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Obstacles Puerto Rican Farmers Faced after Hurricane Maria: Information for Future Adaptation Strategies

Versión en español aquí.

This is the English version of an Op-Ed published in El Nuevo Día on March 24, 2021 (open access here). The title here was modified. Literal translation: “Obstacles post-Maria: Future Strategies for Agriculture.

The challenges that Puerto Rico has faced due to hurricanes, although painful, could serve as a source of information to prevent or avoid future damages, or to better cope with them. Another hurricane season is coming this summer, and we know that the agricultural sector is one of the most affected by climate shocks. Here I share data from 405 Puerto Rican farmers on the most common obstacles they faced to recover their farms after Hurricane María. Understanding the obstacles they faced could help identify which strategies would better facilitate recovery from future impacts. These data are part of a study, carried out between May and July 2018, in collaboration with agricultural agents of the Agricultural Extension Service of the UPR.

The most frequently mentioned obstacles were:

• Almost 25% of farmers expressed that the delay in receiving payments from the Agricultural Insurance Corporation (Corporación de Seguros Agrícolas) limited them in having financial capital for reconstruction and recovery. Agricultural insurance is a mechanism that allows farmers to achieve certain financial security when suffering a loss of production. Therefore, given that it is a mechanism that is still used and is important within the climate crisis that we face, how do we make insurance sustainable, accessible, and aligned with the frequency and type of impacts that farmers face? (And we cannot ignore that the issue is somewhat complicated when you consider how federal and state statutes are intertwined).

• Altogether, almost 50% mentioned that the lack of seeds, materials1 and machinery to clear the fields and rebuild infrastructure, prevented a rapid recovery. One farmer commented that it helped him to have seedlings and seeds in storage. He recommended establishing a seed bank accessible to farmers. I do not know if there are institutional seed banks in Puerto Rico, but I do know of seed and materials exchange in some farmer networks. This strategy could be promoted through institutional channels or by providing resources to existing initiatives. Regarding access to materials, we know that we depend on the port of San Juan, plus the inventory tax and others, limit the quantity and quality of materials in different parts of Puerto Rico. What would it be like to have a network of seed banks, materials and machinery for agricultural use?

• Finally, the lack of water and electricity prevented the agricultural activities from being carried out properly: lost milk, water pumps that did not work, among other limitations. A considerable amount of farmers (38%) said they were interested in operating with solar energy, and in collecting rainwater for irrigation. We know that the institutional mismanagement of electricity and water is not in the hands of farmers. So, how could they be provided with resources to produce their own energy and water?

Many of the obstacles mentioned reflect how different institutional elements affect the ability of farmers to safeguard their agricultural production. Similarly, we cannot ignore how access to markets and consumer dynamics also affect that capacity. Puerto Rican agricultural policies must take into account the climate crisis and the needs of farmers if it wants to have a sustainable and resilient food system.

1. This was translated from “materiales”. It refers to construction materials or piece goods.

Photo: Word cloud generated from the top 100 words. Size indicates frequency. Unlike the Spanish version, the “agricultural” word is significant here because it was added for the purposes of the analysis with the translated version.

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