From Old Roots to New Seeds: Exploring the historic and future role of agriculture in Puerto Rico

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IMG_20180123_091444_2-01Puerto Rico’s relationship with agriculture is a good way to explore the island’s experience with colonialism. Understanding the changes in the agriculture sector alongside other historical events in Puerto Rico helped me to better understand some of the island’s current economic woes. However, there is a growing movement among the younger Puerto Rican generation that sees agriculture as a way to make the island more resilient and self-sufficient.

The Taíno natives were the first stewards of Puerto Rico’s natural landscape, and had an extensive agriculture system focusing on cassava, sweet potato, corn, and other root crops.[1] In order to provide an economic basis for continued colonization after the island’s gold reserves were depleted, Puerto Rico’s agriculture was commodified to put greater focus on sugar cane exports.[2] By the 19th century, Puerto Rico’s agriculture sector was comprised mainly of three crops; sugar cane, coffee, and tobacco. This was the beginning of the island’s reliance on imports for nutrition.

[3]After slavery ended, the United States seized control of Puerto Rico and modernization of the sugar cane and coffee industries was required to remain competitive and serve the U.S. markets. This modernization reduced the amount of producers in these industries[4], and concentrated the sector’s wealth into a few “Barons.”[5] [6] In addition to economic advances elsewhere, the Jones Act limited the amount of sugar that could be exported from Puerto Rico, thus the industry’s competitiveness.

Economic initiatives encouraged industrial development and further blunted agriculture’s importance. Under “Operation Bootstrap,” the combination of Federal and Commonwealth tax incentives fueled the transition to an industrial economy.[7] Subsequently, the agriculture sector shrank to less than 1% of the economy.[8] However, the federal incentives were phased out in 2006, and were a detriment to the Puerto Rican economy.[9]

Here in January 2018, and in the midst of the resulting 12+ year recession, many in Puerto Rico are looking to the agriculture sector as a possible way to help build economic resilience. Before Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico’s food movement was in revival mode. While the island struggled with an ongoing debt crisis and shrinking population, farming was growing after a century of decline, resulting in more than 1,700 farms opening since 2013, and increasing agricultural jobs by 50%.[10] Because the Jones Act increases prices, Puerto Ricans pay a higher amount for food.In short, by growing more food on the island, Puerto Ricans can ensure the stability of their own food supply and fight policies that remove wealth from the island. There are many activists working to make this happen. Tara Rodríguez Besosa’s work has inspired me to examine this movement further, and see how policy could be used to support it. She was one of the speakers at this last year’s “Agrohack” – a conference that focuses on re-growing the agriculture sector in Puerto Rico through innovation. “Agriculture has the potential of becoming a key pillar of any country’s economy through innovation and technology.”[11]

#UBLawResponds will be learning more about many issues during this service learning trip in anticipation of continued work in February and beyond. I think finding a way to encourage the island’s agriculture renaissance may be a good way to build resilience. Check out this video interview of Rodríguez Besosa, where she explains the current movement and how it “defends” Puerto Rico. Her description of the movement echoes the changes in Cuba’s agriculture that have transformed that nation into one of the most sustainable, and could provide a framework for the commonwealth’s agricultural future.[12]








[1] Serafím Méndez-Méndez et al., Puerto Rico Past and Present: An Encyclopedia 10 (2015).
[2] Jorge Duany, Puerto Rico: What Everyone Needs to Know 14 (2017).
[3] Méndez, supra 14.
[4] Duany, supra 51.
[5] Id., 17
[6] Four companies controlled 51% of sugar exports in 192.
[7] Méndez, supra 219.
[8] Puerto Rico Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority, Puerto Rico Fact Sheet (2017)
[9] Scott Greenberg & Gavin Ekins, Tax Foundation, Tax Policy Helped Create Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Crisis (2015)
[10] Kate Yoder, Hurricane Maria Crushed Puerto Rico Farms, This Activist Wants to Grow Resilience through Food, Grist, Nov. 1 2017.
[11] Agrohack, (last visited Jan. 20, 2018).
[12] As World Burns, Cuba Number 1 for Sustainable Development: WWF, Telesur, October 27, 2016.


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