How Puerto Ricans are moving towards sustainability as a community
Isla del Encanto, or the Island of Enchantment, is the nickname for the beautiful island of Puerto Rico. Despite being a popular destination for tourists, the full-time residents have expressed frustrations regarding the country's infrastructure. The people of Puerto Rico have been in an ongoing battle, demanding an end to power outages, a halt to the destruction of public spaces, and better government support during natural disasters. As a result, these issues have left many ready to take matters into their own hands. Through community building, Puerto Ricans are on a path to restoring their island so that the land and its people can both flourish.
While technically an archipelago, Puerto Rico is between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean and was first home to the Taíno people at least one thousand years prior to the arrival of the Spanish. Although the Indigenous population of Puerto Rico is referred to as the Taínos, the original name of the Indigenous group is unknown, as Taíno was the name chosen by the Spanish. However, what is known is that before being called Puerto Rico, the island was named Borikén, and by the time the Spanish arrived, there were anywhere between 20,000-70,000 Taíno people living on the island.
Today, their descendants make up a population of over 3 million people, with most of the residents living on the northern coastal plain. About 60% of the Puerto Rican landscape is covered by mountains, with the remaining landscape touched by a variety of rainforests, deserts, beaches, caves, oceans, and rivers. Amongst the vast beauty of Puerto Rico, its native inhabitants are fighting for a more self-sufficient and sustainable future in the wake of unpredictable power outages, intense hurricanes, and an influx of foreign investors looking to profit from the island's resources.
The people of Puerto Rico fiercely love their land, and with that love comes a dedication to safeguard the island and preserve its natural state. Throughout Puerto Rico, there are several organizations supporting the surrounding communities and ecosystems. The Puerto Rican government and the private companies that control resources like electricity and water have become notorious for their unreliability in times of crisis.
Many factors have contributed to this situation, a lot of which stem from Puerto Rico's history of colonization. Spanish colonialism and the current power dynamic with the United States has created many obstacles in Puerto Rico's infrastructure and ability to sustain itself. As a result, Puerto Ricans have been left to turn to each other to look for alternative solutions. In the face of hardship, the collaboration between residents and organizations has fostered new methods for independence and sustainability in Puerto Rico.
At one point in time, Puerto Rico had an extensive agricultural network, with a majority of its inhabitants working on farms. Today, Puerto Rico imports 85% of the food consumed on the island, and it often degrades in quality due to the shipping times to reach Puerto Rico. This outcome stems from colonization, dating back to the 15th century when natives were forced to work for the Spanish colonizers, followed by enslaved Africans who were brought to Puerto Rico. Enslavement and forced labor were done to capitalize on crops like sugarcane.
When the United States took over control of Puerto Rico, they expanded the sugar industry on the archipelago. Doing so dried up acres of marshes to have as much land as possible for sugar cane. Decades later, in the 1940s, Operation Bootstrap took effect in an effort to industrialize Puerto Rico. This pulled Puerto Ricans from working in agriculture to manufacturing jobs instead. This moment led to a large population of farmers leaving the countryside to take on manufacturing jobs in the cities. Little by little, fewer Puerto Ricans were cultivating crops on the island.
In combination with these events, U.S. legislation made importing goods particularly costly for Puerto Rico. Not only did Puerto Ricans rely more on imports, but they also had to pay more for them, too. The Jones Act requires Puerto Rico to only use U.S. ships to import goods. However, U.S. ships are more expensive than ships from other countries. It's also twice as expensive for Puerto Rico to import from the U.S. than it is for the Dominican Republic's U.S. imports. This system for agricultural commodities is a challenge that only escalates after hurricane destruction. The intense storms often wipe out the ability to deliver food to supermarkets and eliminate port access because of damages.
After generations of dependence on imported food, younger Puerto Ricans are deciding to take a different approach to food security by farming on the land themselves. In a short documentary hosted by journalist Bianca Graulau, a new generation of Puerto Ricans are interviewed, where they share their desire for Puerto Rico to return to its agricultural roots.
"If most of our food is being imported, that means most of the people here are eating imported, processed food," shared Tara Rodriguez Besosa, who returned to Puerto Rico after studying architecture in New York. "Food sovereignty is meant for everybody," she reiterated. Besosa now serves as the co-founder and co-director of El Departamento de la Comida. What first began as a system to purchase produce from farms to distribute around the island grew into a kitchen, storefront, and restaurant with local produce. Unfortunately, the restaurant suffered damages after hurricanes Irma and Maria.
In the aftermath, the team prioritized Puerto Rico's food system and relaunched it as a nonprofit collective for food sovereignty. For El Departamento de la Comida, this meant serving as an agency to support food projects that aren't typically available at traditional federal agencies. Among its varying programs, the organization supports local farmers by purchasing surplus crops to distribute, offering farming equipment, and providing special grants for food projects on the island. Uplifting local agricultural businesses in this way gives the sector momentum to continue growing so that one day Puerto Rico will have a stronger, self-sustaining farming industry.
Over a thousand miles away from Puerto Rico, Paula Paoli Garrido and Owen Ingley met at the University of Florida as students in 2001. When Garrido decided to travel back to Puerto Rico, Owen joined her, and over time, the two of them founded Plenitud Puerto Rico. The project stemmed from a vision of creating a program that helped the local community be more self-sustaining. Establishing the organization took time and dedication, in which the couple had to secure a farm as a home base and gather the knowledge needed to effectively serve the community in the way they intended to.
Today, Plenitud PR operates on a 15-acre educational farm in the western mountains of Las Marías, Puerto Rico. Here they offer workshops and three skill-focused programs in bio-construction, ecological agriculture, and water security. However, the scope of this organization goes further than these workshops by providing meals to the elderly with its Amo Mis Abusinitiative, as well as a community center in collaboration with the Las Marías Municipality. At this center, named La Cancha, Plenitud PR uses the space as a resiliency hub during emergencies. Those in the community can find solace at La Cancha, where essential services are provided, such as drinkable rainwater, food, and solar electricity.
Plenitud PR hopes to be an example of global change and actively works towards reconnecting with nature during a time when most of the world's population is disconnected from it. "Our work is centered in Puerto Rico, though we aspire to be a model of global change as we all face unprecedented challenges caused by the climate crisis as well as social and economic inequality." - SuperAdobe Homes For Hurricane Resistance
Additional work at Plenitud PR is its sustainable home construction project. The team develops buildings and homes from clay-rich soil mixed with straw. On the Plenitud PR website, the organization shares that Puerto Rico is in a long-term housing crisis. The ongoing issue has materialized from a collection of circumstances, including economic challenges, lack of land ownership, and extreme weather conditions. It's estimated that 2,535 people are without homes, and around 2,599 homes are still under reconstruction after Hurricane María hit in 2017. 
With environmentalism and self-reliance as the backbone of the organization, Plenitud PR was determined to go after the education needed to master bioconstruction with adobe. The founders took construction courses in California and met with specialists in the early stages of their journey. As a result, most structures on the Plenitud PR farm are built from SuperAdobe, which can resist fire, withstand hurricanes, and is overall climate-resilient housing. During Hurricane Maria, three SuperAdobe homes were used as a demonstration, and none suffered any damage from the hurricane. 
With a rubble-trench foundation, the homes are built using shovels, water, cement, and long tube-shaped "earthbags" that are coiled into a dome structure that serves as the bones of the home. There is also barbed wire incorporated into the building that allows it to be earthquake-resistant. From there, the structure is covered in a dirt mixture. The dirt is sourced from a local quarry, which is usually excess material that's unusable for cement. At Plenitud PR, the dirt gets a new purpose in these hand-constructed SuperAdobe homes. Beyond their sustainable nature, SuperAdobe homes are cheaper and easier to build than concrete houses. The organization has trained more than 300 people to build SuperAdobe houses, and this year they plan to construct the first permitted large building made from SuperAdobe in Puerto Rico, which will be a five-unit apartment building.
Housing and food security aren't the only issues on the organization's radar. Plenitud PR, along with most Puerto Ricans, is aware of the global water crisis and is responding to the dilemma by installing rainwater tanks. The planet is currently experiencing a freshwater shortage as natural sources have dried up or become too polluted to depend on. This reality, combined with natural disasters, can often put Puerto Ricans in an incredibly vulnerable position.
In the wake of Hurricane Irma and María in 2017, the fragility of the infrastructure was exposed after residents went months without basic services. Puerto Ricans had no access to electricity, phones, or even necessities like running water. These kinds of humanitarian crises are why the team at Plenitud PR learned to build independence outside of the existing infrastructure. The installation of rainwater tanks gives another degree of autonomy to vulnerable communities, particularly senior citizens.
About 30 miles from the Plenitud PR headquarters sits the town of Adjuntas, where on March 18, 2023, residents partook in a community movement called Marcha del Sol. With the march, three organizations kicked off a new independent solar project that will allow businesses to continue operations when the next natural disaster causes power outages. Casa Pueblo, the Honnold Foundation, and the Adjuntas Solar Energy Community Association came together to bring the Adjuntas Pueblo Solar project to the town. In Spanish, the Casa Pueblo website declares, "This citizen mobilization will demand and promote a model of energy self-sufficiency now."
The Adjuntas Pueblo Solar Project connects a small group of businesses within the town, including a pharmacy, a pizzeria, furniture stores, a hardware store, an optician's office, a bakery, and a church. Overall, it will provide 172 kilowatts of solar power and give energy independence to 13 businesses in total. Bringing renewable energy microgrids to Adjuntas that are independent of the island's power grid is expected to reduce energy costs and generate endurance during emergencies.
"We are causing a systemic change in the way energy is generated in the country. It has been a rough road, but one made possible by the strength of community self-management and the solidarity of hundreds of people,” stated the Associate Director of Casa Pueblo, Dr. Arturo Messol Deyá.
The culprit behind so many power outages is the US-Canadian company Luma Energy, Puerto Rico's electrical distributor. Paired with frequent outages are the costly rates that force Puerto Ricans to pay more than double the average price for utilities in the United States. Paying these high rates for a service that is consistently unreliable with very outdated equipment has residents of the island unsurprisingly fed up with Luma's electrical system.
Action from the government does not appear imminent, but small steps in the right direction have been made. While not created specifically for Puerto Rico, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) gave $500 billion in spending and tax credits to incentivize clean energy. Nonprofit organizations in Puerto Rico may be able to take advantage of these benefits. In 2019, the Puerto Rico Energy Public Policy Act (Act 17) was passed, which set a target for the island to use renewable energy for 100% of its electricity needs by 2050. Leading up to 2050, there are smaller goals to help transition into a system of complete reliance on renewable energy. By 2025, Puerto Rico plans to operate with 40% renewable energy. As of today, only 3% of electricity is generated from renewable sources, with the rest coming from fossil fuels.
Some government officials have voiced support for a solar-based system. Agustín Carbó, the director of the U.S. Department of Energy's Puerto Rico grid modernization and recovery team, is one of them. Carbó gave recognition to the many grassroots organizations that have taken energy reform into their own hands. In December 2022, Congress approved $1 billion to improve Puerto Rico's electric grid. A few months later, in February, the Department of Energy released a Request for Information to collect insight on how to distribute the $1 billion that is available in the Puerto Rico Energy Resilience Fund. While these measures are to the benefit of Puerto Rico, the government's progress is slow. As a result, the residents have relied upon themselves to build systems that work with the surrounding environments and provide long-lasting solutions to the several infrastructure challenges they face.
Puerto Ricans have led by example by turning toward each other to create communities that prioritize the well-being of their neighbors and the ecosystems of the island. The determination to create better options has resulted in palpable change for many individuals. From bioconstruction to community-built solar power, these organizations and their members are designing solutions that will last for years with or without government support. Earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural events are bound to happen, but Puerto Ricans will be better-equipped thanks to community building.
These efforts and movements don't have to be isolated to Puerto Rico alone. Communities all over can reap the benefits of collaboration and dedication to sustainable living and renewable energy. While the environmental issues other communities may endure will vary, residents can change how their communities operate.
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