Challenges in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico has the perfect climate to grow a variety of crops. It used to produce a large percentage of its food, but the percentage has dramatically reduced in recent years. As we learned from one of our presentations at the University of Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico imports about 80% or more of its food. This number is astounding, considering it has resources and the climate to produce much more of its food. Not only does importing goods cost much more money, it also uses gasoline and other resources to ship things that could be produced and consumed on the island itself. Another point to consider is that there is a decline in farmers, and the farmers that remain are getting old.
A solution to this problem is not easy to pursue. There are resource issues, political issues, and human labor issues. One way to go about solving this problem is to give out tax incentives. If there were good incentives to become a farmer, then more people would do so. This could be by giving out free or subsidized land, establishing price floors, and promoting agricultural growth. Agriculture needs to be more attractive as a career to the young generation. Along with agriculture comes harvesting machinery, processing, and distributing. All of these fields would expand, creating many jobs and stimulating Puerto Rico’s economy. We also learned that Agriculture contributes to less than one percent of Puerto Rico’s GDP. That’s just sad when there’s plenty of rain and sun to theoretically grow crops of all sorts. We would measure the success by the change in agriculture contribution to Puerto Rico’s GDP, as well as the percentage of food imports to the island. These numbers would tell us exactly how effective these solutions are; an increase would show that more jobs are kept in Puerto Rico itself. One underlying risk is if the farmers produce too much and lack in processing or transportation mechanisms. The opposite could happen too – farmers might not produce as much as they expected, so there’s an abundance of post-harvest facilities.

Another issue that is related to Agriculture comes from the soil itself. We learned that the soil in areas of Puerto Rico have high salinity content, making it hard for crops to thrive. We also learned that there is already somewhat of a solution in place for this problem; planting fields of rice actually absorbs the salt and makes the plot usable for other crops. I thought this was a phenomenal solution, but I noticed that the area in which the rice was growing didn’t quite have the right resources to properly farm and harvest the crop. I didn’t see any large storage bins or harvesting machinery for that matter. It’s nice that the government is testing new crops, but there should really be more infrastructure in place to help the farmers. A solution would be that the government provides the necessary machinery to properly harvest and store the rice. If they are the ones to launch a pilot program, there should be support to follow through with the project. We would measure the success in rice fields by comparing the salinity content before and after to make sure the plots are suitable for other crops. Another way to measure success is if there is no waste in harvest due to machinery involved in the process. An underlying risk is if the government provides equipment without enough farmers to work the plots.
I’ve noticed that there is no public transportation on the island. There are even some train rails carved into the ground with no train to use them. This is problematic because Puerto Rico already has to import all of its gasoline. Also, space will definitely become an issue if it isn’t already. There’s only going to be a growing amount of people and cars on the island, so public transportation is only becoming more important. Having some sort of bus or train system would greatly improve travel efficiency. People who can’t afford cars will still have a means of transportation. There would be less gas use and less pollution. While there is no easy way to implement a bus and train system, it could definitely be done with the right resources. The government needs to intervene and get outside support to draft plans. A way to measure success if to determine what percentage of the population use public transportation and to do a cost-benefit analysis to see if it was worth the money invested. Another way is to compare the amount of pollution released from the island before and after implementing public transportation. The last way is to compare the difference in traffic patterns before and after implementation. One underlying risk is that it might cost a lot of money and not be used as much as expected.

Here’s a picture of a sugar cane plot. Sugar cane used to be one of Puerto Rico’s biggest exports but has declined dramatically in recent years.

Puerto Rican Issues and Actions That Could Be Taken

Going to another country – or even another common wealth of the same country – can pose to be difficult when you don’t speak the native language. Spanish is the native language in Puerto Rico, and from what I’ve seen, only a select handful of people can speak English. I noticed that in Old San Juan, – the more touristy area of the island – most if not every one of the workers speak English. This is because tourism is a huge part of Puerto Rico’s economy, with ships bringing in thousands of tourists on a daily basis. An action I could take to address the language barrier is to be more respectful of the locals by trying to accommodate to what they’re trying to say. I could try speaking as best Spanish as I can, especially since I’ve taken three years of Spanish in high school. I could be more open to learning what they’re trying to say by sounding out the syllables as they speak to me. Another thing I could do is to not assume that people who don’t speak the same language as me are less intelligent.
People in Puerto Rico live by “island time” and take things easy. While this is good if you’re vacationing, I could definitely see this as a lack of efficiency in the long run. Because everything is taken so easy, it could be hard to schedule a day without accommodating for some issues that might arise. A prime example of this is when we hiked the dry forest; the gate guard wasn’t on duty because of a local holiday. Nobody told us anything, and I’m sure it was just a spur-of-the-moment type of thing. An action I could take is to just live by “island time” amongst the locals. Take things slowly while I’m vacationing on the beautiful island. If things do go as planned – which many things at this point have not – I can just deal with it and move on with my day. No big deal.
As for the environment, there is at least one obvious issue. I’ve seen many pieces of plastic washed up on the beaches. This problem is not in the hands of Puerto Ricans but collectively all the people who live on earth. Because of improper handling of garbage, plastic debris floats in our oceans by the tons. An action that I could take is to pick up any piece of plastic I see on the beach – whether it be big or small. This small action could actually make an impact because then animals wouldn’t confuse small pieces of plastic with food. Another action I could take is to use less plastic in general and be more conscious of recycling. The next time I’m in a grocery store, I’ll bring my own bag, for example. I’ll bring along my own reusable water bottle before taking a disposable plastic one.
Another not-so-obvious issue with the environment falls in island transportation. I noticed that there is no public transit system on the island. This causes lots of traffic, more air pollution, and more use of imported gasoline. I’ve also seen garbage cars left in pieces parked outside of homes and along the street. This takes up space and isn’t appealing to tourists visiting the island. There is no direct solution to these problems. All I can do is to inform others of my observations in hope that something changes.
On the second and third nights of our trip, we witnessed a Three Kings Festival. The local town was crowded full of people, the houses had decorations, and even a band came to play live music for the festivities. While this is wonderful for most of the locals, there could be a potential issue. Are all residents of Puerto Rico Christian? How about the tourists? There could be some issues with clashing religious beliefs. An action I could take is to respect Puerto Rico’s local holidays, even if I wasn’t Christian.

We ate freshly harvested and prepared oysters from a local stand in the town.

Bernando ran a coffee plantation all by himself. He could speak very little english, but he tried very hard to speak to us the best he could. Dr. Rodriguez eventually had to translate, but we all tried as best we could to understand what Bernando was saying.

Differences in Puerto Rico versus Illinois

The world is very different in Puerto Rico than it is where I am from. This is to be expected, though, because I live in a very different climate and I’m not surrounded by ocean. The struggles of living in Illinois are much different than that of Puerto Rico. Let’s take driving, for example. Puerto Ricans drive like maniacs compared to what I’m used to, yet I have yet to see a single accident. The cars in Puerto Rico last much longer because they aren’t exposed to cold winter weather and salty roads. Because of this, there are lots of very old cars that still drive around the island today – most of them in poor condition with dents, scratches, and missing bumpers. Also, the speedometer in our van specifically is read in miles per hour, while the odometer and street markers are read in kilometers per hour.
The people in Puerto Rico seem to be very calm and laid back. They like to live by “island time” which basically means they are late to almost every meeting or event. People in Puerto Rico just seem more relaxed and not in so much of a rush. The local Puerto Ricans seem very nice to each other and strangers alike. The locals at the beach in Puerto Rico knew how to have a good time. They brought coolers full of food and alcohol as well as speakers to jam out to their music. It felt so normal to them to hit the beach on a winter sunday afternoon. I also feel like locals take more risks than people in Illinois because they have less to lose. They can live on the edge and the worst that can happen is that they’d be living on a beach, while homeless people in Illinois quite literally can die from frostbite.
As an urban kid born and raised, I can attest to the speed and organization of life in Illinois. In Chicago, everything just seems very rushed. This is good, though, because it increases daily life efficiency. The streets are clearly labeled, lit, and easy to follow. Commuters use public transportation to get from point A to point B in as little time as possible. The winter weather causes everyone to wear lots of layers and get uncomfortable quickly while indoors. Everything’s a competition. Students are constantly competing to get into high school and then into college. College students are competing for a job. Workers are competing for a pay raise. People in the city are in their own world, only caring about their own lives and struggles they are facing.
From an Islander’s perspective, it seems like things don’t need to be perfect, they just need to function. They would be satisfied with any air conditioner, for example – not just the most efficient and very best one. As long as it works, they’ll be happy. This concept could be applied to Blue – the apartment we’re staying in. We’re staying in a nice-sized apartment with air conditioning, two rooms, and a sweet veranda. Our first reaction moving in was, “wow, this place is so janky”. Our quality of living is just so much higher than that of Puerto Ricans that we weren’t satisfied with something any local would thoroughly enjoy. We expect quality and accommodations, while Puerto Ricans will just be happy with where they’re at. Of course there will be competition in Puerto Rico, but it’s definitely less than in the states.
On a global level, I thought it was very sad to see pieces of plastic washed up on the beach. It wasn’t just a miniscule amount, either. There were empty Clorox bottles, storage containers, cans, bottles, plastic caps, and much more. I couldn’t believe all of this was just floating around in the ocean and somehow ended up on an island in the middle of the Atlantic. There were broken beer bottles and pieces of glass mixed with sand along the ocean floor. As a world, we must work together to reduce the amount of waste that slips into the oceans.

The streets and sidewalks in Old San Juan were very narrow - especially compared to the ones I'm used to in Illinois. Each building was painted a different pastel color with borders that were intricately designed.

The streets and sidewalks in Old San Juan were very narrow – especially compared to the ones I’m used to in Illinois. Each building was painted a different pastel color with borders that were intricately designed.

Illinois is extremely flat and made up of mostly cornfields, which is extremely different than that of Puerto Rico. Illinois has a wind farm visible from the main highway - something I didn't see while staying in Puerto Rico.

Illinois is extremely flat and made up of mostly cornfields, which is extremely different than that of Puerto Rico. Illinois has a wind farm visible from the main highway – something I didn’t see while staying in Puerto Rico.

Hiking in the Dry Forest

It’s hard to pick just one event that I enjoyed in Puerto Rico because there were several. I have to say that my most favorite event thus far was hiking the dry forest and swimming on the beach. In spanish, it’s called Bosque Nacional de Guanica. We were supposed to get dropped off right where the trail started, but we ended up walking over a mile and a half to the start of the trail. There was a local holiday, and the guy who was supposed to open the gate wasn’t at work that day. It wasn’t easy hiking to the trail because it was hot and very high in altitude. Along the way, we found a large, wild hermit crab crossing the road. It was interesting to me because I was used to seeing tiny hermit crabs in painted shells at the local pet store. This one was massive and looked very healthy. We also found a large camouflaged moth in the middle of the street.
The trail itself was absolutely astonishing. We walked through a sort of dirt road surrounded by vegetation. At this point, we’ve been walking for almost two miles, so we were exhausted. I also enjoyed walking through this patch of different sized rocks. Most were small, so with every step my foot would sink in a few inches. It made the hike a little more interesting. I felt like I was walking in quicksand or something of that nature. We then trailed off to see this 700-year-old tree called Guayacama Centenario. This tree was crazy to look at because it’s grown on a steep hill. The tree roots were full of life and all bulging out. The group of twelve all stood around the tree and took a beautiful picture that encompasses just how big it was – attached below. We sat in the shade of the tree, eating a snack before heading back out. Once we were finished, we started hiking again and saw massive cacti. We also spotted numerous Vultures flying high above us. Dr Rodriguez explained to me how the vultures eat small animals and roadkill, including cats, mice, and other rodents. The hike concluded with a paved, civilized road. We all walked along the road in the hot sun for just a few minutes before hitting the beach.
The beach looked like it was rarely used and there was lots of seaweed, sponges, and other sea debris washed up. I put all of my stuff in the shade and ran right into the turquoise water. At first it seemed chilly, but it got very comfortable once I started swimming around. At the spot we were at, there was lots of algae floating around, which made it a little gross. The waves were strong and big, so it was quite the experience to jump into such waves. Each of us had a different method of defense, like we’d jump up, in, or turn so that the wave wouldn’t pull us away. The sun was bright and strong, so I was sure to wear my long sleeve swim shirt. Then a few of us started walking along the coast until we decided to jump it again. This spot was much better with less algae and even more clear water. I doggy paddled and floated on my back, seeing about twenty vultures in the distance by the forest. The beach was surrounded by healthy, tall palm trees. A few of the students decided to throw rocks at the coconuts in attempt to capture one. They were eventually successful and were actually able to split the coconut open. It took a while, though, because they had to use a strong piece of protruding metal in a piece on concrete. It was a very pleasing hike and beach day.

This hermit crab was enormous compared to the ones I see at the local pet store. The crab had vibrant colors and intricate details.

This hermit crab was enormous compared to the ones I see at the local pet store. The crab had vibrant colors and intricate details.

This was the massive, beautiful 700 year old tree.

This was the massive, beautiful 700 year old tree.