BY: CAROL SCHACHET
More than a month since Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico, the island remains devastated. More than half the population remains without electricity, drinking water and basic sustenance, making it not only a catastrophe but also a human rights violation, according to Jovanna Garcia Soto, Solidarity Program Officer for Latin America at Grassroots International. She notes that water, food and tarps remain priority needs, especially in the central area of Puerto Rico.
Jovanna flew to Puerto Rico to visit her family and to deliver much-needed funding support to organizations mounting a grassroots response, including grants from Grassroots International to support community-led just recovery efforts.
THE SITUATION ON THE GROUND
Approaching the airport, the impact of the hurricane was visible in two ways — the swelled size of the island’s rivers, and the blue tarps providing temporary roofs to homes. Most of those tarps have been provided by grassroots organizations rather than FEMA, whose presence Jovanna said has been “slow to non-existent” for most communities.
Upon landing, the needs became immediately apparent. “The first thing I saw when we landed were around 25 people in wheelchairs waiting at the airport to flee the island. It is heartbreaking,” Jovanna notes, commenting on the lack of basic services available to the vulnerable elderly population.
Leaving the airport, extensive damage showed itself along the sides of roads, and even more so toward the interior of the island. “Trees lay flat on the ground everywhere,” Jovanna noticed. In her hometown, most of the trees planted by her grandparents were uprooted, their trunks flat and leaves gone. The few that remained upright show wounds from the hurricane’s fierce wind.
“These are trees that provided fruit and food. Now they are gone,” she grieved. “Seeing the houses destroyed breaks my heart. This hurricane brought to the surface the high poverty level in Puerto Rico. The hurricane was powerful, however you can see the precarious conditions of some of the houses destroyed.”
While the initial storm wreaked havoc for Puerto Rico’s population and environment, the unfurling human disaster has less to do with weather than with political incompetence and willful indifference. A colony of the United States, Puerto Rico’s recovery is held captive by US federal policies, like the Jones Act, that prevent relief from reach its shores from anywhere other than the US mainland. But even before the hurricane, the Jones Act prevented Puerto Rico from receiving supplies from anywhere other than the US mainland lest they face prohibitive taxes. According to one economist’s analysis, this is one of the factors leading to Puerto Rico’s mounting debt. Before the hurricane the human rights situation in Puerto Rico was already critical due to the financial crisis and the austerity measures impacting the economic, social and cultural rights of the Puerto Rican people under the Federal Fiscal Control Board and corrupt governments.
SOLIDARITY BRINGS HOPES, COMMUNITY
While supplies from the US government have arrived slowly and been held in port, the response from the diaspora has been amazing and generous, Jovanna observed. Civil society and grassroots organizations have been distributed life-saving supplies, such as tarps, water and food, as well as seeds, to vulnerable communities. Nonetheless, the needs remain severe. Jovanna described people holding signs reading: SOS – Need Water and Food.
Community groups and movements are mounting a steady response. One of those groups is Boricuá. A member organization of the global network of small farmers known as La Vía Campesina, Boricuá is supporting small farmers to rebuild their homes and livelihoods and are mobilizing farmers and volunteers to help each other. The group is one of several in Puerto Rico to receive emergency support from Grassroots International’s Just Recovery fund.
During her visit with Boricuá, Jovanna hand-delivered a grant for $10,000. She remembers, “Giving the check to Boricuá was very emotional — They appreciated the love and work and support coming from the diaspora and people in solidarity and want us to continue bringing the social movements’ and frontline communities’ voices to the US.” Boricuá is part of Climate Justice Alliance, along with Grassroots International and other organizations collaborating to transition toward a climate just economy.
Right now, Boricuá’s coordination team operates in a decentralized hub known as Cocina 135, a support space where social movements and grassroots groups meet and coordinate assistance. From there, they send brigades with water, food and tarps, as well as personal connection. “They hug people, they cry with them, they listen to them, and they do an inventory of needs, later they return in another brigade with materials and hands to rebuild using– a farmer-to-farmer solidarity practice,” Jovanna explains. “They also connect and coordinate with other groups and movements doing work as well. They are supporting small farmers to sustainably rebuild their homes and farms” The solidarity brigades are playing a critical role in rebuilding Puerto Rico’s food system from the ground up with the goal of achieving food sovereignty.
In addition, Jovanna also meet with other groups on the ground in Puerto Rico, including Movement of Popular Agroecology (MAP) and the Feminist Collective in Construction.
MAP is organizing solidarity brigades, storage centers, healing spaces and “comedores sociales” ( soup- Kitchens) to organize and support “jibaro -campesinos” to rebuild their livelihoods, farmer autonomy and identity. The Feminist Collective in Construction, a grassroots feminist organization responding to some of the most vulnerable communities in Puerto Rico, including women, LGBTQI people, undocumented women other people and communities in resistance.
Jovanna also met with Coordinadora Paz para la Mujer, an organization including emergency shelters, service organizations, universities, feminists and human rights activists dealing with the issue of violence against women that are organizing relief and health efforts to support abused women in shelters and those in dangerous situations after Hurricane Maria.
Grassroots International has provided solidarity grants to four groups on the ground in Puerto Rico thus far, including: Boricuá, the Movement of Popular Agroecology (MAP) , the Feminist Collective in Construction, and Casa Pueblo. Casa Pueblo is organizing a energy democracy effort in the center of the island.
TRANSFORMATION AND ACTION
In Jovanna’s words: “Most of these grassroots groups are connected. It is very powerful to see how people are connecting together in solidarity to take on this big transformative and longterm task seeing the opportunities that this crisis brings to organize for social change. We as Puerto Ricans need to think about a different way to organize politically. This is an opportunity to gain autonomy and to build a different Puerto Rico with more community control over resources breaking political dependency with US and on oil to strengthening our resilience as an island nation. The good news is that Puerto Rican grassroots groups and movements are moving toward that goal, especially young people.”
When asked what people in the US can do, Jovanna shared this thought from the people she met in Puerto Rico: “The most urgent thing is to be the voice of Puerto Rican people in the US to advocate for a just recovery and a sustainable rebuilding…lift the voices of the courageous Boricuas doing the work on the ground so they don’t feel alone in the struggle. If people want to donate, they should donate to Grassroots International or to grassroots groups and movements doing the real work in Puerto Rico. Continue building solidarity, supporting movement building, connecting with the frontline groups, and learning about them. Solidarity has different dimensions — doing advocacy to attack the real roots of the catastrophe in Puerto Rico, connecting with people, providing financial support for a sustainable rebuild and strengthening movements, and encouraging healing for those on the front lines.”