In today’s visits to Atenas Pineapple, the commercial-scale pineapple farm, and Hacienda La Esperanza, the slavery-based sugar plantation turned nature preserve, the question of Puerto Rican identity and its relationship to the Commonwealth’s agricultural and economic goals stood out to me – how are they intertwined? How much does each contribute on its own to a brighter future for Puerto Rico? Would a more deliberate approach to considering these facets of society simultaneously yield more successful outcomes for the Commonwealth?
Building on Duany’s thesis that Puerto Rico has a notably strong cultural identity alongside an amorphous and ambiguous national political identity, and Ortíz Cuadra’s notion that “authentic Puerto Rican-ness” cannot be expressed without an acknowledgement of the multiple global forces that have shaped Puerto Rican cultural and culinary identity, I found myself wondering what the driving vision for agriculture in Puerto Rico could or should be to best establish Puerto Rican economic and agricultural self-determination. We discussed a pride in and local significance to the “Made in Puerto Rico” brand, yet even this seemingly unassailable agricultural expression of “authentic Puerto Rican-ness” seems to be floating in the Zeitgeist without a firm rooting in a policy agenda that could actually drive change.
Our visit to Atenas Pineapple made this elusive idea of using the “local” brand as a tactic for self-expression, and the challenges of such a tactic, tangible. Despite its many undeniably positive attributes, including job creation, a reaffirmation of the value of Puerto Rican crops, and relatively responsible commodity agriculture, the enterprise struck me as a sentence about Puerto Rican agricultural identity expression that trailed off at the end. The visit left me asking: does it really make sense to build up commercial-scale commodity agriculture in the 21st century in Puerto Rico, when feeding the population with local agriculture will most likely never be possible given the labor costs and land pressures on the island? Does it make sense to double down on agricultural practices that have been shown to have dramatically damaging environmental costs, rather than take the opportunity to leapfrog into more sustainable agricultural practices? Do the 70 or 80 jobs that have been created at Atenas Pineapple, even with projected growth in scale and jobs over the next few years, justify such a massive effort of industry-municipal partnership, when moving the needle on unemployment at this rate would take decades or even centuries? What message does Atenas Pineapple send about the importance and value of “authentic” Puerto Rican agriculture when half of its name is in English, suggesting that even a reassertion of native Puerto Rican agriculture is rooted in a globally oriented reality? Likewise, at Hacienda La Esperanza, we learned about Para la Naturaleza’s (a local conservation organization) goal of conserving 33% of Puerto Rico’s land by 2033, up from the current 8% – but to what end, when agricultural land is in such high demand and limited land maintains high local food prices?
Overall, my big takeaway from today is that there doesn’t seem to be an overarching agenda at the national (Puerto Rican) level that articulates economic and agricultural policy goals in a way that empowers local and municipal efforts to be in service of such goals. It seems to me that such an agenda should be a prerequisite to the conversation about what counts as an agricultural expression of “authentic Puerto Rican-ness,” because I believe that determining economic and agricultural paths forward that best serve the Puerto Rican people in the long term is a key factor in nourishing the cultural identity in which Puerto Ricans take so much pride.
Perhaps the answer is not to rely on current paradigms of conventional versus organic agriculture, or to take the messy tax and labor systems for granted, but to completely revolutionize how the island approaches agriculture and its agricultural economy. One potential way forward is to embrace the cultural identity that is so critical to Puerto Ricans and use it as a jumping off point to design agricultural and economic systems that actually serve the people, regardless of the assumptions that have been taken for granted in the past. The only way out of
the deep economic rut in which the island finds itself could be to completely turn all past decisions on their head, rather than to seek path-dependent compromises that will likely fail to bring about the meaningful change Puerto Rico needs for economic growth and agricultural self determination.