Image via Wikimedia Commons

Activists and Locals are Using Giant Hurricane Relief Aid Ships to Rebuild Puerto Rico

As the federal government stumbles on recovery efforts, individuals are stepping up to ensure a just recovery for the badly damaged island.

Nov 21 2017, 3:30pm

Image via Wikimedia Commons

When Hurricane María made landfall on Puerto Rico on September 20, now more than two months ago, as a Category 4 storm, its strength and ferocity ripped away the island’s crops, row after row. In a matter of hours, Hurricane María had washed away about 80 percent of the crop value in Puerto Rico.

While plants just blew away, the storm ravaged entire plantations — plantain, banana, coffee, sugar and papaya crops were the hardest hit. But the agriculture infrastructure was destroyed too, from dairy barns to chicken coops to important roads in the agricultural circuit. The loss? $780 million in agriculture yields, according to the Department of Agriculture’s preliminary figures.

While, for over 400 years, the island’s economy was based on agriculture, Puerto Rico’s industrialization after World War II led to a collapse of agriculture production, only revived recently and growing at 3 to 5 percent every year over the past six years, Carlos Flores Ortega, Puerto Rico’s secretary of the Department of Agriculture told the New York Times. The hardest hit? Small-scale farmers, those who had led the farm-to-table movement that had generated hope for an agricultural rebirth amid a decade-long recession.

Before the storm struck, Puerto Rico was already importing about 85 percent of its food. With local staples lost, that number is only set to rise.

But the Our Power #JustRecovery Puerto Rico campaign believes it doesn't have to be that way.

Before the storm struck, Puerto Rico was already importing about 85 percent of its food.

Since its launch, shortly after María struck, the campaign has been bringing environmental, social and economic justice groups from across the United States together to support Puerto Rican leadership in their effort to rebuild the island through a just recovery centered on renewable energy, a green economy, food sovereignty and Puerto Rico’s self sufficiency.

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As the team recently arrived in Puerto Rico on board the historic Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise, VICE Impact spoke with Angela Adrar, Executive Director of Climate Justice Alliance and a leader of the Our Power #JustRecovery Puerto Rico campaign about how they are going to support farmer recovery, and why doing so is critical for Puerto Rican self-determination and long-term resilience.

VICE Impact: How did the Our Power #JustRecovery Puerto Rico initiative come about?

Angela Adrar: Our Power communities have been uniting in the United States for a Just Transition to a regenerative economy for years. They include communities that form part of the Climate Justice Alliance in Richmond, San Antonio, Detroit and other cities.

When María hit and there was a clear inaction by the government, we began to hold assessment calls with Puerto Rican representatives from climate disaster areas to come up with people-to-people solutions. Some on the call included Organización Boricua from Puerto Rico, TEJAS from Houston, and the Farmworkers Association of Florida.

The Our Power Puerto Rico campaign was birthed from an urgency to have a visionary and inspiring approach to climate intensified disasters that respond to frontline communities and leaves them more resilient and Puerto Rico prepared for the future. We now have 25 partners involved in the growing campaign.

How did you go about deciding which supplies were most critically needed?

The second vessel [heading to Puerto Rico] contains solar panel cubes, farming equipment, water filtration systems and other such supplies that are zero-low waste, renewable and help farmers rebuild their livelihoods.

We are working with partners in rural areas in Puerto Rico -- Organización Boricuá, our main partner and CJA member on the island. They came up with the list of supplies based on the needs of the communities they work with on the ground, which consists of 160 agro-ecological family farms, 30 farming networks mostly, women and youth inspiring the country to reach food sovereignty, serious task given that 85 percent of food was imported into Puerto Rico after Hurricane María. They have worked on issues of food sovereignty in Puerto Rico for 28 years mostly in rural areas. All of their member groups have yet to receive relief assistance.

These supplies could not come on board the Arctic Sunrise because the Jones Act does not allow for foreign-flagged vessels to transport supplies between U.S. ports. The Our Power #JustRecovery campaign leaders have denounced the Jones Act as posing an alarming obstacle in bringing help to Puerto Rico. How did it affect the Our Power #JustRecovery initiative?

The Jones Act has complicated our donation arrangements. Had it not been for the Jones Act, the Arctic Sunrise would have easily transported donations, but instead we have had to incorporate a full contingency plan for transporting goods, and that has been quite complicated.

It is true that the Jones Act has important protections for workers that we want to keep and actually enforce, especially for Puerto Rican workers, but it also has punitive tariffs, taxes, and fees on imports that have had negative repercussions for the equitable development of Puerto Ricans for decades.

Our Power wants to support a full examination of the Jones Act so that we continue to support workers but not at the cost of lives. The Labor Council for Latin American Advancement has put out a resolution on the repeal of the Jones act that we support.

And you’re not just shipping relief aid. You are working to help Puerto Ricans bounce forward to self-determination. Why is that important?

Our Power Puerto Rico #JustRecovery is about transforming how we respond to climate change and allow Puerto Ricans to take charge of their own recovery.

It is true that the Jones Act has important protections for workers that we want to keep and actually enforce, especially for Puerto Rican workers, but it also has punitive tariffs, taxes, and fees on imports that have had negative repercussions for the equitable development of Puerto Ricans for decades.

We have seen communities displaced as a consequence of climate change and pushed out of their lands because they were not part of the decision making during the rebuilding Puerto Rico process. We saw it during Katrina. Many black families were forced out of their homes and after recovery, their neighborhoods were gentrified.

We have a moral duty to assure that Puerto Rico doesn't become another sacrifice zone after hurricane María. The peoples’ voice and needs should drive the recovery and rebuilding efforts, not those of private energy firms that make a killing from disaster capitalism after these climate catastrophes.

Puerto Rico does not have voting rights or representation in Congress, and Puerto Ricans have been treated as second-class citizens for far too long.

How are you organizing on the ground?

We will have multiple brigades go down to Puerto Rico to support the recovery efforts on the ground. The first brigade of leaders are at the service of local communities in Puerto Rico, building partnerships, holding strategy meetings with artists, farmers, laborers and other intersectional partners to envision a mid-to-long-term recovery effort. These include representatives from Ruckus, Movement Generation, Climate Justice Alliance, Puerto Rico Resiliency Fund, UPROSE, and others.

A second brigade will support the distribution of supplies when they arrive with local farmers and their partners later this month to batch and distribute goods.

A third brigade is due to arrive in Puerto Rico in January and will be made up of POC and black farmers from the U.S., and are involved in the land struggle here to unite and rebuild with farmers on the island.

Our Power Puerto Rico #JustRecovery is still collecting critical items like solar panels and water purifiers and more. Check out a full list of donations they're accepting until January 2018 and help out.

Donate to Hurricane Maria relief above, and also stay up to date on what your local leaders are doing to reduce climate change and its possible effects on more harmful storms. The Sierra Club is leading a campaign to get mayors to commit to transitioning their towns and cities from dirty fossil fuels to clean renewable energy. Here's how you can encourage your mayor to join more than 150 other cities in switching to 100 percent green energy.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity