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Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems
ISSN: 2168-3565 (Print) 2168-3573 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/wjsa21
Peasant balances and agroecological scaling in
Puerto Rican coffee farming
Nils McCune, Ivette Perfecto, Katia Avilés-Vázquez, Jesús Vázquez-Negrón &
To cite this article: Nils McCune, Ivette Perfecto, Katia Avilés-Vázquez, Jesús Vázquez-Negrón
& John Vandermeer (2019): Peasant balances and agroecological scaling in Puerto Rican coffee
farming, Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, DOI: 10.1080/21683565.2019.1608348
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/21683565.2019.1608348
Published online: 25 Apr 2019.
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Peasant balances and agroecological scaling in Puerto
Rican coffee farming
Crisis, coffee, and agroecological scaling in Puerto Rico
, Ivette Perfecto
, Katia Avilés-Vázquez
, Jesús Vázquez-Negrón
and John Vandermeer
School for Environment and Sustainability, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA;
Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica de Puerto Rico
This paper examines the relationship between agroecological
scaling and the agrarian question, based on Puerto Rico’s contra-
dictory agricultural and demographic tendencies in the aftermath
of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. We find that labor-based intensifi-
cation, literally rebuilding and recovering the diversity of farms
devastated by the hurricanes, is a necessary step toward scaling
out agroecology in Puerto Rico. The rebuilding of farms requires
both ample manual labor and accumulated local knowledge, two
elements which are difficult to bring together in Puerto Rico due
to a complex interplay of historical and social factors. Decades of
public policy based on the belief that the small farmer is not
essential to Puerto Rico have produced a series of obstacles for
farmers who wish to recover their farms. The peasant economy,
a field of study that recognizes peasant farmers as capable sub-
jects of their own historical resistance –within and against
economies of empire –can be a powerful tool in the effort to
recover local food systems and (re)create a vibrant small farmer
sector. Here, we explore peasant balances, a capacity to aggre-
gate daily farm management decisions into coherent, multifunc-
tional economic strategies that allow for dynamic responses to
changing environmental, social and market conditions, and how
these balances relate to Puerto Rican coffee farmers’capacity to
stay on the land and transition toward agroecological production.
Fieldwork included qualitative interviews with leaders of small
farmers’organizations, Puerto Rican government officials and
farmers in the mountainous central region between
August 2017 and March 2018.
Peasant balances; agrarian
Chayanov; agroecology; just
Introduction: disaster capitalism and food imperialism in Puerto Rico
Along with the rest of the Caribbean islands, Puerto Rico was devastated by the
unprecedented hurricane season of 2017. Puerto Rico’s lack of national sovereignty
was an immediate barrier for receiving emergency aid from neighboring countries,
due to colonial legislation of the US federal government (Jones Act 1917)thatbars
any ship not of US make or bearing the stars-and-stripes from landing in the San
CONTACT Nils McCune firstname.lastname@example.org University of Michigan, USA
AGROECOLOGY AND SUSTAINABLE FOOD SYSTEMS
© 2019 Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
Juan port. But even before the twin hurricanes of Irma and Maria tore down
hillsides, sliced through highways and leveled forests in September 2017, Puerto
Rico was agonizing in eye of an invisible cyclone: a debt crisis that the US
government had used to usurp the already-feeble capacity for policy-making of
the Puerto Rican government in order to push through neoliberal shock therapy.
Indeed, Puerto Rico has a long history of being a guinea pig of the colonial-
modernization project. Centuries after the sweat of enslaved indigenous and
African peoples made plantation agriculture profitable, Puerto Rico continued
to provide cannon fodder, offshore tax havens, and lands for contaminatingwith
depleted uranium. Table 1 is a brief periodization of colonialism in Puerto Rico,
with emphasis on the agrarian and food regimes that correspond to each
historical stage. As the corporate food regime has reached a high level of
development, the democratic veneer of Puerto Rico’sstatusasa“free associated
state”of the US has practically disappeared, revealing dramatic levels of poverty,
vulnerability, and dependency.
A study by Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health on deaths
resulting from Hurricane Maria estimated that over 4,600 people may have
died, many due to delayed medical care (Kishore 2018). Over a year later,
parts of the archipelago remained without electrical power and post-
traumatic stress has led to skyrocketing rates of suicide and depression, as
up to 14% of the remaining population of 3.4 million people was expected to
leave by the end of 2019 (Meléndez and Hinojosa 2017). These trends
compound the general composition of the aging Puerto Rican population.
Since 1960, the percentage of the population under 14 years old has declined
steadily from over 40% to under 20%, a trend that feeds into school closures,
a reduced workforce and a dwindling tax base, even as the ratio of elderly
dependents to working-age population has soared, from 10% in 1955 to 23%
in 2016 (World Bank 2017).
Coffee farming, the most stable mainstay of Puerto Rican agriculture since
the 1800s, has been reduced to just one-fifth of the area it occupied in 1985
(Borkhataria et al. 2012). Even more dramatic is the loss of shade coffee,
which has lost over 90% of its area in the same time period. With electricity,
water and education in line for privatization in post-hurricane Puerto Rico,
small-scale agriculture continues to be deeply impacted. Public transporta-
tion is unavailable, so producers must maintain vehicles that can transport
harvests. Rural clinics and hospitals are being closed down, forcing farmers
to travel farther and lose more work days to health care. Sending children
and grandchildren to school requires that family members live in cities or are
willing to embark on expensive daily commutes. The lack of services also
means a lack of workers, even during peak periods of coffee harvest or
Massive layoffs have compelled some young people to return to family
farms, but by and large, there is an aging agricultural population with little
2N. MCCUNE ET AL.
Table 1. Periodization of Puerto Rican agriculture and food regimes in relation to colonialism.
Spanish colonial period (1502–1898)
Characterized by peasant agriculture with important entrepreneurial colono sugarcane, tobacco and coffee
plantations directly connected with imperialist value chains and transnational slave economies, but
without the same level of financing and technology as in other centers of sugar production, such as
Cuba or Louisiana (Scott 2005).
US direct military occupation (1898–1917)
Weak de-peasantization process in inland areas, as the major changes take place in coastal sugar
plantations, which become increasingly consolidated as US capital assumes a controlling share. Initial
concerns among Creole elite of US capital’s instrumentalization of sugarcane colonos and the
replacement of the elite family-owned ingenios by more corporate centrales linked to financial interests.
US direct colonial regime (1917–1945)
Sugar endures a crisis after US import tariffs are lifted at the end of the World War, US markets are
flooded by cheap beet sugar and prices collapse (Nazario Velasco 2014). Ensuing recovery implies
a greater degree of exploitation of workers, increasing economies of scale, more pervasive direct
ownership of land by US companies, and intensified labor strife (Nodín Valdés 2011). Coffee battered by
hurricanes in 1928 and 1932 as well as Great Depression. Eugenics experiments, sophisticated FBI
repression of independence movement, repeated US military massacres of civilians, and growing
opposition to US sugar interests comprise political trends.
US indirect colonial regime in context of Cold War (1945–1992)
Structural reform of Puerto Rican economy begins slowly after 1940, and accelerates with Operation
Bootstrap, in 1947. Export-focused industrialization based on US corporate direct investment and tax
breaks creates powerful pull factor to stimulate migration from the countryside, as do programs to
encourage migration to US mainland (Berman Santiago 1998). Later, in the 1970s, the inclusion of
Puerto Ricans in federal food stamp programs pulls more labor out of the countryside, as farm wages
are not necessarily competitive with livelihood strategies of full dependence on anti-poverty programs.
Sugarcane production is the first victim of the new development strategy, while USDA policies support
industrial farming –medium and large-scale monocrops (mainly plantains and coffee) begin to push
out small farmers in regions of the island previously characterized by peasant production.
With the advent of food stamps, there occurs a simultaneous leap in food consumption and food imports:
local producers were unable to take advantage of the increased purchasing power of food consumers,
as supermarkets came to control food consumption (Carro-Figueroa 2002). In 1989, Organización
Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica (Boricuá) is formed by a diverse group of Puerto Ricans actively
participating in struggles related to environmental justice, independence and health who decided to
focus on ecological agriculture as a material basis for sovereignty.
US indirect colonial regime in neoliberal period (1992–2016)
As the need to portray Puerto Rico as an unmitigated success wanes in the post-Cold War period, several
of the policies that guaranteed ongoing US capital investment in the island also disappear, particularly
the tax breaks entailed in Section 936 of the Federal Tax Code. By the time the final provisions of
Section 936 are phased out in 2006, the island’s pharmaceutical industry has entered a crisis that would
continue over a decade later (Schoan 2017). Industrial employment declines, and the service sector
proves unable to produce adequate employment opportunities. The government used triple-exempt
bonds to compensate for the loss of industrial income. At the same time, the US military maintains
a large number of military and military intelligence facilities, including the base in Vieques, where it
bombs the inhabited island with conventional and chemical weapons until international outcry leads to
a moratorium in 1999 (Lindsay-Poland 2009). The Vieques base is even rented out to the militaries of
other nations to carry out live-ammunition exercises, with no compensation for the local population of
farmers and fisher people who endure an ongoing crisis of cancer and other chronic diseases.
In the meantime, the agricultural subsidy regime which had become firmly established, begins to give
way (Borkhataria et al. 2012), with less technical assistance, more paperwork, less state support for
cooperatives, etc. The quantity of small farms continues its downward trend. Large land purchases by
transnational corporations takes place, and massive production of GMO seeds is carried out by
Monsanto, Pioneer, Dow, Bayer and Syngenta. Puerto Rico Coffee Roasters, fully owned by Coca-Cola, is
founded in 2008 and purchases the 11 largest local brands, effectively monopolizing the market for
green and roasted coffee. Puerto Rico has a higher ratio of Walmart stores to unit land area than any US
state or indeed any country where Walmart is present (Cintrón Arbasetti 2014).
US direct disaster colonialism regime under fiscal control board (2016-present)
AGROECOLOGY AND SUSTAINABLE FOOD SYSTEMS 3
generational renewal taking place. Land remains a commodity too expensive
for many would-be farmers. Corporate behemoth Monsanto rents tens of
thousands of hectares in southern Puerto Rico from the Land Authority to
produce genetically modified corn, soy, cotton, and sorghum seeds (Martínez
Mercado 2013), and was reportedly among the first farm entities in Puerto
Rico to receive insurance payments in the months after the hurricanes. Small
farmers, in contrast, have consistently faced obstacles renting land from the
Land Authority, and received late and insufficient crop insurance payments,
putting hundreds of farm operations in peril in the coffee sector alone. The
Coca-Cola beverage company, through its subsidiary founded in 2008,
Puerto Rico Coffee Roasters, has quietly purchased nearly all the Puerto
Rican coffee brands.
Amid the disaster capitalism that has enveloped Puerto Rico, there is
a vibrant resistance movement of small-scale farmers, food workers, students,
and consumers. This article compiles evidence from open-ended interviews
before and after the hurricanes with coffee farmers, farm workers, members
and national leadership of Organización Boricuá, as well as researchers and
government officials. We sought to understand Puerto Rico’s potential food
system recovery from ecological, cultural, socioeconomic and political per-
spectives, recognizing the inseparability of the food question and the national
sovereignty question, particularly in times of growing intolerance emanating
from the US government. Alexander Chayanov’s theory of peasant economy
(Chayanov 1986a,1986b), expanded and contextualized by authors such as
van der Ploeg (Van der Ploeg 2008,2013) is useful for connecting the dots
between food empires, everyday resistance, and alternative economies for
scaling agroecology. The social relations that structure agriculture will need
to be dramatically transformed in order for Puerto Ricans to recover and
manage their own food systems, and one of the first steps has been for
movements to find ways to work outside the formal, commoditized economy
(Félix, Rodríguez, and Vázquez 2018).
In this journal, Sevilla Guzmán and Woodgate (2013) wrote an author-
itative history of how heterodox sociological thought contributed to the
Table 1. (Continued).
In light of Puerto Rico’s unpayable sovereign debt and a shrinking economy, Obama signs the PROMESA
Act into law, effectively claiming federal control over Puerto Rico’s public policy, and designates an
unelected seven-person fiscal control board to negotiate, in the name of Puerto Rico, the largest
bankruptcy in US history. The PROMESA board, or junta as it is known in Puerto Rico, is untouchable to
Puerto Rican law as it enacts a privatization and austerity program that threatens public education,
health care and social security on the islands (González 2017).
By 2016, 85% of the food consumed in Puerto Rico is imported. In 2017, up to 90% of crops are lost due
to the catastrophic damage inflicted by Hurricane Maria (Robles and Ferré-Sadurní, 2017). Supermarkets
experience shortages for months as the situation becomes a humanitarian crisis. Meanwhile, both US
and Puerto Rican governments lose prestige because of their mishandling of the crisis and incapacity to
revitalize agriculture in time to prevent acute economic shortfall among small and medium farmers.
4N. MCCUNE ET AL.
development of agroecological theory. In section one of this paper, we build
upon these authors’seminal work by locating Chayanov’s contribution to the
agrarian question, highlighting the differences between capitalist economies
and peasant economies, and exploring how these differences influence agroe-
cological scaling. Then, we focus on the concept of peasant balances as the
mechanism by which farmers use labor-based economies to avoid or mitigate
the impacts of shocks in ways that fully capitalist farms cannot do, giving
small-scale farmers that opt for the ‘peasant path’an important advantage in
the era of climate instability.
In section two, we examine Chayanovian balances in Puerto Rico, using data
from interviews carried out with coffee farmers in 2018, just months after the
hurricanes of September 2017. We find that demographic issues such as out-
migration and an aging farm population, combined with the legacy of decades of
anti-peasant policy, imperiled small-scale farmers long before their plantations
were destroyed by hurricanes. We also find a long-term process of differentia-
tion among small farmers, in terms of their relationships with markets, the State,
and grassroots organizations. The farmers that have been most completely
incorporated into the policies of the Puerto Rican government are divided into
two camps: one tiny group of successful, middle tolarge monoculture farms, and
one large group of families that are in downward economic spirals with no
solutions in sight. On the other hand, those farmers who have sought autono-
mous development through the use of Chayanovian balances tend to be
embedded in dense social relations, strategic participation in markets, and
ongoing local processes of agroecological transition. Our results lead us to
conclude that the forms of resistance and persistence of small farmers –parti-
cularly those organized in visible, dynamic agroecological movements –man-
ifest the importance of peasant economies in overcoming system perturbations
and developing a labor-based strategy for scaling agroecology.
Peasant economies and agroecology
The agrarian question was born out of Marx’spremise that capital expands in
the countryside through primitive accumulation mechanisms such as land
enclosure and resource grabs. Dialectically, these movements to free up capital
also displace people from their territories, creating ‘surplus’labor that can be
utilized in extractive industries, plantation agriculture or the factory system
(Wood 2002). Marx (Marx 1991, 949) noted that capitalist property relations
“provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism,
a metabolism described by the natural laws of life itself.”Primitive accumulation
associated with the European invasion of the Americas and slave economies
became the primordial means for depeasantization, on one hand, and the
development of imperialist and industrial powers on the other. Subsequent
development of agricultural capitalism and proletarization, in each specific
AGROECOLOGY AND SUSTAINABLE FOOD SYSTEMS 5
context, were by no means endogenous transitions, but rather related to the
expansion of a global capitalist economic system (Wallerstein 1979).
Peasants are often defined by their deep connection with and control over
the farming activities occurring in a specific place, self-organization of labor
at the family level, and emergence as a social class whose economic activity is
subordinated to capital, yet not capitalist (Bryceson 2000). Often the com-
munity level of social organization, mediating between family and class
dynamics, is highly important for peasant societies. Peasantries are the
historic result of agrarian labor processes that constantly respond to chan-
ging environmental, political, cultural and economic conditions of produc-
tion and reproduction. As capital relations have expanded into the
countryside, theorists have debated the fate of the peasantry, in what is
known as the agrarian question (Kautsky 1988; Lenin 1961). Many have
used arguments of efficiency, labor productivity and even natural resource
conservation to insist that the peasantry is bound by the laws of history to
disappear, as capitalism encloses its lands and differentiates it socially into
opposing groups of agrarian bourgeoisie and proletarians (Bernstein 2010;
Lenin 1961). There is a hegemonic tendency to discount the ‘peasant path’of
autonomous democratic development in Marxist and liberal economic ortho-
doxy, both of which have enthusiastically supported industrialization and
equated a growing social division of labor with progress (Moyo, Jha, and
Yeros 2013). Steckley and Weis (Steckley and Weis 2016, 1) note that “while
critical agrarian studies tends to focus more on the ways that capital shapes
conditions facing peasant producers, there has been much less attention to
the ways that peasant decision-making can restrict how capital operates.”
The peasantry has not disappeared, and some authors see its absolute
numbers to be growing (Van der Ploeg 2008). A counterhegemonic view of
the peasantry, based not on its perceived inferiority to capitalist economies
but on its capacity to resist and survive despite them, has survived in the
margins of Marxist and emancipatory thought for over a century and a half,
and contributed to the creation of agroecology as a discipline (Sevilla
Guzmán and Woodgate 2013). In the early Soviet Union, agricultural econ-
omist Alexander Chayanov (1888–1937) carried out empirical studies of the
workings and internal organization of peasant family economies. Chayanov
(1986a) found that, unlike capitalist economies in which each factor of
production can be represented in monetary values, peasant families operate
“natural economies”based on the interaction of labor and ecological pro-
cesses in which a gambit of non-monetary concerns are present in decision-
making. Despite being embedded in market economies, peasants are able to
autonomously decide what and how to produce, based on internal calcula-
tions and priorities.
In the prevailing context of agrarian capitalism, farms are compelled by
competition and production costs to capitalize: maximizing the generation of
6N. MCCUNE ET AL.
surplus value even at the cost of future productivity. In contrast, even while
existing within larger capitalist economies, peasants create economies with
internal organizing principles that limit the effects of competition and avoid
production costs by maintaining access to non-commodified factors of pro-
duction, such as land and labor, as well as “historically guaranteed”factors
provided by their own previous labor cycles, such as well-adapted seeds and
animal breeds, fertile soil and homemade plows. In Table 2, we present
a comparison between peasant and capitalist economies with regard to key
issues for agroecological scaling, such as labor, resource use, knowledge, and
Chayanov (1986b) observed that the family labor unit’s main objective is
to provide for its own food consumption. To that end, the family will be
willing to engage in high levels of labor output until all mouths are fed.
However, once the family’s needs have been met, additional labor is seen as
drudgery –detrimental to family well-being. Van der Ploeg (2013) further
develops the notion of Chayanovian balances, recognizing the balances that
peasants manage between past and present production, income, and ecology,
as well as individual and collective responsibilities. By using non-
commoditized labor and concentrated local knowledge, peasants exercise
the power to mediate their relationships with other components of their
agroecosystems. This enables peasants to develop autonomy from markets –
to the degree that it is advantageous to them. At the same time, merchants
and capitalists look for ways to co-opt peasant production –using through
low prices, but increasingly through such mechanisms as payments for
environmental services –in order to support processes of capital accumula-
tion (Giraldo and Rosset 2018; Steckley and Weis 2016).
Chayanovian balances have been identified as mechanisms wielded by
Haitian peasants who resisted transforming their farms into mango planta-
tions, despite pressure from the state, private capital and transnational
institutions and NGOs after the 2010 earthquake (Steckley and Weis 2016).
In Brazil, Petersen and Silveira (2017) found that intensification can be
capital-centered, which tends to lead toward depeasantization and rural out-
migration, or driven by skilled labor applying specific management strategies
dependent on local ecological contexts. Labor-driven intensification, in their
study, is dependent on access to communities of agroecological thinking and
practice. Fraser et al. (2018) explore the political economy of the mutuality-
market dialectics of Amazonian peasants who develop community labor
regimes in concert with ecological cycles, unless market forces coerce them
into becoming extractivists. Valencia Mestre, Ferguson, and Vandermeer
(2018) propose that the patterns of tree cover in Panamanian cattle pastures
can be understood as resulting from the continuum between peasant and
capitalist economies. In each of these cases, peasants are found to be active,
collective subjects who constantly shift their degree of self-sufficiency and
AGROECOLOGY AND SUSTAINABLE FOOD SYSTEMS 7
Table 2. Comparing capitalist and peasant agricultural models (adapted from work by
Chayanov 1986a; Rosset 2003; Van der Ploeg 2008).
Category Capitalist Agriculture Peasant Agriculture
Basic goals Maximize production and profit Achieve sufficiency and stability
Value Value is not added, but taken away, mainly
by expropriating resource bases,or
mobilizing capital and labor in short-term
exploitative production processes that
appropriate surplus value by externalizing
environmental and social costs. Mobilized
value moves toward the financial sectors of
Peasant farming is geared toward
producing as much added value as possible
under the given circumstances. This value,
once created, can materialize as use-values
or exchange-values, depending on the
needs and plans of the household, i.e.
selling a cash crop in order to build a new
bedroom for a growing family.
In capitalist exploitation, labor is mobilized
in order to maximize accumulation.
In family labor units, accumulation is
a means by which to provide employment
and assure the reproduction of labor.
Resource base Capitalist agriculture must expand the
production of commodities in order to avoid
crisis; to do so, it exists upon a constantly
expanding resource base by becoming more
dependent on market or states, i.e. by
grabbing water, taking out loans to rent
more land and/or becoming part of
a subsidy program to maintain profitability
of monocrop production.
The peasant unit of production and
consumption generally works with
a limited and threatened resource base.
Peasants seek to maximize output by
working with the existing local resources,
implying a resistance process based on
gradually increasing technical efficiency.
Investment Capital is mobilized externally through the
market, i.e. banks, reducing the flexibility of
operations. Debts must be serviced, so
productivity is key, leading to labor
exploitation, pollution and overproduction.
Within the peasant economic unit, labor is
generally more abundant than the objects
of labor, such as land or animals. This
means that capital is formed and expanded
through labor investments, rather than
through loans or external development
Production takes place through intensive use
of externally-sourced technologies that de-
skill farming, enrich transnational
corporations and gloss over differences
Related to the previous aspects, the
productivity and future development of
a peasant farm depend upon the quantity
and quality of labor, highlighting the
importance of labor investments (terraces,
irrigation systems, crop and animal
varieties, etc.) and skill-oriented
The resources of the farm system are
privatized and parceled into parts controlled
by banks, loan sharks, input companies,
corporate land renters, profiteers or the
The available social and material resources
represent an organic whole that is
controlled by those directly involved in the
labor process –not loan sharks, corporate
land renters, or other outside actors. The
peasant farm is a self-regulating unit.
Capitalist agriculture and food consumers,
alienated through chains of intermediaries,
have contrary interests with regard to
prices, health, and labeling.
The peasant family tends to be the primary
consumer of the farm’s products.
Relationships with other consumers are
flexible and may include barter, trade, direct
marketing or other means.
to Time and
Hit-and-run investments are by nature short-
term, with no lasting physical or cultural
Peasant agriculture is typically grounded
upon previous cycles and embraces
relatively autonomous, historically
8N. MCCUNE ET AL.
market orientation in order to guarantee future productive cycles. Peasants
shift along balances including social and natural demands, production and
reproduction, the scale and intensity of farming, internal and external
resources, and autonomy and dependence (Van der Ploeg 2013).
Chayanovian balances in Puerto Rican coffee farming
Qualitative interviews were carried out with leaders of small farmers’organiza-
tions, Puerto Rican government officials and coffee farmers in their homes in the
mountainous municipalities of Utuado, Jayuya, Adjuntas, Lares and Orocovis,
between August 2017 and March 2018. Interviews before the hurricanes tended
to focus on the agroecological movement and the impact of austerity measures
on farm subsidies and supports, while 31 farmers –29 of them coffee farmers –
interviewed after the hurricanes often talked about the trauma of having their
farms destroyed and being without food and water for weeks, communications
and electricity for months.
Two-thirds of the farmers could be considered conventional farmers, in
the sense of using agrochemicals, paying waged labor and participating in
government programs that subsidize certain inputs. The other 11 farmers
either do not use any agrochemicals (9), pay no waged labor (10), or avoid
government programs (7), or overlap these strategies in some way or
another. The conventional and non-conventional farmers showed strongly
divergent paths in the wake of the hurricanes of 2017.
Among the 20 conventional farmers, only 2 were rebuilding their farm or had
mostly rebuilt their farm by the time of fieldwork in January–March of 2018.
These two were among the largest family-owned estates (>25 ha.), and made up
of mostly sun coffee in monoculture, reflecting their capacity to mobilize capital
in order to rebuild. Another five could be considered middle farmers that were
strongly impacted by the hurricanes, and were not rebuilding because they had
other sources of income. This category includes some farmers from professional
backgrounds who were already operating at or near a loss and cannot currently
continue to operate their farm. The largest section, however, of conventional
farmers was comprised of 13 small farmers who faced severe economic hardship
and total loss of income after the hurricanes. This group, of whom seven were
over 65 years old, is particularly vulnerable to selling their land and migrating to
the United States. Table 3 describes the impacts of Hurricane Maria on these
farms and their products.
Labor availability plummeted after the hurricanes as many workers –left
without electricity, water, schools, health clinics, and jobs –migrated to the
United States. In January 2018, Puerto Rico governor Ricardo Roselló
announced plans to sell the public utility company and introduce a charter
school system to replace public schools. All of the highways and roads between
farms were lined with abandoned houses. None of the farmers had yet received
AGROECOLOGY AND SUSTAINABLE FOOD SYSTEMS 9
insurance payments, so even when there existed available labor and a desire to
rebuild, the economic possibility of doing so was very limited.
Interviews showed that farmers had diverse reasons for no longer contracting
farm laborers or hiring fewer workers. Many made reference to an agrarian
economy that no longer works for small farmers, particularly as family size has
declined, the farming population has aged and farm labor has become scarce in
●“I am waiting to receive my insurance payment.”(n = 26)
●“Since Maria, I have no income.”(n = 20)
●“Workers no longer arrive here to my farm.”(n = 8)
●“Working isn’t worth the trouble. They’re better off not working.”(n = 6)
●“There isn’t a workforce anymore, and what exists is no good.”(n = 5)
●“Here, half of Puerto Rico could be unemployed and they still wouldn’t
pick coffee.”(n = 1)
The lack of labor makes family farming much more difficult, as elder farmers
are called upon to carry out the work that they would rather assign to
younger family members or hired workers, or simply must reorganize the
farm based on having less labor to mobilize. Farmers without the capacity to
shift toward more labor inputs were basically stuck waiting for State inter-
vention to recover their farms, because they were physically isolated and
alienated from non-monetary means to mobilize labor.
The conventional farmers interviewed lacked relative autonomy from
market institutions and the State. The decades-old, bureaucratic system of
subsidies for small farmers entered into crisis along with the rest of the
Table 3. General situation of small, conventional coffee farmers affected by Hurricane Maria.
Before Hurricane Maria •Production of coffee, plantains, banana, citrus and tubers with shade trees
•Coffee is the main income-earning crop and is used to enter into a system of
subsidies: agrochemical packages, half-priced seedlings and half-priced
•Citrus is a favorite of farmers: simple management, trees can be forgotten most
of the year, one straightforward harvest, good income source
•Plantains and bananas represent a cash flow, with harvests each week or
monthly, depending on the farm
•Tubers are for eating, selling or giving away among neighbors
After Hurricane Maria •The situation in unbearable, after months without electricity
•Major losses of citrus, coffee, Musaceae and shade trees, but with large
variability from one hillside to another
•Increased out-migration and farm labor is scare
•Farmers are selling tubers or firewood, but the income is insufficient
Economic Principles of
•It is more advantageous to live from insured crops with steady demand, even if
this means formally considering farms as monoculture to access insurance
•Citrus are a complement to coffee and are oriented toward markets
•Other crops (such as plantains, banana and tubers) are mostly for home
consumption, although their sale is an option
10 N. MCCUNE ET AL.
Puerto Rican economy, becoming a source of acute vulnerability for farmers
who had developed a path dependence upon government support. Contrary
to expectations, it was not only the most market-focused farmers that
depended on the State. Rather, dependence on subsidies took several forms
among interviewed farmers and spanned the differences in economic status
and distance from cities (Table 4). These pillars of dependence upon federal
programs are the most direct legacy of Puerto Rican neo-colonial public
policy since the creation of the “free associated”status in 1950 (Dietz 2018).
Food stamps make up a fundamental part of the family economy for over
half of the farmers interviewed. The relationship between Puerto Ricans and
federal anti-poverty programs is complex and problematic; created during
the Cold War, consumer food subsidies dramatically increased food con-
sumption while not deterring agricultural decline (Carro-Figueroa 2002;
Weisskopf 1985). Federal welfare programs compete with locally available
wages and encourage people to avoid full-time non-professional employ-
ment. Interviewees mostly felt that the food stamp program had accelerated
the disintegration of the small farmer sector; however, in the post-hurricane
context, food stamps were what prevented a more desperate humanitarian
disaster, and many small farmers lived on food stamps as they waited to
rebuild their farms. In this very limited sense, participation in food stamp
programs can be considered part of a peasant strategy to balance consump-
tion with autonomy.
In stark contrast to the dire situation of conventional small farmers, 10 of
the 11 unconventional farmers had made significant advances rebuilding
their farms. Only one was in a similar situation as the five middle farmers
mentioned above –not rebuilding her farm while she focused on her alter-
native income source. Of the 10 who had partially or completely rebuilt their
farms, seven had done so through agroecological brigades –groups of people,
often other farmers, who traveled to farms in the days, weeks and months
after the hurricanes to physically rebuild damaged structures, plow fields, fix
greenhouses and replant farms, focusing on short cycle crops that could
produce food quickly. In this group, age was less of a factor: three of the
10 were over 70 years old. This suggests that age is not as much a limitation
Table 4. Pillars of dependence, knocked out by combined effect of Hurricane Maria and austerity
Type of subsidy or support received by
Number of interviewees receiving the support
Being received at the time of the
The government paid half the salary of each
Farmer received fertilizer and herbicide 22 0
Subsidies to buy equipment 6 0
Harvest or plantation insurance 25 0
AGROECOLOGY AND SUSTAINABLE FOOD SYSTEMS 11
for mobilizing labor as is isolation from autonomous organizational pro-
cesses in the countryside.
The only farms that had been replanted in their entirety were those of farmers
who participate in Organización Boricuá, a Vía Campesina member organization
founded in 1989 through farm labor exchanges. Boricuá had been organizing
reconstruction brigades in agroecological farms since 21 September 2017, the day
after Hurricane Maria passed over the island. These agroecological brigades were
made possible through broad alliances of urban and rural social movements in
Puerto Rico and the United States, and particularly through the leading efforts of
Organización Boricuá, which would be honored with the Food Sovereignty Prize
in October 2018 for its innovative approach to disaster recovery.
The post-hurricane agroecological brigades were examples of a peasant
moral economy (Scott 1976), as volunteer labor teams, generally infused with
high levels of political and ethical commitment to peasant farming, mobilized
labor that the conventional economy has not been able to mobilize before or
after the hurricanes. Félix, Rodríguez, and Vázquez (Valencia Mestre,
Ferguson, and Vandermeer 2018, 1) explain further:
These brigades followed months of impromptu, voluntary immediate relief bri-
gades in which members of these organizations engaged to support farmers and
their communities. Organización Boricuá’s brigades were held in the format of
moving camps, spending 3-4 days in each farm rebuilding farming structures,
houses and planting. These brigades incorporated spaces for political training,
dialogues, workshops, cultural exchanges and reflection while promoting active
group participation during the process. Exchanges like these not only help farmers
get stabilized and better positioned to confront the next hurricane season(s), but
also help bolster the movement work of organizers, educators, activists and farmers
that often spills over beyond a farm’s perimeters into diverse communities and
across many issues.
Historical and personal connections run deep between grassroots groups and
social movements in the US, Latin America and the Caribbean due to the shared
history of colonialism, occupation, and slavery that characterizes the Caribbean
region and the development of the global agricultural sector. The group’sefforts
served to strengthen relationships and knowledge exchange between farms as
a regional resiliency strategy that embraces the campesino-a-campesino metho-
dology and combats the physical, social, and emotional isolation that can
characterize reconstruction and recovery. The brigades serve to not only speed
up production preparations and infrastructure reconstruction, but to re-energize
farmers and those who support them to continue the work that is now more
urgent than ever.
A high initial labor input has been noted as a necessary ingredient in agroecological
transitions by both proponents and detractors of agroecology (Altieri and Hecht
1990). Few authors, however, have recognized the transformative potential of the
knowledge-intensive labor involved in agroecological change (Timmermann and
Félix 2015). The organized agroecological movement transforms the need for large
12 N. MCCUNE ET AL.
amounts of labor from a weakness, as it exists in conventional economics, into
a strength, as a pretext for building new social relations and consolidating organi-
zations.Thehurricanesbecameanopportunity for developing stronger organicity
(Rosset 2015) in the countryside, and tested the movements’capacity to fill a need
that neither the State nor the market could fill.
Of the 10 unconventional farmers who had partly or completely rebuilt
their farms, three had done so through family labor alone, without a Boricuá
brigade. These were the few large families that had enough young people
living on the farm to mobilize the labor needed to rebuild. As a general trend,
however, the reliance on work brigades appeared to be a phenomenon likely
to continue growing. Furthermore, the brigades appear to be linked to
a cultural process of decolonization. As one farmer reflected after a day of
The root of Boricuá is cooperative work. Habi comes here and helps me, I go to
Habi’s farm, and we both succeed in bringing in our harvests. I don’t call it
voluntary work because we all benefit. It’s like a change of paradigm, right? You
know, capitalism makes it impossible for you to live. So, what we are doing are
alternatives so we can live with dignity. This work in solidarity is the only
alternative that one has in order to survive. These people are friends we have
had for a long time and we all knew what we came to do today. The routine of
capitalism is from home to work, from work to home, and it takes away the social
aspect. But if you talk to people from the countryside, this is what they did before.
The peasants visited each other, and worked. It was a time for sharing, for relaxing,
having a beer and telling a joke. It is something that is ours. It is in our collective
memory, it’s there. The history of humanity is this kind of cooperative work.
The sense of belonging was closely linked to whether or not farms had been
rebuilt. The sense of historical memory is evidence of a Chayanovian balance
between past and present, as well as between individual and social goals. The small
conventional farmers unable to rebuild often recounted stories of family troubles
or children who had left as migrants with as great a sense of tragedy as their lost
crops, implying that farmers perceived a causal relation between their family’sloss
of a long-term relationship to the land and their incapacity to rebuild after
Hurricane Maria. This suggests that conventional farmers were experiencing the
loss of a balance between past and future production.
The high level of economic vulnerability that conventional agroecosystems
showed after the disturbance of Hurricane Maria indicates that decades of public
policy since 1945, and austerity measures introduced since 2016, have created
dependencies rather than robust food and agricultural systems. Instead of allowing
for the autonomous development of peasant economies, farm policy has distorted
peasant balances by focusing on productivity indicators. The Puerto Rican
AGROECOLOGY AND SUSTAINABLE FOOD SYSTEMS 13
development model has discounted the reproductive sphere and the need for
farming to exist within a rural culture that renews itself over the course of time.
Neither subsidies for agrichemicals, nor complex and ineffective crop insurance
programs, nor food stamp programs, have helped make small farming a more
viable and sustainable way of life. Furthermore, the demographic tendencies of an
aging population in Puerto Rico are combining with the increasing risk of climate-
related disaster to contribute vulnerability to household-based coffee farming and
increase the risk of continuing depeasantization.
Long-term increased vulnerability, especially for small farmers and rural
people in general, are unfortunately consistent with trends of US colonialism
in the Caribbean and Pacific Ocean, as well as in changing climates under global
capitalism. Just as Patel and Moore (2018) have noted that it is easier for most
people to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, it is easier for
more Puerto Ricans to imagine migrating to the US than agreeing on how to
build a sovereign Puerto Rico. In the meantime, the ongoing role of the
agroecological movement is fundamental for developing local food economies,
a sense of belonging on the land, and momentum for scaling up agroecological
The capacity of young people to enter peasant farming may depend on their
ability to “become peasants”by applying balances that previous generations
were unable to do. The long apprenticeship toward becoming a peasant farmer is
extremely challenging in the austere environment of post-Maria Puerto Rico.
Becoming a peasant farmer is much more of a conscious decision, and even
a form of principled political and social resistance, than ever in the past (Van der
Ploeg 2013). One of the flagship agroecology schools, Proyecto Agroecológico El
Josco Bravo (Organización Boricuá member project), was facing an eviction
order and incipient criminalization process at the time of fieldwork, despite its
impressive achievements successfully training hundreds of young people in the
arts of agroecological peasant farming.
In the aftermath of the dual hurricanes, the ability of farmers to
activate social organizations and mobilize labor outside of commoditized
economies is crucial for rebuilding farms. Continuing challenges include
reconciling the need to survive on food stamps and the need to sell at
high-priced farmers’markets in order for family farmers to maintain
themselves on the land, with priorities of a social and organizational
order. Farm labor brigades are an ancient practice that have become
highly relevant in the wake of the collapse of the conventional labor
economy in Puerto Rico. Peasant balances that bring together production
and ecology, elder knowledge and youth interest, family economies and
food sovereignty, are key mechanisms in the struggle for agroecology and
against food dependency in Puerto Rico.
14 N. MCCUNE ET AL.
Authors are grateful to the family farmers of Puerto Rico and to Jan van der Ploeg for
providing valuable insight on the topics addressed in this research.
1. Proyecto Agroecológico El Josco Bravo is carried out on land rented from the Puerto
Rican Land Authority, which, despite holding tens of thousands of hectares of unused
land, has opted toward an aggressive anti-peasant policy that uses bureaucratic means
to pressure the few small farmers who rent small parcels of land. It also rents thousands
of hectares of farmland to transnational corporations such as Monsanto for the
production of genetically modified seeds.
Notes on contributors
Nils McCune is a Research Fellow at the School for Environment and Sustainability of the
University of Michigan.
Ivette Perfecto is the George W. Pack Professor of Ecology, Natural Resources and
Environment, at the School for Environment and Sustainability of the University of
Katia Avilés-Vázquez is a member of Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica de
Jesús Vázquez-Negrón is a member of Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica de
John Vandermeer is the Asa Grey Distinguished University Professor of Ecology and
Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan.
Nils McCune http://orcid.org/0000-0001-9040-9595
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