Finca Conciencia Is Constructing Meals Sovereignty on Vieques Island


“You aren’t allergic to bees, proper?” asks Ana Elisa Pérez Quintero, who helps run Finca Conciencia, the one agro-ecological farm on Vieques, an island positioned about seven miles off the east coast of Puerto Rico, earlier than we enter the property via a heavy picket gate.

The nine-cuerda (barely over 8.5-acre) farm is perched on the highest on the Monte Carlo neighborhood of the island. Scattered in between fruit and nut timber, beehives, and fallow land, Pérez Quintero and Jorge Cora develop natural greens on round 40 beds, laid out over two sides of a gently sloping hill.

The view of the Caribbean ocean from the top of Finca Conciencia. (Photo © Sarah Sax)

The view of the Caribbean Sea from the highest of Finca Conciencia. (Photograph © Sarah Sax)

Dwelling to roughly 10,000 residents, Vieques has no main, business supply of regionally grown produce, so Finca Conciencia is attempting to fill that hole and construct a meals sovereignty motion on the island. Along with rising greens, they try this by protecting bees, giving workshops, saving seeds, and holding neighborhood kitchen occasions via a collective they shaped in 2015 known as La Colmena Cimarrona—the Maroon Beehive—a reputation that hints at their distinctive pressure of runaway bees, their politics, and their very own histories.

“If we will produce extra ourselves and grow to be extra meals sovereign, perhaps that may result in an awakening within the political sphere in Puerto Rico—and much more so in Vieques,” Pérez Quintero explains.

The half-dozen rustic buildings at numerous levels of disrepair, lined strategically on the highest level of the farm to catch the view of the Caribbean Sea within the distance, are a reminder of the devastating impression Hurricane Maria had when it tore via the island in 2017. Whereas the farm is slowly rebuilding, its principal focus is on rising greens for the farmers’ personal consumption and to promote to eating places on the island.

Most of the vegetables that Finca Conciencia sell are leafy greens. Much of it goes to the island’s growing restaurant businesses. (Photo © Sarah Sax)

Many of the greens that Finca Conciencia sells are leafy greens. Lots of them go to the island’s rising restaurant companies. (Photograph © Sarah Sax)

The 30,000-acre island has lengthy struggled with meals entry and availability. Puerto Rico, which constantly ranks increased for meals insecurity and starvation than most different components of the U.S., imports roughly 85 p.c of its meals—that quantity jumped to 95 p.c after Hurricane Maria. Meals insecurity on Vieques is compounded much more by an irregular and unreliable ferry service. Earlier this spring, for example, each cargo ferries to the island have been damaged, chopping off residents’ entry to fuel, milk, eggs, and recent produce.

Along with meals insecurity stemming from its remoteness, Vieques has been battered in some ways over time. The U.S. Navy used half of the island as a weapons check website for greater than six a long time earlier than lastly ending in 2003, ultimately turning that half right into a Nationwide Wildlife Refuge that can be a Superfund Website. And Hurricane María slammed into Puerto Rico in September 2017, killing 3,000 folks and chopping off electrical energy, fuel, meals, and provides for weeks to Vieques.

Jorge tends to lettuce grown under a shade net with beehives in the background. (Photo © Sarah Sax)

Jorge tends to lettuce grown beneath a shade internet with beehives within the background. (Photograph © Sarah Sax)

“What Jorge and Ana are doing is each distinctive and crucial,” says Sylvia de Marco, who runs a vegetarian boutique lodge on the island and sources greens and different produce from the farm. “Vieques has a lot potential—we will develop year-round—it’s wonderful no more persons are doing it.”

Elevating Produce and Pollinators

Initially from the town of Arroyo, Puerto Rico, Cora has been working with bees since 1996. He got here to Vieques to purchase queens from his predecessor, Mike Diaz, after Hurricane George destroyed his hives in 1998, and he by no means went again residence. Diaz gave the land to Cora when he retired, marking the beginning of Finca Conciencia, 12 years in the past.

Pérez Quintano, additionally from Puerto Rico, arrived 5 years in the past to take part in a workshop. Impressed by what Jorge was doing—and the very apparent want for extra meals sovereignty on the island—she determined to remain as nicely.

The “agro-api-artisanal farm,” nonetheless recovering from the Hurricane María, presently produces round 150 kilos of meals per week, primarily inexperienced leafy greens that it sells to residents, eating places, and resorts twice per week within the island’s port city of Esperanza. The farmers, and the day laborers who assist work the land, eat the remainder of their produce.

Jorge Cora working on the beehives. (Photo courtesy of Finca Conciencia)

Jorge Cora engaged on the beehives. (Photograph courtesy of Finca Conciencia)

The farm is a part of La Colmena Cimarrona, the bigger collective that Pérez Quintano and Cora based to create agroecology coaching alternatives, in addition to present administrative and fundraising help for like-minded organizations. Along with educating workshops on composting, natural farming, and seed-saving, the collective runs a neighborhood kitchen, neighborhood gardens, and a gaggle for girls working in meals safety. Its long-term purpose is to coach sufficient farmers across the island to ultimately have an area farmers’ market.

The collective additionally runs an apiary, spearheaded by Cora, that raises Puerto Rico’s distinctive hybrid bees—a hybrid of “killer” African bees and a European pressure that’s mild and resilient to most of the parasites that plague European honeybees. “They name them wild, or ‘killer’ bees,” says Pérez Quintero. “However they’re not. It’s the identical sort of racist discourse that was used to explain indigenous and enslaved folks.”

Cora, who has been growing totally different hives to maintain the smaller, hybrid bees, agrees. “The bees are a hybrid, like us Puerto Ricans. You may’t handle the hybrid bees the identical method you do European bees.”

Round 80 p.c of the island’s 150,000 bee colonies have been worn out throughout Hurricane Maria. To save lots of their dozen beehives in the course of the storm, Pérez Quintero and Cora strapped them to items of wooden and tied them to the sturdiest timber.

Since then, nonetheless, the apiculture facet of their enterprise has slowed down a bit as they focus their efforts on ramping up vegetable manufacturing. However each are adamant that there isn’t any separating bees from agriculture. “We reside within the bees; they’re linked to all the pieces we contact and eat and use,” Cora says. “We are able to’t reside with out them.”

‘Banks of Life’ and Seed Saving

I’ve come in the course of the dry season, besides, due to the winds, low rainfall, excessive ranges of evapotranspiration, and lack of irrigation, farming on Vieques is a problem.

“There isn’t a lot to see in the intervening time,” says Cora. “On the primary island, the earth is productive when it rains, however in Vieques it’s more durable—the soil is drier, and the rain is much less. In actuality, the local weather right here is extra like a desert.”

To get round that, Cora developed a sort of slender, lengthy, raised vegetable beds based mostly loosely on conventional farming strategies utilized by the indigenous Taíno, during which lengthy furrows gather and maintain water when it rains. They give the impression of being much like double-dug beds utilized in bio-intensive agriculture, however they’re longer and better. The farm doesn’t adhere strictly to anyone system, however is adamant about not utilizing agrochemicals or industrial strategies.

 The beds, “Banks of life,’ are designed to retain as much water as possible. (Photo © Sarah Sax)

The beds are designed to retain as a lot water as doable. (Photograph © Sarah Sax)

“We name these ‘banks of life,’” says Pérez Quintano. “Throughout the hurricane, for probably the most half they stayed intact,” even when a lot of their farm didn’t.

A view of the farm's double-dug beds. (Photo courtesy of Finca Conciencia)

A view of the farm’s double-dug beds. (Photograph courtesy of Finca Conciencia)

About half the beds are presently rising leafy greens, eggplants, and peppers, and the opposite half goes to seed. Pérez Quintero has been dedicating herself to producing seeds which can be regionally tailored to the situations in Vieques since she got here to the farm 5 years in the past—each to reduce dependence on exterior sources and to generate seeds that can flourish within the distinctive native local weather and soil situations of the islands. For now, the seeds are primarily used on the farm and exchanged on the workshops the farm frequently holds.

Within the Wake of Pure Catastrophe

Restoration from Hurricane Maria was even more durable for Vieques than for the remainder of Puerto Rico; electrical energy didn’t absolutely return there till January 2019, and the hospital nonetheless operates a few of its companies out of trailers.

“We successfully had no well being companies, no dialysis, [and] no diabetes medicine after the hurricane,” remembers Pérez Quintero. “It was an actual disaster.”

Regardless of the harm the farm took from the hurricane, entry to recent meals wasn’t as a lot of a problem. They harvested all the pieces they might and distributed among the provisions, constructed a mannequin backyard on the Catholic church, and began a ladies’s group via the collective to work on meals safety and well being points.

Pérez Quintero and Cora noticed Maria as a approach to convey consciousness to the difficulty of producing extra meals safety on the island. “That’s what we need to inform the folks right here,” Cora says. “There are going to be extra instances the place there isn’t any ferry and no meals—and so they must be ready.”

Meals Sovereignty as a Political Assertion

The land on which Finca Conciencia is constructed is what is understood regionally as “rescued land,” or land that belonged to the Navy however was overgrown and never in use. Residents like Cora’s predecessor Mike Diaz got here and cleared the land, successfully laying declare to it.

A sign in the reserve below Finca Conciencia reminds visitors that Vieques was used for 60 years for war games by the U.S. Navy. (Photo © Sarah Sax)

An indication within the reserve beneath Finca Conciencia reminds guests that Vieques was used for 60 years for struggle video games by the U.S. Navy. (Click on picture for a bigger model) (Photograph © Sarah Sax)

Whereas that land is acknowledged by the federal government, it has no clear titles, making it simple for folks to say and promote it. Essentially the most profitable consumers are eyeing land for resorts and trip properties for considered one of Vieques’ principal industries: tourism. As a result of the island was inaccessible for thus lengthy, improvement has been gradual, making it a paradise for off-the-beaten-track vacationers. The surge in rich, absentee house owners, nonetheless, implies that costs for land have skyrocketed and shopping for land for farming has grow to be all however inconceivable.

For Pérez Quintero and Cora, the historical past of Vieques ties in with what they’re attempting to do at present with their farm. La Colmena is within the means of establishing a neighborhood land belief to say among the remaining, unsold land to make use of for meals manufacturing.

“Agroecology and agriculture basically is, in its personal method, a approach to rescue Vieques from the gentrification, land hypothesis, and displacement that we’re seeing,” Pérez Quintero explains. “We now have quite a lot of absentee house owners—we’d like extra folks which can be truly right here in an effort to change issues.”

Finca Conciencia and its related collective hopes that its work will advance social, financial, and environmental justice and sensitize folks to the difficulty of meals—and political—sovereignty.

One of many anecdotes Pérez Quintero likes to inform is from simply after the hurricane. The farm had began a soup kitchen utilizing radishes and arugula, substances that produce quickly, “issues that earlier than the hurricane folks would have probably discovered gross,” she says. After consuming canned meals for weeks and seeing little assist and assist from elsewhere, one of many males on the island turned to her and stated, “Look, I’m not actively preventing for independence proper now, however I feel we’d like extra of it.”

That appears to be the important mantra of the farm: To free ourselves, we’ve to feed ourselves.

“It’s not a simple approach to make a dwelling,” Cora concedes, sitting and watching the Caribbean Sea break on white sand seashores within the distance. “However somebody needed to present that it may very well be performed. And we’ve performed that—aquí estamos—we’re displaying that it’s doable. And that’s not nothing.”


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