Hurricane Maria‘s passage through Puerto Rico resulted in one of the most important social and economic tragedies of recent decades. It claimed the lives of more than 3,000 people and the almost complete destruction of the island’s infrastructure. Worse, the destruction of soils and crops hit the nation’s agriculture and economic development hard.
More than $30 million in crops were lost in 2017. Still, Department of Agriculture Secretary Ramon Gonzalez estimates that if all losses in the countryside are taken into account, the figure exceeds $100 million.
The ConPRmetidos initiative, an independent, non-profit, youth-led group, decided to get to work and stimulate economic development and long-term sustainability by planting new trees.
As NBC News explained, the group distributed 750,000 seedlings to family-owned coffee farms that are vital to the economy of Puerto Rico’s small mountain towns.
Now, the trees are producing their first harvest since being planted on the farms in the aftermath of Maria.
“It really gave us a lot of hope that we could get back up again,” said Iris Janette Rodríguez, a coffee grower in the town of Adjuntas and the president of PROCAFE a nonprofit group created by ConPRmetidos to address the needs of coffee farms in Puerto Rico.
Rodríguez said it takes three to five years for a coffee tree to produce its first crop. But coffee farmers like her face another challenge that puts their miraculous harvest at risk: a shortage of pickers. Without enough people to pick the coffee beans, part of the crop could go to waste.
“Coffee is harvested once a year, but the income these crops generate is what drives the mountain economy. Those earnings last for months,” Rodríguez, 56, said in Spanish. “We don’t want the investment we’ve made on fertilizers and our time making sure these trees make it to be lost.”
As Secretary González explained to El Vocero, the pre-hurricane coffee harvest was around 40,000 quintals. For 2017, the expectation was that it could be between 80,000 and 100,000 quintals.
The official maintained that there was growth in the industry and that Puerto Rico currently has the level it was at in 2016 when it harvested close to 40,000 quintals.
González aspires to harvest between 100,000 to 120,000 quintals. He added that around 250,000 quintals of coffee are consumed on the Island per year, of which 210,000 are imported.
“There are around 1,000 trees per rope. In some farms, there are more. So we are talking about the many thousands of trees that Maria took. There were around 4,000 farms, a little more than 4,000 farms, according to the statistics of this time. Today we can say that we have already surpassed 2,000 farms,” he said.
The new coffee harvest in Puerto Rico is the latest sign of the resilience of its residents.
When Maria devastated Puerto Rico, making it difficult to receive and distribute food, it highlighted the U.S. territory’s vulnerability to natural disasters and the severe lack of homegrown food. As NBC News continued, Puerto Rico imports about 85% of its food, producing only 15% of what is consumed.
This has contributed to long-standing food insecurity problems exacerbated nearly a decade ago when Puerto Rico embarked on the largest municipal bankruptcy proceedings in U.S. history. Subsequent natural disasters, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and the pandemic, compounded the problem.
Despite lingering power failures on the island, farmers expect the first harvest to be ready sometime in October, which will attract labor for harvesting.