In September 2017, two hurricanes barreled through Puerto Rico, leaving unprecedented devastation in their wake. Power was wiped out across the island, lines of communication were cut, and hundreds of thousands of homes were demolished or heavily damaged. Coffee producers — farmers, roasters, and shop owners — were hit especially hard, with almost 80 percent of the island’s coffee trees destroyed.
Coffee holds an important place in Puerto Rico’s history and culture. In 1898, the year it became a territory of the United States, the island was the sixth-largest coffee producer in the world. Virtually all of the coffee crop was lost when Hurricane San Felipe II struck the island in 1928, but as recently as 2012, coffee was still the fifth most important agricultural revenue stream in Puerto Rico’s gross national product. Last year’s storms, however, have left the industry with an uncertain future.
Ramón Borges-Méndez, associate professor of community development and planning in the International Development, Community, and Environment Department at Clark, is a native of Puerto Rico. He and fellow IDCE faculty member Cynthia Caron ’90 are using the reconstruction of Puerto Rico’s coffee industry as a case study in resilience, with an eye toward giving women a larger role in the supply chain.
“Women have always been a very important part of the labor force in coffee, usually in subordinate positions and as low-wage workers,” says Borges-Méndez. Now, women with graduate degrees and professional backgrounds are assuming leadership positions within the industry.
Caron, an assistant professor of international development and social change who has studied post-disaster management and reconstruction in countries including Sri Lanka, Bhutan, India, Zambia, and Uganda, is interested in how local people respond to a major disruption, such as a natural disaster. In Puerto Rico, women are embracing the challenge of recovery, she says.
Supported by a grant from Clark’s Faculty Development Fund, the professors have interviewed people from all aspects of the coffee-production chain: owners, producers, farmers, workers, roasters, and shop owners. They spoke with Karen Bengoa, M.A./IDSC ’06, an extension agricultural specialist with the University of Puerto Rico–Mayaguez (in the coffee-producing region), as well as Krys Rodríguez, a retired Army sergeant major and coffee farm owner, and coffee entrepreneur Jacqueline Pérez. All were profiled recently on The World (Public Radio International) and BBC News.
Their interviews uncovered a desire to “build back better,” Borges-Méndez says, with an emerging view of development that takes into account equity in gender, class, and geographic region. Puerto Rico’s small coffee producers should focus on niche coffees, he adds, to stand out against the 85 percent of the island’s coffee production (roasting) that is now under the umbrella of Puerto Rican Coffee Roasters — a subsidiary of Puerto Rico Coca-Cola Bottling.
“It’s a good time to do something different,” Caron says.
To that end, a group of female stakeholders, including Rodriguez and Pérez, are looking to repossess or purchase a public school in the town of Maricao — one of 285 schools that the government has closed since Hurricane Maria — to establish a sustainability school for agricultural development and community with an emphasis on women’s education. Borges-Méndez and Caron will be involved in an advisory capacity.
“A lot of women are already managing their own farms,” Caron says, “but aren’t legally the owners, and might have difficulty managing men who work on the farms. How do you give women the tools they need, and how do you work with men so the women are able to actually do their jobs and be respected as decision-makers?”
Women are traditionally on the front lines of community development, Borges-Méndez adds, because it’s considered an extension of the home.
The professors have written a paper about their ongoing work in Puerto Rico, “Decolonizing Resilience,” which takes into account the colonial history of the island and how policy delays progress. The paper is currently under review.
As well as his work with Caron, Borges-Méndez is working with IDCE professors Yelena Ogneva-Himmelberger and Tim Downs to create student research projects in GIS and environmental modeling courses, using the case of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.