Fresh Perspectives on Puerto Rico’s Sustainability Why Socio-Technology Might Matter Most

800px-Sustainable_development.svgI have spent nearly a week as on the archipelago that is Puerto Rico as a student attorney with the University at Buffalo School of Law’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic networking and connecting with students, industry leaders, and scholars in the microgrid and sustainable agriculture sectors. In the past two days, I had the distinct pleasure of partaking in back-to-back meetings, first with the Director of the Puerto Rico Resilience Fund and El Departamento De La Comida, non-profit with the goal of opening two-hundred local and sustainable farms in the next 24 months; and the second with the Steering Commissioner of INESI, an organization connecting faculty experts in energy transitions and resiliency throughout the 11 University of Puerto Rico campuses, and further connecting them with international partners.

While the two meetings were vastly different. They were different in structure (the first took place in Professor Kim Diana Connolly’s AirBnB kitchen table, and the second took place in French-style brunch restaurant), and they were radically different in specific content. Yet, both meetings left me with one very similar takeaway. Whether it’s Puerto Rico, Cuba, or Buffalo, before a community can overcome its self-sufficiency issues, a community must undergo a sociological change regarding what environmental access to justice means to it.

It was very interesting to hear all of both sets of meeting participants share one thing I have learned more about in Puerto Rico\ They both focused some of our discussions on the colonial nature of the Islands, and how this theme shapes each of their individual perspectives on how to decolonize.

Healthy food distribution networks and hub models are one goal, especially because food hubs are pliable and can be tailored to the specific needs on a community level, both big and small. According to the Director of the Resilience Fund, the Islands import anywhere from 85% to 98% of all consumed food, and most deaths on the Islands are diet related. Therefore, it naturally follows that the most logical solution to Puerto Rico’s dependency on imported food is the Fund’s creation of sustainable farms, markets, and food distribution networks.

But what does true sovereignty look like and how does Puerto Rico get there? INESI’s Steering Commissioner explained his view that if the social aspects of sustainability become separated from the technological, then renewables can be very harmful when operated by the wrong regime by way of regime-locking methods within infrastructure, colonialism, and systemic inequality. Both groups attest that transparency in renewable solutions and education within communities is critical to Puerto Rico’s ongoing sustainability and decolonialization movement.

Listening to these influential players in their respective sectors and their takes on how to change society’s path towards self-sufficient sustainable practices made me reflect on how Buffalo, NY struggles form its own solutions to similar problems. I am now wondering whether PUSH’s Green Development Zone be a flexible model for a community in Puerto Rico?

If you want to check out the Resilience Fund, INESI, and PUSH, I’ve provided the links here:

Be on the lookout for my next #UBLawResponds post detailing coming developments and possible partnership opportunities with these newly-formed connections on the Islands.

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

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.