The Great Rice Debate

While our ABE 199 class visited Puerto Rico, we had the opportunity to meet Professor Perez, who worked with us during our study abroad trip. Professor Perez allowed us to tour the dam and irrigation canals that distribute fresh water to farms across the island, which was amazing to see. Each farmer has to send in a request for a specific amount of water. Gates in the canals are then opened to that the exact amount of water needed for each farm is distributed. Being able to see something like this was very exciting for me, since I am considering specializing in water and could definitely see myself in the future working on something similar.

After he finished showing us these canals, Professor Perez then showed us something else that I found very interesting: a large rice field. Although this might sound unimpressive, the story behind it is very important. The professor explained to us that the rice is part of a current project, which is being conducted to show that Puerto Rico would prosper by producing more crops domestically instead of importing much of its food. The project has been very successful so far, but is in danger of being cut short because of its location on this island.

The rice fields are located in a large area of land that originally contained a lagoon. Many years ago, the lagoon was drained so that farmers could use the land to produce more crops. Ever since then, it has been used heavily for agriculture, and many farmers’ entire plantations are located in the skeleton of the drained lagoon. This farmland is in jeopardy because of the Puerto Rican government’s efforts to revert more of the island back to its natural state. The proposed “33% by 2033” is exactly what it sounds like: by 2033, the government plans to have restored thirty three percent of the island back to its original form.

While this is a great idea, Professor Perez explained to us that the “33% by 2033” plan has some significant drawbacks. The government is planning on recreating the lagoon that once existed in this valley as part of its program. However, by doing this, they will be taking away a significant amount of valuable farmland that many farmers rely on. One of the benefits that the rice fields have brought to this area is improving the soil quality, which was previously very high in salinity and sodium. The soil in this area will now be able to support many more kinds of crops without needing excessive amounts of fertilizer. If the government goes through with their decision to recreate the lagoon, though, the rice fields will be completely underwater for the majority of the year, making them unusable.

The debate over the lagoon shows the island’s struggle between celebrating its past and moving forward into the future. History is very important to the island’s culture, and many traditions are proudly carried on year after year. Bringing back the lagoon would help restore the island’s original beauty. Some officials also believe that the lagoon could become a tourist attraction and bring in revenue. While reverting the island back is very appealing to many, others argue that it is preventing the island from moving forward and prospering. Agriculture is one of the most promising fields in Puerto Rico, with plenty of potential to bring great benefits and profit to the island. The rice project that Professor Perez was explaining to us is just one great example of how new technology and innovations in agriculture could have awesome results. If the lagoon is restored, however, many acres of valuable farmland could be forever lost. Also, it’s possible that the lagoon may not be successful as a tourist attraction, especially because weather patterns on the island would mean that it was only present for a portion of the year. The lagoon would change in size with the rainfall, shrinking, growing, and even disappearing for periods of time.

This debate between the lagoon or rice fields illustrates the current state of limbo that the island of Puerto Rico is in. The people are torn between staying true to the island’s history or evolving with the times. Of course, some sort of compromise on the large scale picture can be reached, and it doesn’t entirely have to be one way or the other. Over the rice versus lagoon debate, however, a compromise seems unlikely. I personally agree with Professor Perez that recreating the lagoon would be a mistake. In my opinion, sacrificing valuable land just because something else was originally there seems silly, and like a waste of space, especially since agriculture on the island has shown so much potential. Even though I’m against the lagoon, I do see the benefits that restoring it would bring and understand why the governement believes that it’s the right choice. What this debate really comes down to is what each individual places more value in: history or possibility. Both have their own set of risks and rewards, and only time will tell what the fate of this area of land consists of.

This image shows how much land the proposed lagoon would cover if the government decides to implement it.

Agriculture in Puerto Rico – A Brief Analysis

Agriculture in Puerto Rico, although not a major part of the nation’s GDP, still holds an important aspect of the island’s culture and history. A variety of crops are grown in Puerto Rico, including rice, sugar cane, coffee, and corn. However, there is currently a debate as to whether or not agricultural production on the island should be increased or reduced. Some believe that the island’s GDP would increase with a boost in agricultural production, but others think that Puerto Rico would fare better by investing in something else. As always in agriculture, there are both costs and benefits to producing crops, especially on such a small, isolated island with only a limited amount of arable land.

One of the main problems with agriculture in Puerto Rico is that the island nation is too small, and therefore unable to produce enough quantity of crops to compete with other, larger nations on an international scale. Another reason that Puerto Rico is unable to compete is because unlike the United States, where gigantic, corporate farms are the norm, many of Puerto Rico’s farms are smaller, family owned operations. In the lecture given at the Puerto Rican university, we were told that the majority of food crops have been historically been produced by farmers who own plots less than three cuerdas. This small size means that although the value of the goods produced is most likely quite high, the quantity is minimal, which puts Puerto Rico at a disadvantage in the international market.

Another, somewhat related problem with agriculture in Puerto Rico is that farming may take away land that could be better used for another purpose. Since land on the island is limited, every farm comes with a sacrifice. Tourism is one of the island’s major industries, and a strong argument could be made that Puerto Rico would receive more revenue by investing in tourism insead of agriculture. Currently, roughly a quarter of Puerto Rico’s land is divided into over 13,000 farms. Many of the farmlands are located in areas that could potentially become tourist attractions, with locations near beaches, rainforests, or other scenic areas. In addition, not all of Puerto Rico’s soil is best suited to grow many of the agricultural crops that farmers plant on their plots. In many areas on the island, there is very high soil salinity, which makes many plants struggle to prosper. In order to optimize yields, many farmers use heavy amounts of fertilizer, which can damage the soil and nearby watersheds. Because of these problems with the soil and farmlands, some people have suggested that Puerto Rico should focus less on farming, and instead turn to other methods of revenue such as tourism.

However, there are also many arguments that can be made in favor of increasing agricultural production in Puerto Rico. Currently, over eighty percent of food consumed in Puerto Rico comes from imports. The island is heavily dependent on imports to supply food to its population. This causes many potential problems. Import costs will drive the prices of food items up, and make many items much more expensive than they would be if they were locally grown. Also, by the time a lot of the imported food reaches the island, it is no longer fresh because of lengthy shipping times. Also, hurricanes are a common threat to Puerto Rico, which can make food deliveries difficult during hurricane season and drive the food prices on the island up even higher. By cutting back on imports and producing more crops on the island, Puerto Rico would be able to cut back on expensive import costs and enjoy fresher, higher quality food.

In addition, increasing the size of Puerto Rico’s agricultural sector would boost the economy and provide more jobs to the population. Although at this time, less than two percent of Puerto Rico’s workforce is employed in an agricultural job, increasing the number and the size of the island’s farmlands would create many more available jobs. This would boost the economy, which has been struggling for many years now, and boost the nation’s GDP. It would also decrease the unemployment rate in Puerto Rico, which could in turn create more revenue for businesses on the island as more people would have extra spending money.

In summary, there are many arguments that can be made both in favor of and against increasing agriculture in Puerto Rico. Some experts believe that since Puerto Rico is unable to compete on an international scale, the island would prosper more by investing in other areas that it excels in, such as tourism. Others say that promoting agriculture will provide fresher, less expensive food, more jobs, and an economic boost. No matter which side a person stands on, it is inarguable that farming has a historical significance in Puerto Rico that will never go away. Agriculture is part of the island’s culture, and will most likely remain so forever.  

Many of Puerto Rico’s farms have historical significance, including this sugar plantation that the class toured.

Island Adventures

One of my favorite experiences on this trip so far has been hiking the dry forest and swimming on the beach near Guanica. We all climbed into the rental van, excited to spend the day outside and exploring. Our first surprise came when we reached the park entrance and found the gate closed and locked. Apparently, since the day was a holiday on the island, the gatekeeper had decided not to show up, so we were locked out. Nothing was going to stop us from getting to the beach, though, so everyone piled out of the rental van and started trekking up the road into the park. The walk to our trail seemed to take forever, and was uphill for most of the time, so everyone was hot and sweaty as we searched for the trail head. We saw a dead crab on the road, which was a little exciting, but other than that the walk was mostly uneventful. As we continued to walk, I started to get a little nervous that we had already walked past our trail, and that we had hiked this far just to have to turn around. It was a relief when we finally located the correct trail and were able to officially start our hike.

The dry forest was absolutely beautiful, and it was cool to see the variety of plants and animals that inhabited the area. There were plenty of lizards, which seem to be very common all over the island, but there were also some things, such as cacti, that I hadn’t seen much of in Puerto Rico. Parts of the trail were a little uneven, and everyone stumbled once or twice along the path. After we had walked about halfway there, Dr. Rodriguez had us take a little detour so that we could visit one of the oldest trees in Puerto Rico, which is approximately seven hundred years old. The weathered, ancient tree had roots jutting out all around it, which provided a perfect place to sit, drink some water, and take a break from the sun. After we had all rested for a while, we climbed back up to the main trail and continued our journey to the beach.

We took a quick break on the roots of this ancient tree, estimated to be over 700 years old.

We took a quick break on the roots of this ancient tree, estimated to be over 700 years old.

By this point, I was very hot and sweaty, so I couldn’t wait to be on the beach and in the water. Everyone started walking much quicker, eager to get there. When we finally reached the ocean, I was so excited to be there that I slipped on the path and nearly fell, accidentally flinging my water bottle at another student. When we reached the sand, everyone applied lots of sunscreen and ran straight into the cool, refreshing surf.

I have loved all of the beaches that we have visited so far in Puerto Rico, but the one thing in particular that stood out for this beach was the giant waves that we were able to splash around in. I was caught off guard at first by the force of the water, and some got into my eyes, which was very painful because of my contacts. Even though my eyes were stinging a little, bodysurfing through the waves was still a super fun experience. We stayed in the water for a long time, until the waves started to get a little tiring to ride out, so we headed back to shore for a while.

I was sitting in the shade with some other students, eating some pretzels and sipping on water, when one of the students ran up to us, very excited to be holding a coconut that he found on the beach. He was absolutely determined to open it, because he thought that it would be fresh. I was pretty skeptical at first, but after a lot of effort and struggles, he succeeded in opening the coconut, and it was just as fresh as he had hoped it would be. I drank a little bit of the coconut water, which I didn’t love, and then we cracked the coconut open all the way so that we could eat the meat. I’m normally not a huge fan of coconut, but on such a hot day, it made a pretty amazing snack. All of the boys then decided that they all wanted coconuts of their own to crack open too. A few of them were rancid, which was both disappointing and disgusting. However, they were able to find some good ones, so there was plenty of coconut meat to go around.

After a few hours on the beach, the rental van showed up again to bring us back to the apartments. Even though I had an amazing time out in the sun, I was worn out from our long day of adventure and fell asleep as soon as I sat down inside. I was tired, sunburned, and completely content after spending a perfect day on this beautiful island. I will definitely have many great memories, not only from this particular day spent in Puerto Rico, but from every day spent here as well, and I am positive that I will make even more for the duration of the trip.

Finding my Place in the World

As someone who grew up in a small Midwestern town and has never traveled outside of the United States of America, Puerto Rico seems pretty foreign to me. Of course, the island is technically considered a territory of the U.S., but it definitely isn’t anything like the United States that I know. The island is filled with its own traditions and history, vastly different to what I experienced growing up in small town Illinois. Before I journeyed to Puerto Rico, I felt very confident and comfortable in my ability to travel. I felt as though I had already experienced a lot of the world, and that I was much more confident and worldly than the typical “tourist”. This trip has definitely opened my eyes to the fact that I still have very much left to learn about the world and my place in it.
One of the things that I noticed immediately was that since I only speak one language, traveling anywhere where English is not the primary language will be difficult for me. Even being in a place like Puerto Rico, where nearly everyone is bilingual and roughly half of signs and advertisements are in English, I found myself insecure about ordering food or buying something and struggling to read signs and menus. Although learning a foreign language was recommended, it was never a requirement in my high school years and I grew up thinking that although it would be nice to know how to speak a different language, it wasn’t really important or necessary. Even though it is very common in America to only know how to speak one language, the rest of the world has taken a different perspective. As I mentioned earlier, nearly everyone that I encountered in Puerto Rico was bilingual and fluent in both Spanish and English. When I stumbled over the pronunciation of a Spanish word or stared at a sign in confusion, they would immediately switch over to English to communicate with me. In most European countries as well, students are usually taught multiple languages in school so that they can be able to communicate with people from different areas and cultures of the world. It is not uncommon for an European student to be trilingual or have an even greater depth of language knowledge, while in America, knowing multiple languages, although considered a valuable skill, is not common. When talking about international travel, people commonly say that Americans are disliked by people living in different countries. As a global superpower and arguably the most powerful country in the world, Americans can sometimes be viewed as rude, ignorant, or stuck in their ways. Another thing that I have heard is that Americans are very narrow minded when it comes to other cultures, and instead of appreciating and learning from new perspectives, they will try to “Americanize” things to make them easier to understand. Even though these viewpoints are just cliches and negative stereotypes, traveling to Puerto Rico has made me realize why Americans do sometimes receive these labels. My complete lack of ability to speak Spanish and my ignorance of many common Puerto Rican traditions and customs definitely made me feel like the stereotypical annoying American tourist. However, I hope to change that as I grow older by exposing myself to more cultures and perspectives. This trip has helped open my eyes to the fact that I still have a lot to learn about different areas of the world, and that I should take every opportunity possible to expose myself to new places and experiences.

Growing up in a Catholic household, I have always been familiar with the story of the Three Kings, but I didn’t realize how important of a holiday it was in Puerto Rican culture. On January 6th, the holiday is celebrated all across the island with festivals, parties, and, in Old San Juan, the procession of the Three Kings themselves. The holiday in my hometown isn’t very much of a big deal, with only a small ceremony at the church, which is very different from the big spectacle that is thrown all throughout Puerto Rico. However, it was exciting to see that I have something in common with native Puerto Ricans, and that even though the culture may be very different from what I am used to, we still have many similarities. Even though the picture taken below was of a Puerto Rican church, it could be from anywhere in the world. Christianity is a common tie that binds me to millions of people across the world, who worship in churches identical to mine and celebrate the same holidays and traditions as I do.Ipuertoricochurch

In summary, these last few days spent in Puerto Rico have definitely changed the way that I feel about myself and the world around me. I now realize that I am not the savvy, worldly traveler, but instead someone young and inexperienced, with a lot to learn about the world. I am learning to celebrate the differences that I see in new places and new cultures, and have realized that no matter how different a person may seem from myself, there will always be some common ground. To be honest, I’m still not completely sure where my place in the world is, but by traveling, learning, and exposing myself to as many new things as possible, I’m sure that I’ll find it somewhere.