Even before Puerto Rico’s crops were decimated by Hurricane Maria, the four farm students planned to bring back their UC Santa Cruz training to strengthen the island’s growing food sovereignty movement.
Now, with 80 percent of Puerto Rico’s crops wiped away by the vicious tropical storm, the stakes are much higher, and the young farmers have turned to the Santa Cruz County community to raise funds for the seeds and tools Puerto Rican farmers need to replant.
“We were in an insecure food situation before the hurricane, and now we are in a massive crisis,” said Crystal Cruz, a native of Puerto Rico who moved to Santa Cruz six months ago to further her study of sustainable agricultural practices.
Fellow Puerto Ricans Gabriela Collazo and Fernando Maldonado, along with Maldonado’s wife, Arielle Zurzolo, also moved to Santa Cruz in the spring to study as apprentices at UCSC’s Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. The program, often credited with cultivating the organic agriculture movement, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
Thanks to an initial outpouring of support from the farm center’s tight-knit network of alumnae, the fundraising effort has already raised more than $7,000 of its $17,500 goal.
For Collazo, her apprenticeship at UCSC is the first time she has spent more than a week away from Puerto Rico. When the storm first hit she said she spent sleepless nights worrying about family and wondering whether she had made the right choice, before the foursome put their heads together and realized they could use their unique position to help from afar.
“The events are not the problem,” Collazo said she came to realize. “It’s how we react to them.”
RETURN TO PUERTO RICO
As soon as Hurricane Maria hit, Maldonado began looking for a flight back home, knowing his family would need as much help as they could get to recover.
He was able to fly out Oct. 2, bringing with him supplies for his family as well as a first batch of donated seeds supplied by the agroecology center, Mountain Feed and Supply and other local contributors.
“I asked my uncle what I should bring, and he told me to bring optimism, patience, and lots of what we call in Spanish ‘gana,’ willingness to work,” Maldonado said. “But, you know, as well I was able to bring some of the things that are needed here: batteries, flashlights, a chain saw, machetes, gloves, a bone saw, a lot of tools.”
Maldonado said the destruction to the island was visible even from the airplane: Missing rooftops, scattered debris, sediment-stained waterways and exposed rock on mountains that had always been covered in green.
He said he spent the week working to repair a family home, helping neighbors and waking early each morning to catch fish with his uncle. He returns to the apprenticeship Wednesday morning.
“I wish I could stay here,” Maldonado said. “There’s so much work to do. I’m getting goose bumps talking about it.”
Puerto Rico exports boatloads of bananas, mangos, soy, corn and coffee while importing 85 percent of the food for consumption. That dependence on foreign imports while the island’s own rich farmland is used for monocropping is something the farm students — and a growing group of food sovereignty advocates — hope to change.
“It’s not sustainable to keep bringing in things from the outside,” Cruz said, “even though right now we need things from the outside.”
And agroecology practices could have protective benefits when the next big storm strikes, the farm students say. Where uniform, mono-cropped fields are vulnerable to powerful storms, more diverse farms with mixtures of roots and other plants could prove more resilient.
“It’s an opportunity to rethink the system as a whole,” Zurzolo said, “to reset, and say, ‘Is the way that we were doing things before the way we want to keep doing them or is there a more sustainable, ecological way that we can do this?'”
Those interested in finding out more or contributing to the Regrow Puerto Rico fundraising campaign can visit the website at generosity.com/emergencies-fundraising/regrow-puerto-rico–2.
REGROW PUERTO RICO
What: Fundraising campaign to supply Puerto Rican farmers with seeds, tools to replant fields devastated by hurricanes.
Who: Organized by four UC Santa Cruz agroecology students with deep Puerto Rican roots.
By Nicholas Ibarra, Santa Cruz Sentinel, Calif.
(Santa Cruz Sentinel)
(c)2017 the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.)
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