Connecting with Welcoming Experts in Puerto Rico

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Group planning brunch with Professor Connolly, Professor Ortiz Garcia, UPR student Ibrahim Rodriguez and UB Student Attorneys Dave Yovanoff and Eamon Riley.

Puerto Rico was a welcoming place. Despite some concerns among those of us serving as Student Attorneys in the University at Buffalo School of Law Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic before coming, seldom did we feel uncomfortable or unwanted. After explaining our presence to experts on the islands, the most common response was to help us achieve our goal, whether by pointing us to the next house in need of supplies, or by explaining an obscure legal issue. These individual interactions coalesced to paint a broader picture of Puerto Rico, and helped me to identify areas of potential, and concern, for the islands.

One early interaction I had was with the Director of the Environmental Legal Clinic at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) Law School. Once I explained to him that I was a dual degree student pursuing both a JD and an Urban Planning Master’s degree, he was able to quickly take me through changes he sees underway in Puerto Rico’s land use regulations. The Puerto Rico Planning Board serves as a centralized planning agency for the island. Currently, there are proposed changes that will weaken the role of the Planning Board, and empower individual municipalities in making land use decisions. While there are positives and negatives to both structures for land use planning, the current proposed change presents opportunity to implement innovative policy tailored to local contexts. He also informed us to major supply chain issues for local and organic farmers, and the implementation of plans as presenting potential problems.

Along with my colleague Dave, I also met with two planning professors at UPR, Luis E. Santiago Acevedo, and Maritza Barreto-Orta Ph. D. These professors focused on issues primarily associated with water.  When we explained our ideas around water and solar, they were able to confirm some of our hypothesis. They explained that water quality and delivery is a vexing issue for many on the islands. Further, they described difficulties farmers have in attaining “bonafied status” for their crops. The professors illustrated the differences between upper and lower watersheds, relative to where crops are grown, and the types of agriculture methods used. Prof. Santiago also spoke on the recent reinvestment in sugar production as a potential economic growth area.

These early meeting with expert academics from UPR provided a context sensitive understanding that we built upon with people working in the field implementing solutions. Cecilio Ortiz García, and his student Ibrahim Rodriguez, met us for a breakfast meeting on our day off. They are working to establish a platform, known as INESI, to connect sustainability projects across PR. Their goal is to build a collaborative framework to maximize the potential impact of these projects. Connecting with them allowed our team to speak at the RISE-PR videoconference to share our on the ground work with #UBLawResponds.

Finally, we were lucky to meet Tara Rodríguez Besosa, as well as two of her collaborators Luz Cruz, and Ora Wise. Their team has been, and continues, to do amazing on the ground work bringing healthy, sustainable, and local foods to Puerto Rico. Before the Hurricane, Tara was running El Departmento de Comida, a local food hub that had grown into a farm-to-table restaurant. During the Hurricane’s immediate aftermath, their team was working with Queer Kitchen Brigade to pickle and ferment local donated produce to ship to Puerto Rico. After the hurricane, Tara is returning her organization to its roots by reestablishing the food hub, and working with the Resiliency Fund develop 200 new farms in the next two years. Her emphasis on local and sustainable products and import replacement has a need for supportive legislative, on the state and local level in Puerto Rico. Her model for economic development could be replicated and altered to fit other industries to help regrow Puerto Rico’s economy.

Each expert we met helped to further assemble the complex picture of Puerto Rico’s status. Each new connection strengthened our long term relationship with the islands. Each new piece of information helped to get our perspectives to a better place for serving Puerto Rico. We have taken this information, and have made an effort to form what will be the future of the Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic. Hopefully, that clinic will allow new students in #UBLawResponds to grow as they work to serve Puerto Rico and its long term recovery.

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.