. (2012). Cultivating new development paths: Food and agriculture entrepreneurship in Puerto Rico (Puerto Rico Economy Project Working Paper). MIT Political Science Department.

9Ortiz Cuadra, C. M. (2013). Eating Puerto Rico: A history of food, culture, and identity. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

10González, E. M. (2013). Feeding the colonial subject: Nutrition and public health in Puerto Rico, 1926–1952. CENTRO: Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies 25(2), 140–71.

11Trías Monge, J. (1997). Puerto Rico: The trials of the oldest colony in the world. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press; Grosfoguel, R. (2003). Colonial subjects: Puerto Ricans in a global perspective. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

12Carro-Figueroa, V. (2002). Agricultural decline and food import dependency in Puerto Rico: A historical perspective on the outcomes of postwar farm and food policies. Caribbean Studies 30 (2), 77–107.

13Carro-Figueroa, 2002.

14Weisskoff, R. (1985). Factories and food stamps: The Puerto Rican model of development. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. Referenced in Carro-Figueroa, 2002, 84, 86.

15Monclova Vazquez, H. (2014). Can Puerto Rico revive agriculture? Caribbean Business 42, 16.

16Diaz, I., & Hunsberger, C. (2018). Can agroecological coffee be part of a food sovereignty strategy in Puerto Rico? Geoforum, 97, 84–94, 86.

17Diaz & Hunsberger, 2018, 86.

18Diaz & Hunsberger, 2018, 86.

19Diaz & Hunsberger, 2018, 86.

20Acevedo, N. (2018, July 6). “The push we needed”: Puerto Rico's local farmers step up efforts after Hurricane Maria. NBC News.; Holpuch, A. (2018, August 8). The story of a recovery: How hurricane Maria boosted small farms. The Guardian.

21Gies, H. (2018, October 19). Agroecology as a tool of sovereignty and resilience in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Civil Eats.

22U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance (2018). Announcing the 2018 Food Sovereignty Prize honorees.

23Soto, M. (2018, November 9). Gobierno busca duplicar producción de alimentos. Metro PR.

24Aponte & Vélez, 2011.

25Diaz & Hunsberger, 2018, 88.

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