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Report reveals land access challenges for small farmers in Puerto Rico

A FiTiCAS study highlights systemic barriers and suggests comprehensive reform.

The Community Land Trust for Sustainable Agriculture (FiTiCAS, in Spanish) recently released findings from a qualitative research study on the systemic and structural challenges faced by small and midsized farmers in Puerto Rico in accessing arable land.

The report analyzes the current situation and concludes that a comprehensive approach is needed to promote agricultural sustainability by addressing the climate crisis as an essential part of Puerto Rico’s development. The report can be accessed here.

The report highlights the difficulty farmers without capital face in accessing arable public land, particularly due to the preference for large-scale industrial agriculture and monoculture by government agencies. 

The situation is further complicated for agroecological projects, which propose alternative methods of sustainable agriculture on smaller scales, despite their practices being internationally endorsed for achieving food sustainability and mitigating climate change. This reality is reflected in the size and conditions of available public farms.

The available farms under the Land Authority range in size from 50 acres to 500 acres, while agroecological farmers typically work with about 5 acres to 10 acres, according to data from the Institute for Research and Action in Agroecology. In addition, these public lands lack the basic conditions and necessary infrastructure for agricultural development.

Farmers interviewed as part of the study noted that those who can access farms from this agency are “larger” farmers with the economic and operational capacity to lease, invest in basic infrastructure and cultivate a large number of acres. 

Currently, 76% of farms in Puerto Rico generate less than $10,000 annually, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture.

Among the entities studied for the report are the land leasing programs of the Land Authority, which is ascribed to the Puerto Rico Agriculture Department, and the Land Administration, affiliated with the Department of Economic Development and Commerce (DDEC, in Spanish), as well as the financing programs of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency, the Puerto Rico Farm Credit, and the Economic Development Bank (EDB).

Suggested solutions
The report suggests several solutions to address the situation, including national and international calls for a “Comprehensive Agrarian Reform” to update laws and policies related to land distribution. This would adapt these to current realities and consider the challenges posed by speculation to ensure equitable access to land. 

It also urges integrating agriculture as a priority in Puerto Rico, establishing policies that promote agricultural sustainability and greater public investment in favor of small-scale agriculture, including necessary infrastructure to facilitate agricultural production on unused public lands.

Furthermore, the report emphasizes the urgency of enforcing the Land Use Plan, Territorial Use Plans and Agricultural Reserves by limiting the discretion of government permitting structures regarding changes in the use of agricultural lands.

Between 1940 and 2018, there was an 85% reduction in the total number of farms and a 74% reduction in land allocated to agriculture. Currently, the agricultural sector contributes less than 2% of the gross national product, compared to 36% in the 1950s. 

This process of “abandoning the rural area increases our vulnerability concerning the high dependence on food importation, which currently ranges between 85% and 90% of available food,” according to the news release.

The research team consisted of two student interns with FiTiCAS and a volunteer student under the pro bono mentorship of professor Érika Fontánez-Torres, with support and a grant from Espacios Abiertos.

The socio-legal research, titled “Access to Agricultural Land: Current Public Policy and Experiences,” points out the high level of discretion in the processes of leasing, financing and selling land by various responsible agencies and institutions, both public and private, as one of the main challenges that small-scale farmers face in accessing agricultural land and ensuring the permanence of their projects on the lands they cultivate.

From the evaluation and analysis of current laws and regulations, “it is clear that nothing prevents these agencies from acting in favor of small and medium-sized farmers by adapting to their particular needs,” the report states. For example, the agencies could adjust lease fees and repayment periods to the reality of small-scale projects, invest in basic infrastructure, “lease to groups of producers and finance the collective purchase of land.”

“The purpose of most of the studied institutions is to support agricultural development and ensure the best use of available land,” said Mariolga Reyes-Cruz, executive director of FiTiCAS. “This research reveals that institutions can do much more today. We urgently call on public workers and institutions that finance local agriculture to support those committed to growing Puerto Rico’s food sovereignty, including those who do so by caring for the nature we are part of.”

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