Puerto Rico’s coffee farmers work to rebuild what Hurricane Maria destroyed


Jessica Flores (for NBC Latino) writes, “Coffee takes longer than other crops to recover, and farmers, nonprofits and companies are stepping up to rescue the industry.”

Nearly two years after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, Iris Jeannette still cries when she sees how much of her coffee farm was destroyed. “To see all of the work, effort and money that you put in, just gone in a couple of hours, it was tough,” she said, adding that she lost over 20,000 trees and more than $100,000 in labor and investments.

Hurricane Maria destroyed 85 percent of coffee farm harvests when it ravaged the island in September 2017, said Carlos Flores Ortega, Puerto Rico’s secretary of agriculture. Right before the storm, farmers were expecting the best harvest in 10 years, said Flores Ortega.

Coffee plants take longer than other crops to recover. After the hurricane, the Hispanic Federation, a nonprofit advocacy organization, decided to create a five-year coffee initiative, in collaboration with the playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda’s family — his father, Luis, founded the federation in 1990 — to help revitalize the island’s coffee sector.

The initiative began in October 2018 with help from founding partners like Nespresso, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Starbucks Foundation, TechnoServe and World Coffee Research. The effort included a task force made up of members of the National Coffee Association, known as Procafe, representatives of the private sector in Puerto Rico and nonprofit organizations.

According to Charlotte Gossett Navarro, senior director of the Puerto Rican operation of the Hispanic Federation, the task force meets once a month to figure out how to move the coffee industry forward. TechnoServe, an international nonprofit organization working to build better farms, helps the initiative by teaching coffee farmers environmentally friendly practices, Navarro added.

While this initiative sounds promising, said Jeannette — who’s also the president of Procafe — farmers can’t solely depend on these efforts to assure a quick recovery. Farmers, who best know their needs, require more immediate help. Starbucks donated 2 million coffee seeds as part of the initiative, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture is in charge of distributing them by the end of September, Ortega said.

That worries Jeannette, who said things are always uncertain with the government. “A lot of help has arrived, but it has gone to studies, plans, administration, and the help doesn’t get to those who really need it. The money and support goes to those who don’t really need it,” Jeannette said. “We’ve realized that we, as coffee farmers, have to do the work ourselves.”

Procafe worked with ConPRmetidos, an independent nonprofit organization working on economic development and long-term sustainability, to create a free manual for farmers that includes proven techniques on how to improve the quality of their products and maximize their income.  Funded by the nonprofit Unidos por Puerto Rico, Procafe and ConPRmetidos also created Proyecto de la Montaña, a project that provided 750,000 coffee tree seedlings, fertilizer and cash subsidies to over 500 small coffee farmers.

Carmen Alamo, a professor of agriculture economics at the University of Puerto Rico’s Mayagüez campus, said the help that farmers are currently receiving is “historic” — these public and private resources to rebuild and refuel the industry have not been there before to this degree.

Coffee was Puerto Rico’s chief export in the late 19th century, writes author Jorge Duany in “Puerto Rico: What Everyone Needs to Know.” In 1896, about 77 percent of Puerto Rico’s exports was coffee. Exporting became expensive when the island was included in the U.S. tariff system, and by 1930, it represented less than 1 percent of the island’s exports.

The island now consumes more coffee than it produces and imports coffee annually, Ortega said. [. . .]

[Photo above by Jessica Flores / USC Annenberg: Iris Jeannette planted new coffee trees on her farm in Puerto Rico after the destruction from Hurricane Maria.]

For full article, photos, and related videos, see https://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/puerto-rico-s-coffee-farmers-work-rebuild-what-hurricane-maria-n1040516?

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