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

October 8, 2019

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 U.S. 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 U.S.: “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 U.S. 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 U.S. could benefit, from Puerto Rican production of goods that were
consumed in the U.S. 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 U.S. 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.”

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