SAN JUAN — Puerto Ricans will likely spend this Christmas without their time-honored tradition of eating plantains for dinner after Hurricane Fiona destroyed 80 percent of the island’s plantain and banana crops in September. And with climate change causing an increase in such extreme weather events in the Caribbean, a full Christmas dinner in Puerto Rico may be out of the question for the foreseeable future.
Over the past four years, Puerto Ricans have faced an unrelenting barrage of hurricanes, floods, landslides and earthquakes. The most impactful were Hurricanes Irma and Maríatwo Category 5 hurricanes that caused more than 4,500 deaths, $95 billion in damage, and caused the already fragile power grid to completely collapse.
Most recently, Hurricane Fiona caused it record floods in many areas of Puerto Rico, destroying plantain crops in the south of the archipelago.
“It’s going to be a little bit of a miss,” Jose Javier Fabre, who handles distribution for his family company Fabre Farms, told Latino Rebels shortly after Fiona passed. The farm lost its entire avocado crop and about 95 percent of plantain and banana plants.
Fabre’s prediction of the shortage is now a reality, except the shortage is far greater than he estimated. The shortage has affected both restaurants and home kitchens across the island. Most of the plantains available for purchase today come frozen in bags or come from the few plantains that survived the floods.
For Ada Ramona Miranda Alvarado, who runs Hacienda Las Malcriá in Adjuntas, the increase in storms has been particularly devastating. Before Fiona, Hurricane Isaias destroyed almost 75% of her plantain crop in 2020.
Hurricane Fiona destroyed 90 percent of the plantains and bananas on the farm, which had a double effect: not only did she have nothing to sell, but the plantains and bananas provided shade for her coffee plants. Miranda Alvarado grows a special type of traditional coffee that grows in the shade. But without any shade, hardly any of the 300 coffee trees he planted grew.
Storms not only cause immediate crop destruction, but also make the work of the land much more difficult because of the waterlogged land and rain that follows a storm for weeks.
“The rain completely affected us,” Miranda Alvarado told Latino Rebels at the Central Aguirre Artisan Fair in the southern municipality of Salinas. “We can’t harvest. We go to the farm, get wet, and spend all our time working while we’re soaked.”
Coffee is one of Puerto Rico’s most popular crops and also one of the most affected by extreme flooding. But unlike plantains and bananas, Puerto Rico imports a lot of coffee.
“If we’re not looking for an added value for it (coffee), I can’t do it with it,” says Miranda Alvarado. “I can’t live on this.”
Although none of the small coffee trees she brought to the fair sold, a partnership with a local artisan was an asset to her in these hard times. The artisan uses the coffee beans that are not good enough to sell to make beaded necklaces and bracelets. Miranda Alvarado says they, along with some oranges, yucca, cocoyam and the few plantains she has left have sold quite well, but the struggle to grow becomes harder every time there is heavy flooding.
No homemade food on a flooded island
Puerto Rico is five times more likely to be hit by extreme rains today than it was decades ago. Given that the archipelago is uniquely susceptible to flooding and its location on the eastern edge of the Greater Antilles, Puerto Rico is one of the most vulnerable places in the world to the effects of climate change, along with other Caribbean nations. Extreme weather events, such as the flooding experienced with Fiona or the disastrous winds that came with María, are becoming more frequent, which “increasingly damage the agricultural sector” and worsen the food insecurity of the countries they have hit, according to Food. and the United Nations Agriculture Organization.
In recent weeks alone, half a dozen flood warnings have been issued for several municipalities in the archipelago due to heavy rains. Some areas experience repeated flooding, making growing any food there a herculean task.
In a video captured by Latino Rebels, a field of plantains in the east-central part of the island is submerged in flood waters up to the leaves – at least five meters above where the nearby river usually sits.
Another angle with comments pic.twitter.com/Y3C48yqYLD
— carlos berrios polanco (futuristic gonzo era) (@Vaquero2XL) September 18, 2022
As history has shown, climate change will hit places that already suffer severe inequality, such as Africa, Asia and Latin America, the hardest. The effects of climate change continue to worsen in these already hard-hit areas, causing increased rates of hunger and poverty. Damages from climate change are estimated to cost Latin America and the Caribbean approximately $462 billion by 2050 and up to $891 billion by 2070.
Historically, countries in the developing world, such as Puerto Rico and its Caribbean neighbors, they have and will continue to receive most of the effects of climate change while contributing relatively little to its causes. The United States is responsible for the largest share of historical emissions, while China is currently the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
This inequality between high- and low-emitting countries requires a shift to climate justice, where those who have done the most damage to the planet try to help those who will suffer the most. In fact, the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Egypt ended earlier this month with the decision to establish a new “loss and damage fund” for those on the “frontline of the climate crisis”, whose structure should be defined at next year’s conference in Dubai.
Action in Latin America and the Caribbean was fundamental to the agreement reached in Egypt. While the fund is a landmark deal to help victims of climate change, it does nothing to stop the main economic and political forces driving climate change and must be fully and effectively implemented to advance climate justice.
Towards adaptation to the climate
The U.S. Department of Agriculture ordered plantains and bananas from Ecuador, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic to make up for the plantain shortage in Puerto Rico. Due to transport problems between the countries, however, the plantains have been postponed several times, with the Secretary of Agriculture, Ramón González Beiró, stating that the first shipment could be delayed until the end of December. SSome are holding out hope that shipments will arrive by the second or third week at the latest—early enough to enjoy traditional tostones or amarillitos alongside holiday lechón.
Latino Rebels reached out to the Department of Agriculture but our phone calls were not returned.
For now, at least some Puerto Ricans may not be missing plantains for the holidays, but a future where the archipelago is without its favorite fruit looms if global temperatures continue to rise at their current rate.
Puerto Rico grows only 15 to 20 percent of the food consumed by its citizens, mostly the aforementioned plantains and bananas, but also yucca, coffee and sugar cane. Hurricane Fiona devastated approximately 80% of the island’s crops, including 60% of the coffee crop. totaling over $780 million in damages.
The archipelago’s lack of food production has forced it to import most of its food, which farmers say has long created a food insecurity problem. But it wasn’t always like that. Agriculture was once one of the main drivers of the island’s economy until US mandates pushed a pivot towards industrialization.
Miranda Alvarado says the response to increasing food insecurity and the possibility of not being able to grow traditional crops is changing little about what Puerto Ricans eat, how food is harvested and the adoption of regenerative agriculture.
Part of this adaptation involves not sticking hard and fast to what was typically grown in a given season. Traditionally, plantains and bananas are planted year-round, but Miranda Alvarado says farmers need to focus on fruits and vegetables that aren’t as affected by flooding and strong winds during hurricane season.
She points to two of the main tropical root vegetables—yucca and cocoyam—that grow underground. “I tell people, “You know what? We don’t have plantain, but we have yucca, taro and cocoyam,’” says Miranda Alvarado. “You can get them from underground. It’s a type of crop you already have there. You don’t have blessed mofongo, then make a blessed mofongo out of yucca.”
Part of the adaptation, explains Miranda Alvarado, is returning to harvesting methods that do not exploit the land and seek continuous growth, as resources such as rich soil eventually erode after non-stop use. Miranda Alvarado wants to use farming practices that her mother and grandmother used that don’t require such destructive use of the land, but work within the limits of what the ever-changing climate allows.
“All this regeneration depends on farmers being open to new (farming) practices that are being used now and have been used for a long time,” she said.
By all accounts, plantains, bananas and homemade coffee won’t be back on the market in any meaningful way until next summer. What cannot wait is climate action to secure the future of the Caribbean islands.
Carlos Edill Berríos Polanco is the Caribbean correspondent for Latino Rebels, based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Twitter: @Vaquero2XL