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Back to the Land in Borikén: Past and Present

One intention of my time in Borikén (Puerto Rico) was to deepen my knowledge of the influence of colonization on the Island through time and in the present day. (I realize this could lead me down an infinitely sized rabbit hole). I always find that my interest and work in agriculture will lead me to these stories and information.

I was volunteering at Centro Tanamà for Forgotten Forest for about 1 month in the mountains. The Forgotten Forest project is about putting a restoring Puerto Rico’s original coffee variety and supporting agrarian lifestyles in La Cordillera.  At the farm, one of my main goals, aside from supporting day to day needs of the farm and larger project, was to implement low-tech and low cost methods of biochar production in order to process some of the coffee pajilla, or “waste” material generated during the coffee production process. Biochar is made from organic inputs that are converted thermochemically in an oxygen limited environment (it’s essentially charcoal production) that is then combined with nutrients (from things like compost or other nutrient-rich broths). Biochar can be used in the soil as an amendment and a fertilizer alternative. It has a long lifetime of a hundred to thousands of years in the soil because the carbon is in a very stable form, so it makes for a great carbon storage method.  

While I was at Centro Tanamà, I had the pleasure of meeting Marlene who, in conversation, mentioned a documentary called “El Ultimo Viaje del Tren de Puerto Rico” that talked about the train that circumnavigated the island. I registered the name in my head as she told me more about the history of Jíbaro (traditional mountain) life in Puerto Rico. 

During this time, I was also introduced to Silvette who helped me to understand the history of Jíbaro life and culture, which has been heavily formed by Spanish and US colonial presence. Silvette explains the history as follows:

"Puerto Rico was colonized by Spain, had a short-lived independence that lasted for 2 months, and then was given away to the US as a part of the Hospanoamerican War. Puerto Rico was a strategic point in the Caribbean, so everyone wanted it. Puerto Ricans were given American citizenship to be able to fight in war, but the rights in general are not the same. Puerto Ricans do not have voting rights like voting for the President. Puerto Rico is also controlled by the Junta de Control Fiscal which means the US makes the last call for everything that happens on the island.

Colony status to the US had repercussions on the language and general expression and celebration of the culture. It also lead to circumstantial migration and adaptation for the Jíbaro people. They left the mountains for the city as the spread of industrialization and manufacturing factories took over and local agriculture (including sugar cane and coffee) was priced out. Economic factors led to deeper struggle and Jíbaros abandoning their farms.

Jíbaro developed a bad connotation, meaning someone with no education or culture, and 'a savage'"

Although this is far from the truth...

Weeks later, Marlene and Silvette threw a Fiesta de Amor Jíbaro to celebrate the love of their culture and reclaim their roots. The party took place at Finca Julia, a farm owned by Gustavo, who also helped organize the event. This included enjoying traditional foods like sancocho, Puerto Rican music, poetry and dancing, all while nestled in the mountains with a view of the ocean and good company. At the event, I heard more about the aforementioned documentary, the train that used to go around the whole island, and the history of Henry Ford introducing cars to the island. Some documentation I have found shows a Ford vehicle in Puerto Rico in 1920. From what I understand, the introduction of cars led to a slow decrease in use of the train. The government at the time was promoting cars and highways over the train system. It has been over 70 years passed since the train that circumnavigates the island ran, and although there are modern trains on the island, they are limited to metro areas providing more accessibility but limited reach.

The documentary showed the transition from train to car on the island and also the close tie between the agricultural industry (particularly sugarcane) and the train system. Today, you can see the remains of the train system around the island through abandoned tracks, stations and infrastructure.

Clip from the YouTube documentary showing the prevalent use of horses on the island

Another clip showing the transport of sugarcane with the train that circumnavigated the island

Clip from the YouTube documentary showing the introduction of cars to the island by Henry Ford

At a later point in my time on Borikén, I shadowed my friend Ian, who works with the Caribbean Regenerative Community Development (CRCD) project in Hormigueros. The project focuses on regional scale biochar production from invasive bamboo, which processed through pyrolysis and inoculated with a ferment of local fish.  This soil amendment is being distributed to farmers around the island over the next few years that are recipients through the program.

When I joined my Ian to visit the biochar production site, I saw that the site was at an abandoned sugar cane mill. The mill was being overtaken by local vegetation and rust. Close by, on a short walk through the property, were the remains of the train tracks that stretched over a stream.

Vegetation piling up in a dumping area next to old slave quarters. Slavery of Africans, Tainos and Chinese was prevalent from the 1500s to the 1800s.

Abandoned sugar cane mill

Abandoned train tracks stretching over the water

Bamboo next to the water

Getting to spend time at the biochar production site was a special experience, aside from the fact that I have spent years nerding out on the subject. What I was witnessing was the largest scale biochar production in all of the Caribbean. One of the people that I met as a part of this operation is Robert Omi, who is responsible for the settings on the Dragon, the pyrolysis machine at the production site. I sat with Robert while he showed me some of the settings on the monitor for the Dragon, and we discussed some of the decisions that he is faced with as an operator.  Later, he started to tell stories about his childhood. He grew up in Hormigueros, and can remember seeing trucks transporting sugarcane in and out of the town, which he used to make drawings of in school. It is a full circle moment for him to return to his home town and play such a major part in the biochar project taking place at the old mill.

Invasive bamboo being processed for biochar production

Robert in front of the Dragon and next to the biochar output

Biochar output

I remember sitting with Ian on the old train tracks that were stretched over the stream. I thought about all of the people I have met and friends I have made in Borikén. I reflected on the work that they have done, are currently doing, or plan to do to return to the mountains of Puerto Rico and embrace Jíbaro culture and roots.

I thought about all of the work that is being done to restore the lands from the impacts of colonization and abrasive agricultural practices, and strengthen food sovereignty throughout the island. I see this in the understanding and implementation of alternatives to fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, in the work to restore and protect soil, in the identification and utilization of local and native plants, and with continued discussions about liberation and the multiple forms that it takes. 

Working on a water system for the biochar inoculation station

Ian stabilizing an IBC tote

It is special to witness a shift and reversion in the agricultural narrative in Borikén from that of the Spanish colonization, which is rooted in exploitation and extraction of the land and native people, to that of reclaiming agriculture to sustain immediate community, soil and land.

There always seems to be a choice for us to embrace simplicity or complexity, and there is transcending depth to that choice every time we face it. My prayers and hope for the land is for her to be returned to indigenous stewardship and practices, reciprocity, and for the abundance of this healing process to be recognized.

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