Last month, University of Puerto Rico (UPR) students and faculty hosted an forum with the six gubernatorial candidates running for election in the upcoming November 6 elections, in which they presented and debated their proposals for the nation’s agriculture. The activity, which took place at the UPR Law School, was organized by the National Environmental Law Association (ANDA) and the Agriculture Students Associaton (AEA). Both groups have an established track record of advocacy of organic farming and food sovereignty.
Only three candidates confirmed their participation, which says plenty about agriculture’s low priority in Puerto Rico’s public policy arena. The three were Rogelio Figueroa of Puerto Ricans for Puerto Rico (PPR), professor Rafael Bernabe of the Working People’s Party (PPT) and Arturo Hernández of the Soberanista Union Movement (MUS). The Independence Party (PIP) was represented by House of Representatives candidate Dennis Márquez, while the Popular Democratic Party (PPD), currently Puerto Rico’s main opposition party, was represented by House representative Luis Vega-Ramos. Incumbent governor Luis Fortuño of the ruling right-wing New Progressive Party (PNP), who is running for reelection, not only did not come but also did not send his Agriculture Secretary, which would have been the obvious choice to substitute him. Instead, they sent the department’s undersecretary, agronomist Carlos Flores. Hernández could not make it due to medical problems, so at the last minute he was substituted by agronomist Lucas Avilés.
Six political parties may sound like much, especially for those who believe that the more parties the more democracy. But there is no reason to harbor any illusions about the Puerto Rico 2012 elections. Since 1948 the country has been ruled by either the PPD or PNP. These are the only two parties with any real power and any possibility of winning the gubernatorial race or any meaningful representation in the legislature. As interesting as the proposals of the other four parties might seem, these are of little or no consequence.
Of the six debaters, Flores of the PNP was in the worst position. Having to defend the incumbent, he was in no position to propose anything. It is quite probable that everyone in that auditorium agreed that the PNP, which aims to turn the island nation into state 51 of the American Union, has always been hostile to Puerto Rico’s agriculture. Pro-statehood politicians use fear to get votes: “Without the US we will starve”, so they naturally view any local food production and self-reliance as an obstacle to integration to the USA.
Flores’ statements were so devoid of substance that it was hard for me, as I took notes, to make out any concrete statement or proposal. He said there were many technological options for agriculture, but that the market should decide which ones to implement. That was a facile evasion of responsibility, very much in tune with neoliberal ideology. The fact that in his following sentence he spoke wonders of the transnational seed farms in our territory made it clear he was endorsing the agenda of agricultural biotech corporations like Monsanto.
PPD spokesman Vega-Ramos was not in a much better position to argue and debate about agriculture. His party, architect and defender of the current colonial status, the Estado Libre Asociado (often wrongly translated to English as “Commonwealth”), torpedoed our agriculture during its twenty year reign (1948-1968) in its bid to make Puerto Rico into an industrial manufacturing economy dominated by corporate foreign investors.
Vega-Ramos’ only proposal worth mentioning was his inequivocal support for reverting the controversial permuta of lands of the Gurabo Agricultural Experiment Station. In 2011 the mayor of the town of Gurabo seized 50 acres of the local Agricultural Experiment station for urban development, provoking a furious opposition from farmers, academics and food security advocates*.
The MUS fared somewhat better in the debate. Founded in 2010, it advocates sovereignty without independence, and has attracted a following among frustrated independentistas as well as PPD voters who want more autonomy for Puerto Rico and are aghast at their party’s colonialist posture. The MUS’s anti-corruption, good government proposals give the ruling class nothing to worry about. In fact, its economic platform reads like something written in the Milla de Oro (San Juan’s central business district).
MUS spokesman Avilés stated that “ecological agriculture is the agriculture of the future”. Such words are the single most powerful endorsement of organic farming by a political party in the Puerto Rico history. He went on to detail some specific proposals, like moving the production of farm inputs closer to the farm. Unfortunately he also endorsed questionable technocratic approaches like vertical farming.
The most intelligent and substantial proposals came from the PPT candidate. Founded also in 2010, this party was formed by Socialist Front renegades who split off to form the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS). Like the Socialist Front, the MAS is socialist and pro-independence, but there are major differences between both groups, especially with regard to participation in elections. But the PPT is not independentista and does not even take a position regarding Puerto Rico’s status. Neither is it socialist, or leftist, or revolutionary or anti-capitalist; it has no ideology. In fact, its platform is no more radical than that of the AFL-CIO or the liberal wing of the US Democrat party.
Candidate Bernabe said that there is a worldwide revolution in farming that is totally transforming the way food is produced, and he mentioned Slow Food, Via Campesina and Brazil’s MST. He also pointed to toxic agrochemicals, monocultures, free market economics and the sacred status of private property as problems and obstacles to agriculture and food security. He proved himself to be the single most knowledgeable candidate regarding the problems of modern agriculture as well as alternative approaches.
The PIP’s proposals were rather uninteresting when compared to those of the MUS and PPT. House candidate Márquez spoke about sustainable agriculture, non-toxic pest control and alternative methodologies, but apart from that, nothing particularly challenging to the conventional agriculture paradigm.
Figueroa of the PPR entertained the audience with cornucopian fantasies about abundant energy from alternative sources and using compost as an alternative fertilizer for local agriculture and utilizing biomass (read farm waste) to produce energy. It has not occurred to this candidate that Puerto Rico might not have enough so-called farm waste to provide both compost for agriculture and feedstock for biomass energy. Listening to his Polyanna discourse, one would think that natural resources like wind, water, sunlight and soil nutrients are infinite.
Figueroa is an enlightened eco-capitalist, a pharmaceutical industry engineer and successful businessman who proposes win-win solutions based on technological approaches and the promise of renewable energy. Like the PPT, his party has no position on Puerto Rico’s status. Furthermore, the PPR has no ideology, no project, and no internal democracy, as Figueroa is its self-appointed leader-for-life. The party strives to overcome these contradictions and shortcomings by highlighting Figueroa’s charisma in its campaign advertising.
Figueroa dodged a direct question on genetically modified crops, stating that these must be planted with transparency, under the rule of law (fiscalización) and following ethical guidelines. Nice dodge.
In general, Puerto Rican voters who advocate food sovereignty and agroecology have very little to look for in the upcoming elections. None of the six parties are critical of industrial conventional agriculture in any real way, and none of them present any fundamentally new way of looking at farming and its connection to sustainability. By heaping praise on ecological agriculture and sustainable alternatives without rejecting the dominant toxic, corporate-dominated, business-as-usual model that exacerbates biodiversity erosion and global warming and perpetuates hunger, they sell the fantasy that both models are compatible and can coexist without any major conflict or controversy.
Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero is a Puerto Rican author, journalist and environmental educator. He is director of the Puerto Rico Project on Biosafety (http://bioseguridad.blogspot.com/) and a research associate at the Institute for Social Ecology.