After Maria, Puerto Ricans Cultivate Food Sovereignty While FEMA Delivered Skittles and Cheez-Its

An upcoming video produced by The Intercept follows our guest, Naomi Klein, on her recent trip to Puerto Rico. Some of the people she speaks with include two environmental activists, Jesús Vázquez and Katia Avilés, who talk about food security after Hurricane Maria. For more, we speak with Naomi Klein and with Puerto Rican anthropologist Yarimar Bonilla.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Our guests are Yarimar Bonilla, associate professor at Rutgers University of Caribbean studies and a visiting fellow at the Russell Sage Foundation, author of Non-Sovereign Futures. We’re also joined by Naomi Klein, who is now a senior correspondent at The Intercept, and we’ll link to her piece called “The Battle for Paradise.” Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, Yarimar, I wanted to continue the discussion we were having before about the impact of the Puerto Rican diaspora on this whole debate. I remember back quite some time ago, when I was back in the Young Lords, in 1971, we began organizing, from New York City, in Puerto Rico — in El Caño, in Santurce, in Aguadilla. At the time, we always used to tout that one-third of the Puerto Rican nation lived in the United states, and there was two-thirds still on the island. But yet, we were sort of rejected by the elite of Puerto Rico, who called us Yankees, you know, that we were coming back to try to intervene in their social struggle. Now, five-eighths of the Puerto Rican people are living in the United States, and only three-eighths in Puerto Rico. There’s been, in that period of 40 years, a huge shift in the population here in the United States. What’s the impact of that Puerto Rican population in the US with what’s going on in Puerto Rico right now?

YARIMAR BONILLA: Yeah, it’s really interesting, because there has been a shift, like you said. There was a time when the diaspora was discouraged from getting involved politically in the political status of Puerto Rico, in the future of Puerto Rico, and recriminated for not speaking enough Spanish and for not, you know, being Puerto Rican enough, in some sense or another. So there is a positive change in that sense, where now there’s people who don’t even want to talk about diaspora, they just want to talk about Puerto Ricans here and there and everywhere.

But at the same time, it is troubling how now the government is mobilizing the diaspora, but not necessarily to the same kind of political ends of the original kind of movements of the ’60s and ’70s. And so, now the idea is that the diaspora is more diverse economically and politically, and now the diaspora is, in some ways, by certain, you know, folks within the statehood party, used as an example of the positive aspects of being part of the US: “Look, you can retain your culture and your traditional ties, while still speaking English and being, you know, a full citizen and voting.” And so, it actually has some positive aspects, but also some kind of troubling elements, in terms of how the diaspora is being imagined.

But I think, with Maria, the diaspora has been such an important political force and so important in the recovery. Many of the first responders, in a way, were folks from the diaspora who just sent things directly to their family members and their friends, and got on planes themselves and took so much — you know, so much aid. So I do think there’s going to be a rethinking of what the role of the diaspora will be. But, in some sense, there’s also going to be a battle over what politically the diaspora is going to mean.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s go back to this story that we started with. I want to go to a clip from an upcoming video produced by The Intercept that our guest, Naomi Klein — follows her on her recent trip to Puerto Rico. In the clip, we hear from from two environmental activists, Jesús Vázquez and Katia Avilés, talking about food security.

KATIA AVILÉS: Puerto Rico became a US colony in 1898. During the ’40s, there was a very strong push to get people out of poverty. And poverty became directly equated with being peasant, with being a former. So the idea was to break down rural communities, get people to the cities, get them in cement homes and, at the same time, see how we could benefit, or how the US could benefit, from Puerto Rican production of goods that were consumed in the US They start pushing large-scale coffee plantations, large-scale sugar plantations.

JESÚS VÁZQUEZ: Puerto Rico has this situation that, in terms of food security, we’re very insecure, because we import a lot of food. More than 80 percent of our food comes from abroad — right? — by the Port of San Juan. And we’ve always been saying within our movement that that’s a problem — right? — because of climate change, right? We can have something happen with that port, and then we’ll be doomed.

KATIA AVILÉS: Maria highlighted that within a night. The next night, we didn’t have food, we didn’t have water, we didn’t have electricity, we didn’t have anything. A lot of conventional farmers right now are starving. Even though they have amazing amount of land, they didn’t have anything to harvest, because they had followed the Department of Agriculture’s instructions for monocultures of coffee, whereas, before, a traditional agroecological farm would be intercropped, with oranges, with bananas, with plantains. And that provides for your family. That next day, agroecological farmers were back to the lands. We had farmers already ready to sell at the markets.

JESÚS VÁZQUEZ: We can feed the people with sustainable practices that do not harm the environment, that promote resilience within the farm and within the community. We knew that was possible even before Maria. And this is also a moment for us to reflect and also make it more visible.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Those were environmental activists Jesús Vázquez and Katia Avilés, talking with Naomi Klein. Naomi, talk more about what you learned about the battle in agriculture right now in Puerto Rico and what the signs of hope for a new direction are.

NAOMI KLEIN: Katia and Jesús work with this wonderful organization called Organización Boricuá. They have been advocating for a very long time for food security, for a shift to — away from this extreme dependence on imports. Eighty-five percent of the food that Puerto Ricans eat is imported, and 90 percent of it comes through this single port, the Port of San Juan, which was in absolute chaos after Maria. And this is why a lot of people who I talked to in Puerto Rico referred sort of casually to Hurricane Maria as “our teacher,” this very stern teacher, but there were all of these lessons, carried by the storm, of what didn’t work and also some things that did work. So, what didn’t work, as I said earlier, was pretty much everything, this very centralized, import-dependent food and energy system. But there were also examples of things that did, including the model of agriculture, agroecology, that has been advanced by Organización Boricuá for a very long time. And we met them, thanks to a delegation coming from the US mainland organized by the Climate Justice Alliance.

But the story that they were telling there is that on farms that use these more traditional methods of intercropping, so not planting a single monocrop, cash crop, that was just leveled by Maria, but using these seeds and these methods that protected against erosion, but also planted a diversity of crops, including a lot of root vegetables, that survived Hurricane Maria. So, some of the only people with food stores, after Hurricane Maria sent the whole system into chaos, were farms that had planted root vegetables, that were able to harvest them very, very quickly, and they had nutritious food. Meanwhile, FEMA wasn’t getting to remote communities for, in some cases, weeks. And then, when they finally arrived, they had boxes filled with Skittles and Cheez-It crackers. So, this is another example of what the reconstruction should look like, if we actually learn the lessons carried by Maria.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Yarimar, this whole issue of the fact that Puerto Rico has had to, as a result of colonialism, import so much food, when the reality is that anyone who’s been to the island knows that it’s so fertile that fruits grow wild everywhere on the island?

YARIMAR BONILLA: Yeah, and I think that was really, you know, made clear. Naomi points to it so clearly in her piece, that this juncture between the kind of rich, local food that people were still able to get, because — you know, I think it’s really important to say that Puerto Ricans have been in this crisis for over six months, and there has not been rioting. There has not been violence. You know, folks have adapted and managed to take care of themselves in the face of a state that has completely abandoned them, thrown paper towels at them, thrown Skittles at them, thrown all manner of inappropriate items. And so, there was a kind of a very sharp contrast. And people, they didn’t want the military food that FEMA was distributing. Folks — you know, a lot of people tried it and then decided to just go back to eating their yucca and then their — you know, the things that they were able to get in those days.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, when we went down to Puerto Rico right after the storm, we stayed in this dark house in San Juan, no electricity. Right next door to it was a little hotel, a bed and breakfast, completely solar-powered, amazing. And then, all the neighbors were saying, “Hey, we want to get that solar power, too.” And I wanted to ask Naomi about — 98 percent of the electricity is from fossil fuels that are imported. No domestic supply of oil, gas and coal, all these fuels imported, as well as, almost entirely, Puerto Rico is reliant on food imports, despite what you both are describing right here. And as we wrap up, do you see — and I want to ask you both this question — a completely new grid being discussed?

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, instead, we’re hearing talk of privatization, which, frankly, is linked to this cryptocurrency mania, because, of course, if you are thinking about relocating your business to Puerto Rico, as Yarimar said, you want to make sure you have, you know, access to your data, which is intimately linked to this push to have a privatized electricity grid, which many Puerto Ricans are very afraid is not going to be accessible to a lot of poor Puerto Ricans, that it will cater to these so-called Puertopians who are coming in. And there should be a huge amount of discussion going on right now about how Puerto Rico can power itself from the sun, from the wind, from the waves, which are all abundant, unlike fossil fuels, about how to do it in a way that keeps the power, the political power, the jobs, the skills, in communities and gives people a reason to stay.

YARIMAR BONILLA: Yeah, one thing that hasn’t been discussed, you know, the governor said blockchain is going to be central to the future. A lot of people are —

AMY GOODMAN: And explain — again, explain what blockchain is.

YARIMAR BONILLA: Well, blockchain is the ledger system that powers — makes it possible to make Bitcoin, right? It’s not Bitcoin. It kind of allows it. So, if, you know, Napster allowed people to exchange music, so, you know — but there are other things that you could do through a kind of system like Napster. So, a lot of people in the tech industry are saying that blockchain is the future to renewable energy. And so, I suspect — it has not been said directly, but I suspect that part of why blockchain is also so centrally invested in what’s happening in Puerto Rico is that they want to be at the center of turning towards renewable resources, because renewable sounds really great, but they’re all — there are a lot of forms of green capitalism and green imperialism, right? And so, that’s, I think, what I find most troubling.

And already there was a report that had come out in Puerto Rico about how certain solar power companies were taking advantage of Puerto Ricans, selling them deficient products, hooking them into a system, a long-term system, where they didn’t have batteries, they didn’t have their own kind of independence. And so, I fear that there’s going to be a kind of greenwashing of, you know, the new energy solutions that are going to be put into place, that are going to pretend to look like something similar to what’s happening at Casa Pueblo but are in fact going to be driven by completely different interests and are not going to be the idea — you know, micro sounds great, but there are lots of different forms of being micro. And so, I really think it’s troubling that it’s not people like Arturo Massol who have the ear of the governor, but, rather, blockchain industry leaders that are setting the terms of what this recovery is going to look like.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we have 30 seconds, Naomi. As you return and, of course, wrote this seminal book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, your final thoughts?

NAOMI KLEIN: I guess my final thoughts is that amidst all of this bleak news, one of the most hopeful things that’s going on in Puerto Rico is that Puerto Ricans are organizing against disaster capitalism and are advancing their own alternatives. I would encourage people to find ways to support these community-run initiatives. And there’s also a coalition of 60 organizations that has just formed, called Junta Gente, the People Together, who are putting forward their own people’s platform for a just recovery. So, stay tuned. We’ll be writing and talking about ways to support.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, and thank you so much, Naomi Klein, senior correspondent for The Intercept, her latest piece, “The Battle for Paradise.” And thank you so much to Yarimar Bonilla. Her latest piece in The Nation, “6 Months After Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans Face a New Threat — Education Reform.”