A Brief Intoduction to the Coffee Crisis in Puerto Rico

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Photo: USDA.gov

Photo: USDA.gov

To understand what is happening to our nation’s coffee industry we first have to investigate the history of one of the most popular brands: Café Rico. Café Rico is more than a brand of the café so many of us drink in the morning. Café Rico is a Puerto Rican cooperative effort established in Barrio San Anton, Ponce, Puerto Rico in the 1930s. Originally founded under the name of Cooperativa de Cafeteros it was administered by Ramiro L. Colon. La Cooperativa de Cafeteros was the first agricultural cooperative in Puerto Rico, which simply means it was the first coalition to standardize the harvesting and manufacturing of a crop in Puerto Rico.

What is happening now and why does it matter?

Although the coastal municipality of Yauco, also known as a coffee town, Puerto Rico’s coffee is primarily harvested in the mountainous center of the island along la Cordillera Central where the majority of coffee farms are still located. The news media consistently reminds us of the ongoing economic disaster in Puerto Rico where many Puerto Ricans from all over the archipelago are migrating especially to the United States. Subsequently, many of Puerto Rico’s most famous coffee farms are being abandoned for lack of workers. Workers? So that means there are available jobs that people just aren’t doing, right?

Wrong.

An ever increasing number of Puerto Ricans are obtaining their education in institutions of higher learning and many have abandoned Puerto Rican traditional agricultural society. As the eagle’s talons of colonialism dig deeper and deeper into the heart of paradise, Puerto Ricans are consistently being stripped of traditional values especially land cultivation and preservation. Puerto Ricans have always been an educated lot as Puerto Rico is one of the regions in Latin America with the most prestigious institutions of higher education. However, by U.S. standards, agriculture isn’t for the “educated” person. I guess many of us have forgotten about the prestigious agricultural program at Universidad de Puerto Rico Recinto de Mayaguez where every year enrollment gets lower and lower. Besides the increased population of “educated” people living in Puerto Rico, like our population, our farmers are getting older. When there’s no one to take over the farms once farmers are too aged or have become ancestors, these farms are left abandoned. Because of this pattern, much of the coffee crisis is a result of a lack of workers to pick the crop as Danica Coto, Puerto Rican journalist, reports earlier this year. This is to no fault of Puerto Ricans but completely a direct result of U.S. colonialism.

How?

The problem is Puerto Ricans are losing physical and economic control of the coffee cultivation in Puerto Rico. Surprise? Not really. We can refer to the Foraker Act enacted in 1900, an act which stripped Puerto Rico of any autonomy there was left following the United States invasion at Guanica in 1898. The Foraker Act, which was later replaced by the Jones Act, directly stripped Puerto Ricans of land ownership thereby destroying the Puerto Rican agricultural industry for decades to come. Under the current “Constitucion del Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico”, even now though Puerto Ricans own land, because Puerto Rico is a colony, the United States can take the land and do as it pleases at any given point. Examples of this expropriación include but are not limited to the construction of naval bases in la isla de Vieques, construction of the San Juan Luis Munóz Marin International Airport, both historical instances which displaced thousands of families. Most corporate investments in Puerto Rico forced Puerto Ricans living on the island into a position where they are at the mercy of these corporations and the decisions they decide to make regarding the Puerto Rican economy and system. In regards to the current coffee crisis, Puerto Rican Coffee Roasters does just that.

Puerto Rico Coffee Roasters (PRCR) is a foreign investment in Puerto Rico which has monopolized Puerto Rican coffee although president, German Negron, maintains that it isn’t a monopoly at all (even though they now own 85% of Puerto Rican coffee production). PRCR isn’t Puerto Rican at all actually, although it misleadingly contains “Puerto Rico” in its LLC name. PRCR is actually a subsidiary of Coca Cola Bottling Company which means Coca Cola (the parent company) owns 85% of Puerto Rican coffee, not Puerto Ricans at all in fact. This places the majority of Puerto Rican coffee cultivation at the mercy of this investment.

Over the past two years, as writer Danica Coto reports, there has also been a seed shortage. Under the constitution of Puerto Rico farmers are required to buy their seeds from greenhouses which are contracted by the government. The seed shortage continues to be unexplained.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hours Division, as of the first week of November, Puerto Rico Coffee Roasters, LLC., owes $68k in back wages to over 119 Puerto Rican farmers and workers. The U.S. Department of Labor also reports that PRCR is in violation of a law which states work recruiters must be contracted by the government and a payroll must be fulfilled. Also, worker contracts have to be legally binding and they haven’t been.

Recently, executive directors of PRCR mention that out of the coffee brands which they operate via Coca Cola which include but are not limited to Alto Grande, Café Crema, Café Yaucono, Yauco Selecto, Encantos, Café Rioja, La Tahona, Café Lareño, and most recently Café Rico, that due to the harvest shortage they are mixing Puerto Rican coffee beans, which even by the Vatican are considered first class beans, with 3rd class beans from Mexico, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, and other coffee producing countries.

Why should you care?

For the same reason we buy from our local artesanos and not from the United States owned and operated shops in the tourist districts in Puerto Rico: supporting the true economy (el pueblo) of Puerto Rico is what supports Puerto Ricans. For example, if what we know as tourism truly helped the economy of especially the Caribbean islands, the Caribbean would be one of the most economically advanced regions in the world, but it’s not. In an effort to resist colonialism which hurts Puerto Ricans from education to culture to economics, we must do our best to not spend money on things that are owned and operated by corporations like Coca Cola which consequently and actively destroy Puerto Rico’s economy. Corporations like Coca Cola have done nothing but suck Puerto Rico into economic instability and a severe and unpayable, seemingly unfixable debt crisis.

What can you do?

Purchase coffee with the “Hecho en Puerto Rico” certified sticker and nothing else. The brand Café Real cultivated and produced in Maricao/Jayuya is making an effort to remain 100% Puerto Rican owned and operated, and by the way, it is delicious. As far as the clear “falta de respeto” created by PRCR when it comes to the mixing of coffee beans and still selling it as the original brand, there’s no real way to fix that situation unless Puerto Ricans buy their brands back, but a boycott might force them to treat our coffee, a national patrimony, with the respect that it deserves.

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Dorothy Bell Ferrer

(Also known as Dorothy Bell) is an Afrolatina (Boricua/ Dominicana) activist who has lived her life in Cleveland, Ohio exploring and learning about her culture and who she is. She is currently a senior working on a B.S. in political science with a minor in Spanish language. Dorothy is also a community organizer for National Boricua Human Rights Network in Cleveland and as a devoted independentista, often shares her political views using social media and her personal blog. In her free time she enjoys writing, dancing, learning, serving others, developing her knowledge of the African Diaspora and talking to people about their experiences. 

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