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Advancing Just Transformation in Puerto Rico: Strategies from the Frontlines after Fiona

#Blog#Ecological justice#Food Sovereignty#Human Rights Defense
April 2023


Last fall, Grassroots International and our supporters joined together with our movement partners and allies in Puerto Rico to channel emergency funds to frontline response to Hurricane Fiona.

As social movements emphasize, Fiona was not an isolated tragedy, but part of a continuous onslaught of climate-induced crises, layered upon ongoing political and economic crises facing the archipelago. Movement-based responses are thus focused well beyond survival from one disaster to the next. While addressing immediate needs, social movements are advancing transformative frameworks grounded in sovereignty and self-determination. This gets to the heart of what some Puerto Rican movements describe as just transformation.

Here are some of the key strategies of our partners for advancing just transformation post Fiona, based on our recent conversations with them:


The emotional and psycho-social damage caused by disasters can be as severe as the physical damage, and yet it is common for it to remain hidden and thus go unaddressed. That’s why social movements are facilitating access to emotional support and healing services by impacted communities. This includes support for those leading hurricane response efforts — community activists living under difficult conditions themselves and often facing personal losses and working through their own trauma while supporting others in emergency conditions. Much of this work is being done from a grassroots feminist perspective.


Even while dealing with the immediate aftermath of a given disaster, social movements do not lose sight of the systems and structures that made their communities so vulnerable in the first place — like the structural racism deeply tied with Puerto Rico’s colonial legacy. When the Biden administration released the US government’s Fiona response plan, predominantly Afro-descendant communities like Loisa were off the map, literally and figuratively. Social movements are calling out this systematic exclusion while carrying out their own needs assessments to ensure that no communities are overlooked.


Social movements are using economic relationships to aid recovery from a human-centered approach. This includes collective harvests to salvage what remains of crops harmed by Fiona — food that otherwise would have gone bad. Some of these rescued crops go to collective kitchens, which in turn provide cooked meals to communities impacted by Fiona. Another portion goes to local markets, helping farmers to gain some income rather than losing everything. Social movements have also set up a supermarket coop where people can take what they need and pay what they can.


Government support for hurricane relief is extremely limited and hard to access. So social movements are taking a multipronged approach of defending existing resources and expanding access to them through community partnerships; ensuring correct distribution of benefits; advocating for additional resources; and redirecting resources toward where they are most critically needed. In rural areas, legal brigades are walking farmers through complex application processes for disaster assistance, and advocacy networks have been pushing the Department of Agriculture to extend the insurance application period, eliminate debt collection, freeze evictions from leased land, and declare a fishing emergency.


In the face of government negligence, communities are mobilizing to support each other. Those from less hard-hit areas are forming solidarity brigades to bring support to areas with greater hurricane damage, helping to rebuild homes, replant crops, conduct wellness and healing services, and much more. Movements are also coordinating at the regional level to avoid duplicating efforts while supporting the more localized brigades. For example, regional solidarity brigades are facilitating access to supplies so people can take what they need and go do the work.


Events like Fiona have exposed the fragility of Puerto Rico’s food system, which is largely dependent on food imported through US-controlled channels. This points to the critical importance of efforts by social movements to build food sovereignty. Yet disasters become pretexts for land grabbing, as US firms and individuals buy up Puerto Rico’s remaining farmland, often facilitated by incentives like tax breaks. Movements are thus organizing with allies to buy and protect local farmland before it is too late. This is a temporary yet critical strategy to keep land in the hands of the people while working toward sovereignty over food and land over the long-term.


Social movements are not only reclaiming the land, but healing it through agroecology — a set of principles and practices involving farming in sync with nature. Agroecology is a powerful tool for climate mitigation through keeping carbon out of the atmosphere and stored in the soil. It is equally powerful at climate adaptation by building up the resilience of local food systems to climate-induced disasters. Puerto Rico’s farming communities and social movements are at the cutting edge of global efforts to advance agroecology and are scaling it outward through agroecology schools and other forms of training and dissemination.


In addition to land, control over water, energy, communication systems, community spaces, and other forms of physical infrastructure can be a matter of life or death during a crisis, as well as being fundamental for community self-determination over the long-term. A key priority has been building up local solar-based systems to maintain essential functions during disasters while fostering greater energy independence. Social movements have also been implementing permanent water filter stations; solar-run alternative communication channels; and community-controlled kitchens, distribution centers, shelters, and gathering spaces run through self-management practices.

For more information, see Grassroots International’s Puerto Rico page and our joint report with Movement Generation, Protesta Y Propuesta: Lessons from Just Transformation, Ecological Justice and the Fight for Self-Determination in Puerto Rico.

This piece is based on a presentation by Grassroots International’s Senior Solidarity Program Officer for Latin America, Jovanna García Soto.

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