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Posts Tagged ‘Hurricane Maria’

prfarms_farmers

Photo: Bobby Bascomb
Farmers Domingo and Nilsa Romano are grateful for the physical and emotional support of the volunteers with the NGO El Departamento de la Comida in Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico never received the level of help it needed from the federal government after Hurricane Maria, but neighbors and volunteers pitched in to help. In my post from December, I quoted Public Radio International’s inspiring story on women farmers cooperating to make a comeback. A Living on Earth report from September 2018 shows volunteers helping out a range of small farmers.

BOBBY BASCOMB: “Even before hurricane Maria uprooted trees and people, Puerto Rico imported roughly 85% of its food. After the storm, that number shot up to about 95% imported food, if you could get it. Many people were forced to skip meals and eat … canned food for months. Nine months after the storm, one of the only places to find locally grown food on the island is farmers markets like the Saturday market in Rincon. …

“Sonia Carlo’s nearby farm is slowly recovering from the storm. Today she’s brought pineapple, papaya, mushrooms, and the kale she’s explaining to a customer. … Sonia says things are just starting to turn around for her family and the farm. They are finally harvesting again and her farm-to-table restaurant, Sana, opened just a few weeks ago. But hurricane Maria was devastating for them. The storm destroyed her home. She had to send her three children to Florida to live with family while she and her husband, living in their car, rebuilt the battered farm.”

SONIA CARLO: “We got really trashed. All of our production for years of tropical trees like mango trees and passion fruit trees, they all died and they all were blown away. We had trees that were a hundred years old. … Since the hurricane was a cyclone, it brought some salt water and some sand with it, so everything that was in its path, it looks like you threw herbicide.” …

BASCOMB: “Across the island tall fruit trees were the most heavily damaged food crop. Root vegetables that could hide underground did OK. Ground plants like pineapples were among the first to recover and fast growing vegetables like salad greens were easy enough. After the hurricane visitors came to Puerto Rico with their suitcases full of seeds to donate to farmers. Sonia says they actually could have started growing again relatively quickly.”

CARLO: “But since we didn’t have any electricity, we couldn’t pump water out and we didn’t have any gas, so we were unable to grow food because we don’t have gas to pull out the water from the water pump.” …

BASCOMB: “To understand why this lush tropical island with year round sunshine and rain imports nearly all of its food you need to go back to the 1940s and a US initiative called Operation Bootstrap. … Adnelly Marichal is the documentarian for the Resilience Fund in Puerto Rico. She says Operation Bootstrap transformed Puerto Rico from a largely agrarian economy to one based on manufacturing and tourism. They did that with a patchwork of government tax incentives and access to US markets. The farming that remained was not on the household level but on a larger, industrial scale.”

ADNELLY MARICHAL: “Now suddenly, it’s about making money so therefore you need to grow things like sugar and coffee, and that’s great, but those are not things that people can eat.”

In Las Marias, up in the mountains on the western half of the island, Farmer Domingo Antonio Romano, 75, runs a small farm with his wife, Nilsa.

BASCOMB: “Root vegetables like yams were really the only food crops that didn’t get torn away by the 155 mile an hour winds of Hurricane Maria. They were one of the only food crops the Romanos could still harvest and eat after the storm. … Domingo and his neighbors still had months to go before the roads would be cleared or the electricity restored. He says in that time they came to rely on each other for help.” …

DOMINGO ANTONIO ROMANO: “After Maria, the trees came down and we could see our neighbors and we got to know each other. After the hurricane, there was a lot of empathy between the people, and everybody helped each other.” …

BASCOMB: “Five volunteers from a grassroots non-profit group called El Departamento de la Comida, the Food Department, are here to camp out on the farm for a week and do any work that needs to be done: clear land, plant crops, fix fences and repair the roof. The volunteer Food Department is organized into groups called brigades and are dispatched all over the island. As many as 20 people at a time descend on a farm for a week bringing with them seeds, tools, building supplies, and the man power to get a farm back up and running.”

More at Living on Earth, here.

Video: The Puerto Rico Resilience Fund

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daniella

Photo: Paige Pfleger/The World
Puerto Rican farmer Daniella Rodríguez Besosa says Hurricane Maria “was also a call to action. Nobody else is going to help us. We need to help ourselves.”

Americans expect and deserve government help when there is a natural disaster, and often they get it. But Puerto Rico was pretty much out of sight, out of mind after Hurricane Maria. I do know someone who went there to help with logistics as part of a Federal Emergency Management team, but I also know several someones who lost everything and came to the mainland with their children.

Puerto Ricans who stayed behind have been managing as best they can. I was impressed with Paige Pfleger’s story at Public Radio International (PRI) about women farmers working together to build resilience.

“High in the mountains of Puerto Rico,” Pfleger writes, “a group of women struggles to keep their balance as they drive pickaxes deep into the earth of a hillside guava orchard. They’re digging a narrow trench called a swale on the steep terrain of this 7-acre farm. It’s a low-cost, low-impact way to retain rain water and reduce erosion in a place where both can be a challenge.

“With a swale ‘you end up storing most of your water in the soil itself, so the plants can access it whenever they need it,’ said Daniella Rodríguez Besosa, who has her own farm nearby. Besosa is part of a group called the Circuito Agroecológico Aiboniteño — all farmers, mostly women — who’ve been working together since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017 to help each other’s farms recover and become more sustainable

Maria ‘was an eye-opener for a lot of people,’ Besosa said. ‘It was also a call to action. Nobody else is going to help us; we need to help ourselves.’

“Farms in Puerto Rico were devastated during Hurricane Maria. It’s been estimated that 80 percent of the crops on the island were destroyed, and $1.8 billion of damage was done to agricultural infrastructure.

“ ‘The best part from this hurricane crisis was this, that we get to organize to help each other recover,’ said Janette Gavillan, the owner of the guava orchard the Circuito is working on.

“Gavillan is a retired chemistry professor and is relatively new to farming. But she says working with the Circuito has taught her ways to be more sustainable. …

“Since Maria, the Circuito’s members have come to see sustainability as synonymous with resilience and independence. They hope that if they’re able to rely only on themselves, they’ll be better prepared for the next big storm, or at least be better able to recover. …

“A few miles from Gavillan’s farm, Jessica Collazo works a small plot dotted with baby chicks and thin beds of fruits and vegetables. … Collazo and her husband support their family by selling their produce at local markets, but she says after Maria, they had to start from zero.

“ ‘We were left with nothing,’ Collazo said. The storm washed her crops, seeds and soil over the side of the mountain.

“The brigade of local farmers helped her clear fallen trees and get new seeds. Circuito members also built banks on the edges of the mountain and dug swales that Collazo hopes will reduce the damage from the next hurricane.

“ ‘On my own, that would take me months,’ Collazo said. ‘But with help, it took only a few hours.’

“Collazo hopes the expertise and extra hands of the Circuito members will help her family reach its goal of building a completely self-sustaining farm. She says she wants to dig her own well so she doesn’t have to depend on the government for water, and install solar panels so she doesn’t have to rely on the local electric utility.” More at PRI, here.

I can’t help thinking of the Little Red Hen (“All right, then, I’ll do it myself!”) and wondering if it’s unfair to say that this is more likely to be a woman’s experience than a man’s. In any case, it’s the women farmers arming themselves against a sea of troubles here. I hope that like the Little Red Hen, they reward themselves.

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