Luis Alexis Rodríguez Cruz pasó gran parte de su infancia en contacto con la flora y la fauna que rodeaba la casa de su abuela materna, ubicada en Juana Díaz.
Entre las montañas y los ríos de la región sureña, Rodríguez Cruz creció sin imaginar que dedicaría su vida a investigar los sistemas agroalimentarios de Puerto Rico y que ahora, a sus 29 años, ese esfuerzo sería reconocido en la prestigiosa revista The Grist.
Cada año, este medio selecciona a líderes emergentes, en Estados Unidos, que aportan soluciones para mitigar los desafíos ambientales que afectan a la sociedad.
“Estoy bien agradecido porque esta oportunidad no solo sirve para abrirme caminos y puertas, sino también para darles visibilidad a los trabajos que estoy haciendo en torno a los temas de sistemas agroalimentarios, cambio climático y política pública en Puerto Rico y el Caribe”, afirmó el científico, quien forma parte de la lista Grist 50.
Fui entrevistado en ¡Qué es la que hay! con Luis Herrero en la sección de Ciencia Boricua con él y Mónica Feliú Mójer. (Radio Isla, 1 de abril de 2021)
Hablamos sobre algunos de los tantos retos que enfrentan los sectores pesqueros y agrícolas de Puerto Rico. Mi entrevista comienza en el minuto 16. También puedes escuchar el podcast en PodBean y otras plataformas.
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.
Esta columna fue publicada en El Nuevo Día el 24 de marzo de 2021. Su título original inédito era, “Obstáculos que enfrentaron agricultores en la recuperación tras Maria pudieran informar estrategias futuras“.
Los retos que ha enfrentado un país, aunque dolorosos, pudieran ser fuente de información para prevenir o evitar daños futuros o para sobrellevarlos de mejor manera. Por ahí viene otra temporada de huracanes y sabemos que el sector agrícola es de los más afectados por los embates atmosféricos. Aquí comparto datos sobre los obstáculos más comunes que enfrentaron 405 agricultores en Puerto Rico para recuperar sus fincas, luego del huracán María. Entender los obstáculos que enfrentaron pudiera ayudar a identificar qué estrategias facilitarían la recuperación ante impactos futuros. Estos datos son parte de un estudio, realizado entre mayo y julio del 2018, en colaboración con agentes agrícolas del Servicio de Extensión Agrícola de la UPR.
The Grist chooses every year 50 fixers across the US that are doing important work at the intersection of climate change, social justice, wellbeing, and the environment. “The final 2021 Grist 50 includes emerging leaders in climate, sustainability, and equity who are creating change across the nation.” Check out the list here, and my part here.Learn more about Grist 50 here.
La revista estadounidense, The Grist, la cual se enfoca en temas relacionados a cambio climático, justicia social y ambiente, escoge cada año 50 Fixers, de sobre mil personas nominadas. Aquí puedes conocer sobre la lista y aquí puedes leer sobre mí en ella. Aquí puedes conocer más sobre la iniciativa.
Esto no habría sido posible sin el apoyo de TANTAS personas que me han traído hasta aquí. Mi familia alcahueta, mis amistades, mentoras e instituciones que han apoyado mi trabajo.
I was thinking of two things while walking: that my legs could not hold me anymore and that I wanted to see a coquí, Puerto Rico’s endemic frog. We had been within the green labyrinth of El Yunque, Puerto Rico’s tropical rainforest, for almost four hours. Although I wanted to look up and appreciate the plethora of stars, I kept my gaze down so that the flashlight on my head would light the way. Falling down on one of those paths, full of rocks and roots, while carrying a backpack full of scientific equipment, is not a pretty picture. There were times when I slipped, but still had not fallen. I was in the back of the line, walking slowly to see if I could spot a coquí, but without missing the pace of the team. “Look, Luis,” Aura said after a while. And there it was, quiet on a log, ready for the photo. After that, she asked us to turn off our flashlights.
Aura Alonso-Rodríguez is an ecologist. She studies human and climatic impacts on tropical ecosystems through insects. Two other people and I accompanied her on her once or two times-a-year pilgrimage to El Yunque, under the new moon. We were assisting her in her research, focused on understanding the impacts of Hurricane Maria on moth (nocturnal butterflies) communities. It is under the new moon that this type of sampling can be done effectively: the darkness reduces competition between the light from the trap and from the moon, thus attracting more moths.
The voices of the rainforest multiplied and amplified once we shut off the lights. To be immersed in the darkness of our rainforest and to listen to its sounds is not an opportunity that I am often given. In that moment, I finally looked up to the skies and appreciated the stars without fear of falling. As a drizzle began, we turned on the lights, and continued our walk back to the where we started.
We arrived around 6:30 P.M. to the El Verde field station, the research center of the University of Puerto Rico located in El Yunque. The objective was to go to the three spots that Aura selected, where we would place three traps with ultraviolet bulbs that would attract the moths. We carried three 25-pound batteries into the rainforest; each of us with a backpack full of equipment and several bottles of water and snack bars. It was almost 11 P.M. by the time we got back to the parking lot. The rain helped disguise the sweat and tiredness of our bodies.
That new-moon-weekend in July 2020 brought back memories of when I did research in the field, but it also reminded me of how complicated and complex it is, as many things are out of our control. Especially, when there is an ongoing pandemic. We returned to the house while listening to the symphony of our stomachs. And although we were tempted to open a few beers and socialize, we opted to go to sleep after eating, as we had to return to the forest around 5:00 A.M. When I saw Aura’s disappointment and frustration when finding the traps turned off the next morning, I knew we should have had at least one beer before going to sleep.
I arrived in Rio Grande, one of the municipalities where El Yunque is located, Friday afternoon. Aura and I met at a local supermarket to buy food for the weekend. The last time we saw each other was two months earlier, in Vermont, where we are studying. We stared at each other for a few seconds, and then hugged. Obviously, breaking pandemic protocols made us feel bad — even though we had been in isolation for a long time, preparing for that sampling weekend at El Yunque. It felt good to escape from the south of Puerto Rico, where I live. The drought, plus the Saharan dust, had the area all covered in brown and misty landscapes. These episodes of severe drought are becoming more frequent and intense in the Caribbean. Puerto Rico, like most islands in the region, is expected to see increasing temperatures due to climate change. Seeing so much green, while following Aura towards the house near the rainforest where we would be staying, was almost magical. “It is very dry here too, even if it doesn’t look like it” –she told me, as we got the equipment out of her car.
Aura has been collecting moths in El Yunque since the beginning of 2017. Little is known about them. In particular, their role in nocturnal pollination, which is important for the ecosystem, and for agricultural production. Aura told me that, “[all] butterflies and moths belong to the order Lepidoptera,and more than 90% of them are nocturnal. The last study about them in Puerto Rico was done in 1998 (1); 1,045 species of butterflies and moths were estimated, of which 26% are native to the archipelago.” The objective of her project was to know the degree of difference, if any, in moth communities (assemblages) in two forest areas in El Yunque: one dominated by Sierra Palm (Prestoea montana), and the other by Tabonuco trees (Dacroydes excelsa). There are 4 types of forests and various microclimates that make El Yunque a special place. To that we add its cultural and traditional significance, particularly the one that our Taino ancestors gave it. Unfortunately, human impacts, such as light pollution, solid waste mismanagement, and poorly planned constructions, together with natural impacts that are intensifying due to climate change (also human-driven), such as droughts and stronger storms, have increased the vulnerability of our national forest, producer of water, air and beauty. People like Aura seek to understand how, specifically, these impacts harm their biodiversity, in order to outline effective ways for conservation.
I underlined “was” in the paragraph above because Aura’s study now revolves around understanding how those assemblages changed with the impact of María, a 2017 category 4 hurricane that caused damage or death to 23-31 million trees in Puerto Rico . “[Our study] is one way of better understanding the response and recovery of the forest to this impact.” Preliminary data from the study suggests that the assemblages were completely changed by the impact of the hurricane, regardless of forest type . Nonetheless, after the hurricane, the number of individuals (abundance) and the number of species (richness) was higher in the area dominated by Tabonuco trees. “These trees are strong, they create underground connections between them, unlike Sierra Palms that do not provide good shelter due.” Therefore, given that the impacts will continue to occur, if we want to safeguard the biodiversity of the forest, it is important to conserve those areas dominated by Tabonuco, most of which are remnants of mature forest. Meaning that these areas have not been affected by human disturbances. Aura is confident that future samplings will shed more light on that preliminary conclusion.
As we walked under the subtle light of dawn to where we had left the traps, Aura pointed out areas and described how they were like before the hurricane. Frankly, everything looked the same to me. It was remarkable how embedded she was in the landscape and the connection she had with the forest. I told the team that if they were following me, we would have already gotten lost and would never find where we left the traps. “I grew up in the forest,” Aura said. And just as she had seen El Yunque transform, she also saw how the mountains of Carraízo, where she was raised, transformed throughout her childhood. Witnessing the change of the landscape catalyzed questions that she would later answer through her scientific work. “What do you feel?”, I asked her when we got to the first spot and saw the light off. Although there was a hint of anger and frustration, Aura took a deep breath and began to tell us the possible causes. She had checked the voltage of the batteries and tested them before the weekend. But as she said, it was not in her control that they got damaged. Sometimes one wastes so much energy in pondering over something one does not control. And now, whenever something similar to the “battery situation” happens to me, I think about how Aura responded to it.
We proceeded to remove the trap — we noticed that several moths were caught, but not the number that she expected. Yes, seeing their corpses raised uncomfortable questions in me. But their life cycle is very short and sampling once or twice a year does not harm the population―I said to myself. (And it made me think of Eva Kinnebrew’s piece) When collecting all the equipment, Aura took out a densiometer and together with the other colleague measured the canopy to see how much light enters the area. By comparing the canopy cover data that Aura took before and after Hurricane Maria, she can determine how much the forest has recovered since the hurricane. Then we walked up the mountain to find the second trap off. The same happened with the third. And what do you do when an experiment goes wrong in El Yunque? Well, you go for a dip in a swimming hole.
While floating in the river, Aura went over different options on how to deal with the setback. She would soon have to return to Vermont, and coinciding with the new moon in Puerto Rico is not an easy thing. So, she had to re-sample to not miss the opportunity. The next day, when I had to go back to the hot south, we returned with charged batteries and set up a camera to see how long the light bulbs lasted. Before I left, I went with her to the laboratory to help sort the samples we collected the previous night. We were classifying all the moths by morphospecies, that is, by how they resemble each other. “That’s why I like insects, you have to learn how to see the details” -she said, while she explained to me how difficult it was to determine the real species, particularly that of the smallest ones.
I wanted to stay longer to help with the resampling, but responsibilities in the south required attention. As I was driving home along the old highway, it was clear how the green was turning brown. During that week, I could not get what happened in El Yunque out of my mind, plus my flat feet kept reminding me of how much we walked. Neither could I shake off that moment of silence and stillness when we turned off the lights. At the end of the week, Aura told me that they managed to acquire new batteries and that she decided to repeat the sampling the following month. Putting the camera served to check how long the bulbs were on and thus be able to adjust their results.
There are three new moons this summer of 2021, so maybe I’ll be an assistant to my ecologist friend again. Meanwhile, I hope to educate myself more about Tabonucos, about where they are in Puerto Rico, and on what we can do as a society to protect them. As the song of Francisco Roque Muñoz says, “Un jacho de tabonuco, tengo yo para alumbrarme” (A piece of Tabonuco, I have to light up the way).
1. Torres, J. A. y S. Medina-Gaud, 1998. Los insectos de Puerto Rico. Acta Científica 12: 3-41
3. Aura Alonso-Rodríguez. University of Vermont – Rubenstein School. (2019, October 29). Vegetation types influences the response of moth communities to hurricane disturbance in a tropical rainforest. [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6H9f0bIK0Ac
Photo credits: All pictures were taken by Luis Alexis Rodríguez-Cruz at El Yunque during that new moon weekend.
Este ensayo fue publicado en 80grados el 12 de marzo de 20201.
Iba caminando y pensando dos cosas: en que ya no aguantaba las piernas y en que quería ver un coquí. Llevábamos casi cuatro horas bosque adentro en El Yunque. Aunque quería mirar hacia arriba y apreciar el revolú de estrellas, tenía la mirada hacia abajo para que la linterna en mi cabeza iluminara el camino. Caerse en una vereda de esas, llenas de piedras y raíces, mientras se carga un bulto lleno de instrumentos científicos, no debe ser bonito. Hubo ocasiones en que resbalé, pero aún no me caía. Yo iba atrás en la fila, caminando lento para ver si lograba ver un coquí, pero sin perder el paso del equipo. “Mira, Luis”–dijo Aura al ratito. Y allí estaba, tranquilito en un tronco, listo para la foto. Luego de eso, ella nos pidió que apagáramos las linternas.
“In this episode, Courtney speaks with Luis Alexis Rodríguez-Cruz, a PhD candidate in Food Systems at the University of Vermont. They discuss Luis’ unexpected path to his research on Puerto Ricans farmer adaptation and food security following Hurricane Maria. Courtney and Luis also talk about Luis’ efforts in science communication, sharing his research in Puerto Rico and beyond. Finally, they discuss a blog post Luis recently published on “How to not suffer (much) in graduate school” and his take-aways for taking care of yourself in academia.”
This is the final reflection written for the University of Vermont course, “Writing Across Disciplines”, taught in spring 2020 by Dr. Caitlin B. Morgan. The essay was written in May 2020–Thus, when it says, “this semester”, “now”, etc., it refers to January-May 2020.
In the start of the semester, I wrote that I would focus my efforts on writing a piece centered on a food systems story for my Writing Across Disciplines course. Moreover, I stated that I would allocate time for daily writing. Now in the future (May 2020), which, like Luis Rafael Sánchez says, “always comes dressed as the present”, I can say that I have not followed my plan thoroughly. I wrote the food systems piece, but it has yet to become what I want it to be. I allocated time for work, but found myself often not writing on such times. Nevertheless, I have written what I wanted or what I was assigned to write. In this present-future I can say that my structure is an unstructured one, and it works. This semester allowed me to be more aware of it. I am now more clear on how to position myself, in order to write what I have to and want write.