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Año Dos: Thinking Big and Small

June 1, 2019


La Isla del Encanto, Año Dos: Thinking Big And Small


Originally Published in Permaculture Design Magazine, February, 2019

By April Lea, Era Boyd, Mara Nieves



The trees in Utuado have a lot more leaves this year.


Purple, orange, and gold wildflowers stand out from the technicolor sky. The moon is full. The days in the campo have become a rhythm of light, dark, sun, clouds, sweat, wind, and dew. Of strong meals, and glad visits. A local Taíno medicine person, family friends, a couple and their teenage daughter from Philadelphia gather. The ortiga (nettle) leaves are gigantesca.


Resourceful fincas set up solar panels, outdoor kitchens, spring- and well-fed running water. There are bamboo structures for showers. Tent shelters, schoolhouses, and charging stations. In sixteen months, thousands of folks have traversed Puerto Rico, tools in hand,  rebuilding the agricultural landscape.


We have dug in.


I write from such a jungle kitchen now. Down the hill, a team of six fine folks are combining clay, sand, and cement in long bags, hauling buckets up a ladder to lay the final dome layers on a superadobe home built into the mountainside along a gurgling creek. It is intense work: a job that has brought together community from all over the island for several months. This finca will welcome folks to camp and learn in the natural food forest that is the mountainous heart of Puerto Rico.


Our motley crew is afortunado to be assembled at Finca Remedio, the second stop of a three-farm tour. We come from all over: Philly, New York, New Hampshire, Nashville, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and the Pacific Northwest, via farmer friends, diaspora groups, nonprofits, dance tribes, urban fragrance gardens. Even the army came through a chance meeting at a hostel. This holiday brigade was the dream of a nomad farmer who spent several months here last spring. Teaming up with Land + Heart Project and a handful of energetic volunteers, our first week we cleared fallen trees, rebuilt fencing, unearthed crushed chicken coops, and made way for fruit trees with Rolando, Frances, and their niños asombrosos at Finca Bikai in the same region.


After closing the final dome here at Remedio with Naldo and Alexa and extended community, we continue to Tierra Valiente in Arecibo. Here two fincas support the organic, classic food and hand-made kombucha sold by Dayna and Carly in their catering business. Their food also supports the most popular food stand at the iconic Roosevelt Plaza Mercado Agrícola put on every other week by Cooperativa Organica de Madre Tierra. Despite tensions in every possible area of disaster recovery, most agriculturxs* continue to welcome helping hands with a generosity of spirit that is elsewhere often a rare commodity.


Winter volunteer inquiries have begun to roll in. This year’s referrals flow more smoothly. Land + Heart Project spent the year scoping as many ecological restoration endeavors as we could find. We know now who can host volunteers, who offers local eco-tours and lodging, where to buy natural foods, and some of the labor and other support folks need. We can point to urban huertos (orchards), mercados (marketplaces), apprenticeships, farm brigadas, construction and roofing crews, community proyectos de apoyo mutuo (mutual aid projects), small food production businesses, seed banks, community-health initiatives, fermentation operations, composting services, indigenous herbalists, local comida, even zoo animal relief operations. (Now that is some compost!) We’ve met documentarians, musicians, historians, medicine-keepers, students, viejxs*, independistxs, chefs, artists, nomads, professors, writers, business developers, educators, organizers, and yes, capitalists.


The mission to “restore relationships with land and people” continues to focus on development of a cooperative resource network for projects on the island based in permaculture. Not only will this support long-term food forest preservation and recreation, but building our network on the principles of nature’s webs ensures more ideal experiences with navigation, and three-pillar results. Living and working here, we design programs with both a macro and micro lens.


Our year of “observe and interact” journeys showed clearly that all the components of regenerative success already exist on the island in spades; that the creativity and industry of Puertorriqueñxs has only been spurred by the certainty that this must be an independent effort. No one else will preserve the ambiente in the wake of climate crisis. Most of the public focus has shifted to other disaster areas, and to manufactured crises. But Puerto Rico remains an enticing destination that could be easily supported by caring citizens of its imperial keeper. Descending airplane windows reveal hundreds of blue tarp-roofs, yet tourist areas convey the veneer of business as usual. We are lucky that in 2019 a more interconnected social universe can tell the true story.


Individuals and organizations still want to help, while having great experiences. How can we take the practice of sending graduate agroforestry students to study Caribbean devastation over school break, and turn it into actual benefits for the devastated areas? (That some of those institutions benefit handsomely from the debt bonds crippling basic services in PR is a separate article, but not unrelated.) More importantly, how do we engage folks on the island in the ongoing work, and create opportunities for displaced Boricuas (Puerto Ricans) to participate in the regeneration of their land?


As long as ships and planes can dock, travel will remain a factor of economic success in a tropical paradise. By creating our own network of experiences, amenities, and programs of education and sanación (healing) for locals and travelers alike, we can synergize local economic impact, bypass corporate extraction, and encourage authentic connections between folks here on the island, and “over there” or around the world, based on relationship. The natural social pattern of Puerto Rico is that of relationship. Business is primarily done in person. Trust can be built that way, and trust is the most crucial ingredient in lasting growth. Fostering mycelial support for the new and established growth works best when nutrients are circulated in the land and community. “Small, slow solutions” are what a lot of global nonprofits are missing. A week or two lending a hand is a generous gift. However, permaculture is about interconnectedness, and continued redress. Local food systems, like food forests, take time, attention, and input to reach maturity.


For our part, from year one emerged an ecosystemic map, with a calendar, referral network, needs assessments, volunteer matching, brigade support, and program development in service to farmers, small businesses, and community organizations. Our eventual goals for food freedom include locally-, collectively-managed capital, expanding cooperative enterprise, and achieving and expanding grant funding for tools, tool libraries, water catchment, solar power, seed banking, reducing the trash burden, and more. We want to collectively create an economy that welcomes the diaspora and freely provides connections to the island for those not growing up here. We want to collectively create an economy that pays folks of Puerto Rican descent to learn agriculture, sustainable business development, and honorable cultural exchange. We have also learned that crowdfunding the end of capitalism is not the most effective. Ja!


Labor, funds, supplies for both infrastructure and inputs, trees, trucks, woodchippers, and administration remain the hot commodities. We don’t normally think of admin as a hot commodity, but coordinating such efforts while rebuilding one’s home and hoping to harvest viandas (edible roots) can be prohibitive. Streamlining an introduction to “Eco Puerto Rico” for all of those wanting to lend a hand was in fact an origin of our work. This year we discerned that the strongest solution will be a Partnership Program.


Several relief and diaspora groups from the U.S. already model continued commitment to farms and communities. The more we can educate these willing supporters in the principles of permaculture and regeneration, the more sustainable recovery will be. There have also been times that farm families have turned the car around because a stranger signed up through a website raised serious red flags. This burden just isn’t necessary. Needs for labor and resources can be gladly met through enhancing personal connections. When we work on site, we are entwined in the lives of those on whose land we camp. We cook in family kitchens, play and learn Spanish with wondrously bright children who are natural profesores. Schools, community groups, pueblos (towns), and urban renewal advocates are already running successful gardening and agriculture programs. Finca escuelas (farm schools) can be found in most regions. Building relational support for and between these regional hubs is taking advantage of existing mycelium. Universities, agricultural institutions, educators, and more can be partnered with these natural regional cooperatives, committing to a period of three or more years, to bring skilled labor, resources, awareness, and specialized focus on microclimate: establishing strong roots for regenerative agriculture in that region, with maximum impact and minimum burden. These programs will better serve the invested students, too, and will create opportunities to bridge with the robust agroecology department at University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez, for example. It is an opportunity for agroecology and permaculture students from around the world: putting knowledge into practical application, and teaching business development at the same time. We also hope such programming can create paid internships for agroecology students on the island. Currently the only paid internships available are offered by an “Ag Giant” Who Shall Not Be Named.


April Lea called Mara Nieves to discuss such a proposal for this article. Mara is a premier permaculture educator based in the famous La Perla community of San Juan who has worked with Visit Rico and several school gardening programs, in addition to running Proyecto Semiteca, specializing in seedbanking, and the Huerto Comunitarios y Permacultura Urbana - Viejo San Juan. I name her my Lady Bolívar, but she offers that her hero is Vandana Shiva. I can vouch for this. When I met Mara at a seed brigade last February, her welcoming hug and genuine enthusiasm dissolved all possible shyness at meeting this formidable developer.


Mara confirmed that a longer-term partnership solution would be ideal. Having spent hundreds of hours interviewing farmers around their needs, and listening to their stories, she gave me the scoop on ag recovery on the island. Farmers’ priorities are 1: getting off grid, 2: building structures, and 3: increasing use and production of their land. Increasing yield and market sales of course remain crucial. So does keeping land in the hands of Puerto Rican people.


For all the fertile acreage on the island, and the prevalence of food dropping to the ground, Visit Rico estimates only 200 acres are being farmed for production and sale. We hungry market shoppers know the rare value of deep green leafies, and we cannot always forage wild greens. Left on its own, of course the island and jungle are a natural food forest. This small number excludes the backyard growing that is as natural to island life as the coqui. But it begs further questions about food security and distribution. Obtaining a yield while rebuilding a life in severe economic abasement is extremely challenging. How can an increasingly aging population make best use of the cosecha (harvest) near their homes? How do we create food hubs with hyper-local distribution? Does it look like refrigerated trucks, and roadside stands? Mercados play a vital role. Who is managing those, among reports of elderly residents standing in long lines under the hot sun to patronize just a few stands? Which on the map are open? Where does the produce originate? Where do the papaya harvested near my house eventually land?


Mara notes that most farmers are still restoring zones 1 and 2, but that the greatest work needs to be done in zones 3-4-5. Technical help, labor, and supplies in the areas of forestry, water management, and tree planting are fundamental to real recovery. Para La Naturaleza has a goal of planting one million trees in the next five years, working together with smaller conservation groups such as La Reselva. I refer a lot of agroforestry students to their operations, where lining the ground prevents some of the hungry, invasive iguanas from munching young trees before they reach their destinations. In the southwest Bosque Seco (Dry Forest), thousands of saplings tied with orange markers required water trucks and staff in wide palm hats to keep them alive over the hot summer. The Bosque Seco is part of el Bosque Modelo, or Model Forest, which spans much of the island and is under threat of development. Partnerships would supply much-needed support for these efforts, and for the hundreds more family-sized operations and proyectos taking root once more. Long-term initiatives based in partnership also help answer the follow-up questions. Once the roots are established, how will educational programming and agrotourism expand income streams for farmers, coffee roasters, soapmakers, and chefs? How can Puerto Rico become a global destination for learning and practice in the areas of forestry, renewable energy, and food sovereignty? This is the respect the island deserves, that all delicate ecosystems adversely affected by climate crisis deserve.


As an ecosystem, we must also look to bioremediation and waste reduction for real success. Water quality is an issue, as are plastic and trash. Puerto Rico hosted the 11th International Mycological Congress this year. Attendees report that the event brought together more Latin American mycologists than had ever been in one place. Ideally, that mycelium will run into a diverse mycology cooperative focusing on water filtration, plastic breakdown, soil remediation, mycorrhizal partnership with indigenous microbes, adaptogenic medicine, and easy ways to inoculate newly fallen or cut wood with local and appropriate mushrooms. Obtaining and distributing inputs such as mycorrhizae, Effective Microorganisms (or inoculating and running out our own), and Bokashi could be done using the mercado network. A dream partnership would bring together mycology, microbes, Basura Cero, and small operations Precious Plastics and TAIS (Trito-Agro Industrial Services, who just expanded to a second home-compost exchange location in San Juan), to address plastic and food waste alike using the intelligence and digestive power of mushrooms and compost.


Ancient and modern technology both have a place in agriculture recovery. Much was made of the arrival of blockchain tech to the island this year, largely due to tax benefits. The topic is beyond this piece, but Naomi Klein did a nice job reporting on it. What matters is that the young Puerto Rican tech crowd, who want to create an industry for themselves and improve the lives of their fellows, be introduced to the agriculturxs who could someday be the only source of food on a mountain in a vast sea. Focusing tech toward problem-solving to preserve these original ways is a valuable result. Here the edges meet between energy innovation and primitive skills workshops. We hope that the best of both worlds can mutually foster food security and a strong slow-food economy going forward.


Funding remains an obstacle all around. Solvency and the ability to progress for many projects are often just a few thousand dollars away. Raising that money also takes time and expertise. What does strong economic support look like, without predatory investment, or abject control? Even fiscal sponsors with good intentions have misunderstood the needs of programs on the island. Travel planning can help support volunteer programs, but not to the extent necessary. Will folks willingly cover the costs of a two-week volunteer trip? Our experience says that volunteers are accustomed to large organizations which can sponsor their given labor, and that folks willing to work on their vacations live quite frugally. Planning time and travel require resources. Financing our efforts is a primary focus of 2019, now that organizations and individuals well-versed in grant writing are tuning in. It is our dedicated job to see that funds have actual impact. Streamlining myriad efforts will also enable groups to improve economy of scale.

In all things, folks are attempting to flip the outdated extraction paradigm on its head. Self-regulation during re-creation means this movement must be locally led, and globally supported. The social justice component of this work cannot be overstated. Predictably, perhaps naively, experts in restoration have offered to bestow their cavalier benefaction, assuming the nurseries of restoration do not already exist here, and would welcome support. Many dream of starting their own ecological promised land, tempted by cheap real estate and great weather. The path to come correct is to provide what is needed to the leadership already in place. Only those who know the island and its complex bureaucracy can honorably create a new way. One pleasant realization is that, as Señor Oscar López Rivera pointed out in his speech on the anniversary of Maria, “MUJERES!” (women!) are the leaders of the self-managed communities practicing reverence for earth, people, and justice. It is a wise student who truly listens.


Era Boyd, the venerable founder of Florida’s Restoration Orchard and the co-founder of Land + Heart Project, is an excellent listener. Her natural ability to ground complex theory into simple practice is also relationship-based. How do people care, earth care, and fair share translate into the tasks of daily living? What about in communities and organizations?  Era reminds us to listen to our bodies, and the Earth. They will tell us what to do. Her systems embody active and passive balance in elegant simplicity. We connect deeply around the value of the feminine in restoration.


Era writes of her experience here:


“Strong women standing along a ridge.

Each observing the land; each with a different perspective of its views,

its resources, its function and flow.

Within these discussions sits the never ending solutions of survival;

of seeking to understand the tragedy that the hollows of the earth drum in pain.


Two languages, one vision: livelihood and survival. Two languages: Spanish and English, two understandings: function and efficiency. Between two worlds comes an understanding, from one farmer to another. From one mother to another. From one activist to another. To the grieving of reality and that that continues on. I came with the understanding that I would give all that I had, but I left with the fulfilment that directed me to my authentic being. The mirror of the feminine island croons to you of passion-filled days and the persistence of your daily affirmations.


Long hours working towards the one goal, ‘food in the ground, resist.’


The landscape was chaos and ordered by the moving resistance of the people.


The voice woven through the Permaculture Design Certificate is abundance and a basis of fair share. The overwhelming voice from the island is a need to order the chaos from the aftermath. The need to create a resilient and abundant future they design, they create, they are one. The course emitting from a chance movement forward with a non-profit FAVACA, Florida Association for Volunteer Action in the Caribbean and the Americas.”


Together with several local leaders, our collected projects have begun to seed future permaculture hubs where communities can learn principles and practice, receive installation crews, complete initiatives, host design courses free to Puertorriqueñxs, and develop demonstration sites in many regions of the island. We pilot our first collaborative design course this spring, featuring several days of intensive coursework over two weeks, applied immediately to the two host sites, with space for local farmers to apply their design to their own farm.


It is paramount to Era and April that our programs and curriculum represent good design, too. Healthy groups birth healthy work. If we come together to learn the ways of nature, but our group dynamics are unconscious or outdated, we are not practicing permaculture. If we extol a balanced system where all parts contribute to the whole, but are not placing equal value on kitchen shifts and installation labor alike, that is not permaculture: it is patriarchy. Intentional gathering involves observing and honoring diversity of experience, learning style, communication, physical ability, basic needs, socioeconomic opportunity, and more. This is especially crucial in a colonized nation, in a time of colonized minds.


Some questions can only be answered on the ground, such as, what does a brigade look like with children involved? How can we powerfully accommodate the needs of a family, so all can participate with support? What are the needs of the surrounding community? Does this location have what it needs to be self-sustaining? If not, who can sponsor such an upgrade? How many days of adjustment to the climate are necessary for folks to feel their best? Have we built in adequate time to deeply absorb the information? How much energy does it require to listen to the jungle? Roles in an effective brigade look a lot like layers of a food forest. Who will execute our canopy goals, such as running machinery? What supporting dwarf layer jobs must surround the task? Is our shrub layer macheteando today, wielding hoes and spades, or planting? Have we made any necessary adjustments based on new information? Who will share the herbaceous tasks of making a nourishing lunch, and who will clean up after, like the mushrooms? Do we have vine runners who can pick up tools at the ferretería (hardware store), or do we know where the same can be borrowed? Is our rhizosphere stocked, and who bought groceries, or put up tents, or feels most comfortable driving on the mountain? Good navigation and collaboration systems leave our minds fertile and free to grow. Traversing a complex scene asks us to become our most interconnected selves.


Puerto Rico continues to be extraordinarily gracious under pressure. What does a just use of this power look like as we rapidly approach peak oil? Would you like to learn from where the mountain meets the sea? Humble talents are welcome, as the Earth enfolds us all. ∆


Please visit LandHeartProject.org or write to us at LandHeartProject@gmail.com to discover how your gifts can serve a precious piece of nuestra Madre Tierra.


*Resistance to dominance among many agriculturists in Puerto Rico includes resistance to forced gender norms and associated violence. Using “x” or “@” in place of the masculine “o” or “a” in Latinx vocabulary is a deliberately inclusive act, one that indicates safety, respect, and a revision of patriarchal and colonial societal norms.

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