Puerto Rico’s need for jobs in the short term could be satisfied by construction and other work relating to rebuilding the Island. For Puerto Rico’s economic future, however, other industries will have to grow.
One of the industries that was making headlines before Hurricane Maria’s destruction has historically been of high importance to Puerto Rico: agriculture. Until the 1950s, agriculture was the main economic driver for Puerto Rico. Sugar, coffee, and citrus fruits were important exports for Puerto Rico.
The territory of Puerto Rico didn’t have the potential to compete internationally in agriculture, though, and manufacturing took the place of family farms in the 20th century. Today, less than 2% of the population works in agriculture.
Local produce on the rise
One negative consequence of this change was that Puerto Rico became dependent on imported food. Before the hurricanes, Puerto Rico imported more than 85% of all the food eaten on the Island. Shortly before Hurricane Maria, there were signs that small scale agriculture was making a comeback. Restaurants were buying local produce and farmers markets were selling fruits, vegetables, and even rice grown on the Island.
Observers claimed that local farmers were seeing better times than they had seen in decades.
Hurricane Maria stopped that progress in its tracks. Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Agriculture, Carlos Flores Ortega, said that 80% of the Island’s crops were destroyed. Dairy and chicken farmers saw similar losses.
Yet changes in attitude toward agriculture can withstand the storms. The awareness that growing and consuming fresh foods locally can be healthier and more cost-effective than relying on imports still exists in Puerto Rico, and proponents are hopeful that the industry will endure the setback of Hurricane Maria, fully recover and grow.
If agriculture is part of the rebuilding plan, it will be part of Puerto Rico’s future.