In a series of tweets on September 30, 2017, President Donald Trump countered challenges to his administration’s response to the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico by claiming that Puerto Ricans “want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort.” The tweets sounded a racial dog whistle meant to communicate to the president’s base that Puerto Ricans are lazy and exist in a parasitic relationship with the United States — always taking, always expecting more. Many commentators took Trump to task for his racially coded language and colonial paternalism. Images circulated throughout social media of Puerto Rican men and women, and even children, working together to clear roads in their communities to enable travel to access urgent necessities.
Puerto Rico’s new infrastructure, particularly in a context of growing environmental threats related to climate change, cannot be built on a foundation of austerity.
It is not enough, however, to recognize local efforts toward recovery. It is crucial, in addition, to support concrete steps to radically transform Puerto Rico’s infrastructure, which can pave the way for a more just and sustainable society. Puerto Rico’s new infrastructure, particularly in a context of growing environmental threats related to climate change, cannot be built on a foundation of austerity. Puerto Rico needs meaningful debt relief and investment in order to recover and ultimately, transform. Moreover, the local and federal governments need to listen to and follow the lead of community activists and local residents as opposed to trying to impose a one-size fits all recovery model on Puerto Rico.
Toward Energy Sovereignty
In Puerto Rico, “community efforts” — to use Trump’s own language — to improve the quality of life for local communities have long preceded the current official top-down conversations about how to rebuild the hurricane-ravaged territory. For example, in the Bay of Jobos region, in southeastern Puerto Rico, a number of communities have been hard at work resisting environmental degradation and creating plans for sustainable environmental transformation for more than three decades. These are largely low-income communities that are disproportionately exposed to the toxic pollutants generated by two power plants that bookend Jobos Bay: the Aguirre Power Plant Complex and the AES coal power plant.
A fire that erupted at the Aguirre Power Plant Complex on September 21, 2016, plunged Puerto Rico into a three-day blackout, which foreshadowed the current power crisis and exposed the vulnerability of the power grid. The AES coal plant has been in the news lately as a result of the ongoing protests against the irresponsible disposal of toxic coal ash in the towns of Peñuelas and Humacao. Protesters are demanding that the AES plant be shut down because generating energy using coal inevitably leads to the production of toxic coal ash that is harmful to communities and the environment.
Despite its fertile terrain, Puerto Rico imports approximately 85 percent of its food. Hurricane Maria has revealed the intense vulnerability of Puerto Rico’s food supply chain.
Almost all of the electricity generated in Puerto Rico comes from fossil fuels and is imported at a high cost to residents. Puerto Ricans pay some of the highest energy costs within US jurisdiction. Presently, activists working with community-based environmental watchdog organizations, such as climate advocate and attorney Ruth Santiago of Comité Diálogo Ambiental and Alexis Massol Gonzalez of Casa Pueblo, argue that recovery efforts must entail a complete transformation of the grid itself. Building a resilient electric power grid will require ending the island’s dependence on fossil fuels, opting instead for solar power, wind power and other clean energy resources. Additionally, the power grid must be decentralized from the current model, which is based on large fossil-fuel dependent power plants with long-distance transmission. The island should instead seek to develop a system of micro-grids, solar communities and other sustainable alternatives that allow residents to manage energy demand at a community level. Environmental justice communities, which have suffered the worst effects of the current model, want to play a central role in the management and production of photovoltaic and wind energy. These are not people “who want everything to be done for them,” these are people asking for the resources and commitments necessary to build a better Puerto Rico for themselves and future generations.
Toward Food Sovereignty
Despite its fertile terrain, Puerto Rico imports approximately 85 percent of the food consumed in the territory. Even staples of Puerto Rico’s traditional culinary culture — plantains, rice, beans and root vegetables — tend to be imported. Because of the Jones Act, which restricts foreign ships from transporting goods to Puerto Rico, residents are forced to absorb high shipping costs in the form of more expensive food that takes longer to get to them. This has resulted in increased rates of hunger and food insecurity as people are unable to keep up with the rising prices of food in the face of staggering rates of unemployment and poverty.
Hurricane Maria destroyed an estimated 80 percent of Puerto Rico’s cash crops and caused significant damage to livestock industries.
Hurricane Maria has revealed the intense vulnerability of Puerto Rico’s food supply chain. With transportation limited as a result of the storm, many areas, particularly those far outside of San Juan, are still lacking access to food and clean water. In the face of governmental delay, activists have stepped up to provide food for their communities. For instance, the Comedores Sociales de Puerto Rico, a community-managed food distribution initiative launched in 2013 to counter the effects of the economic crisis, has been working to provide breakfast and lunch seven days a week to residents of Caguas in the aftermath of the storm. As concerns grow about how funds and materials will be distributed, the federal and local governments need to support and amplify the existing network of community pantries and solidarity kitchens to make sure that all Puerto Ricans have access to healthy and nutritious food.
Hurricane Maria destroyed an estimated 80 percent of Puerto Rico’s cash crops and caused significant damage to livestock industries. This news is devastating as Puerto Rico’s emergent agricultural sector was a source of growth in an otherwise anemic economy. Over the past few years, more people had begun working in various agricultural industries, from larger dairy farms and sugar cane plantations to smaller organic farms focused on growing fresh produce for high-end restaurants. Community huertos, or gardens, had also experienced a boom in recent years in response to the financial crisis and ever-rising prices at local supermarkets.
As with Puerto Rico’s electrical grid, the destruction of much of Puerto Rico’s agricultural sector, devastating as it is, provides an opportunity to make practices more sustainable. The government should work with small and large-scale farmers to modernize their infrastructure to reduce water waste and decrease dependence on fossil fuels. Transformations to the agricultural sector will also help reduce dependence on imported food, making Puerto Rico less susceptible to international price fluctuations and disruptions in the supply chain.
As Puerto Rico faces the difficult task of rebuilding from a catastrophic natural disaster in the midst of an economic crisis, the federal and local governments must not respond with austerity measures. Instead, they must aid recovery by investing in Puerto Rico’s existing physical and human resources. Community efforts to build sustainable and socially just institutions and infrastructure should be prioritized to help Puerto Rico prepare for the storms ahead.