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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Study: Lack of clear guidelines by agencies poses barriers for small-scale farmers

Mariolga Reyes Cruz, executive director of the Community Land Trust for Sustainable Agriculture (FiTiCAS), speaks at a film forum held this week on the findings of a qualitative investigation into the systemic and structural challenges that small and medium-sized farmers in Puerto Rico face in accessing arable land.

By The Star Staff

A study has found that the main challenges that small-scale farmers in Puerto Rico face in obtaining farmland to grow food are the lack of clear guidelines and a high level of discretion on the part of agencies.

The Community Land Trust for Sustainable Agriculture (FiTiCAS), the first of its kind in Puerto Rico, released the findings of a qualitative investigation into the systemic and structural challenges that small and medium-sized farmers in Puerto Rico face in accessing arable land. The report analyzes the current situation and concludes with calls for action from a comprehensive approach to promote agricultural sustainability by addressing the climate crisis as an essential part of Puerto Rico’s development.

The socio-legal investigation, entitled “Access to Agricultural Land: Current Public Policy and Experiences,” points out the high level of discretion in the leasing, financing, and sale of land processes on the part of the different agencies and institutions in charge, both public and private sector, as one of the main challenges that small-scale farmers face in accessing agricultural land and guaranteeing the permanence of their projects on the land they cultivate. Such a high level of discretion could be applied in favor of the development of sustainable agriculture in ecological and economic terms. However, it becomes a barrier instead.

From an evaluation and analysis of the current laws and regulations, it is clear that nothing prevents the aforementioned agencies and organizations from acting for the benefit of small and medium-sized farmers by adapting to their particular needs. For example, the agencies studied can adjust rental rates and repayment times to the reality of small-scale projects, invest in basic infrastructure, lease to groups of producers and finance the collective purchase of land.

Among the entities studied are the land leasing programs of the Land Authority, which is attached to the island Department of Agriculture, and the Land Administration, which is attached to the Department of Economic Development and Commerce, as well as the financing programs of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency, Puerto Rico Farm Credit and the Economic Development Bank for Puerto Rico.

“The reason for being of most of the institutions studied is to support the development of agriculture and guarantee the best use of available land. This research reveals that institutions can do much more, today,” said Mariolga Reyes Cruz, executive director of FiTiCAS, who presented the findings this week during a film-forum organized by FiTiCAS in the Tropical Medicine Building of the Capitol to screen a documentary based on the investigation. “We urgently call on public servants and institutions that finance local agriculture to support those who are committed to increasing the food sovereignty of Puerto Rico, including those who do so by taking care of nature, of which we are a part. They will be the owners of the land.”

The report highlights the difficulty farmers without capital have in accessing arable public lands, particularly due to government agencies’ preference for large-scale industrial agriculture and monoculture. The situation is even more complicated for agroecological projects, which propose alternative sustainable agriculture methods on smaller scales, even when their practices are internationally endorsed to achieve food sustainability and mitigate climate change. This reality is reflected, for example, in the size and conditions of the available public properties.

The farms available under the Land Authority range in size from 50 to 500 acres, while agroecological farmers, for example, work with around five to 10 acres, according to data from the Institute for Research and Action in Agroecology. At the same time, these public lands need the conditions and basic infrastructure necessary for agricultural development.

The farmers interviewed in the investigation indicated that those who can access farms from the Land Authority are “larger” farmers with the economic and operational capacity to rent, invest in basic infrastructure, and start producing on a large number of acres. Meanwhile, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Census, currently 76% of farms in Puerto Rico generate less than $10,000 annually.

Among the solutions suggested to address the situation, the report echoes national and international calls for a comprehensive agrarian reform that updates laws and policies related to land distribution, adapting to the current reality of farmers and considering the challenges it presents. Likewise, it urges the integration of agriculture as a priority in Puerto Rico’s agenda, establishing policies that promote agricultural sustainability and greater public investment in favor of small-scale agriculture, including the infrastructure necessary to facilitate agricultural production on disused public lands.

Furthermore, the report says, it is urgent to enforce the Land Use Plan, the Territorial Planning Plans and the Agricultural Reserves, thereby limiting the discretion of the government permit-granting structures regarding changes in agricultural land use.

Between 1940 and 2018, 85% of the total number of agricultural properties and 74% of the land used for agriculture have been reduced. Currently, the farm sector contributes less than 2% of the gross national product, compared to the 36% it contributed in the 1950s. This process of abandonment of the countryside increases vulnerability to the high dependence on food imports, which currently ranges between 85% and 90% of the food available.

With support and a subsidy from Espacios Abiertos, the investigation’s research team consisted of two internal FiTiCAS students and a volunteer student. Prof. Érika Fontánez Torres mentored the team pro bono.

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