JORGE CORA and Ana Elisa Pérez Quintero know the sound of a bomb. They were washing vegetables on their nine-acre farm, Finca Conciencia, in 2019, when the earth released a deep scream. The ground shook.
This is the U.S Navy’s method for cleaning its nuclear litter on the east coast of Vieques Island, a municipality of Puerto Rico also known for its turquoise beaches, wild horses, and bioluminescent bay. The unexploded ordnances, bunkers, and mortar shells are the aftereffects of using two-thirds of the island as a bombing range from 1945 to 2003, and dropping over 80 million pounds of explosives. Open detonation can spread dangerous contaminants, but despite this environmental and safety hazard, the navy insists it is faster than the burn trays and closed-chamber blast boxes that the Congressional Research Service
recommends. They are scheduled to finish in 2032.
But Cora and Pérez Quintero plan to stay. “We need to be here,” said Pérez Quintero. “There’s a lot of work to do.” Their house is on the dusty mountaintop of Monte Carmelo, which once belonged to the navy. Environmentalists first occupied the lot in the 1970s, as part of a movement known as rescates, meant to rescue the land taken by the navy. Remote and rural, the neighborhood is also called Tierra de Valientes (Land of the Brave) by locals, and is sparsely populated, facing the pristine southern coast.
“I’ve had a machete in my hand since the age of seven,” said Cora, walking about the finca (farm) in old Levi’s and a pink-and-blue bandana. He inspected the bright green plantain trees growing splendidly on dry, brittle soil. “A college counselor once urged me to become a lawyer because of my grades, but I was already a farmer,” he said. “It’s a wonderful profession because you live in abundance.”
Monte Carmelo is also the headquarters for their Colectiva Agrícola Viequense farm cooperative, a place for farmers and locals to learn about agroecology and other sustainable modes of cultivation. Finca Conciencia is a member of Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica de Puerto Rico, founded in 1989 by rural farmers concerned that their ancient farming techniques were disappearing. It also organizes farmers to help one another, including after Hurricane María in 2017. The Organización Boricuá assembled Brigadas de Apoyo—recovery brigades—that planted new crops, cleared debris, opened access to roads and homes, and rebuilt infrastructure on damaged farms.
The organization calls this the jibaro a jibaro bridge—jibaro means “small farmer”—and the farming model, which Cora and Pérez Quintero deploy on Finca Conciencia, is based on the campesino a campesino (farmer-to-farmer) movement that started in the 1970s in Guatemala and found its way to Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Cuba in the following decades. Their philosophy of agroecology emerged from Mesoamerica’s remote farming communities who, being largely ignored by policymakers, had little support in solving issues like chronic land erosion. The poor farmers had very limited access to education and funding, and the few advances available, like fertilizers and hybrid seeds, were often too expensive. In 1972, Kaqchikel Maya farmers from the midwestern highlands of Guatemala and nonprofit World Neighbors devised a method for farmers to help one another and exchange ideas.
“Better one good idea in a hundred heads than a hundred ideas in one good head,” as World Neighbors’ Don Marcos Orozco once proclaimed. The farmers were taught conservation and heavy labor techniques—contour ditches, bunds, terraces, and the use of big amounts of compost, like leaf litter, to combat the eroded state of the land. The movement gave birth to an autonomous cycle of farmer-led development, where the land is protected and farmers have more independence. The methods have reached all corners of the world, including Vieques.
On Finca Conciencia—one of the first farms in Vieques to practice agroecology—Cora and Pérez Quintero are sharing with other farmers the lessons they learned from the Maya and Taínos. Their newly formed Colectiva Agrícola Viequense, a Vieques-wide collective of farmers and educators, is taking their knowledge of Vieques’s harsh, desertlike lands to different communities, campesino a campesino style. They offer farming workshops in churches and collaborate with the composting school Isla Nena Composta and the land education nonprofit Juntas. They teach children to transplant fruit trees in a nursery. They show residents how to collect branches, discarded fruits and vegetables, grass, and leaves to create compost, and to hydrate the dry soil using rain gardens. Pérez Quintero shares knowledge about making healing salves from honey, oreganillo, and native basil. And the collaborations have also taught the Finca Conciencia farmers how to better work their own land.
This is environmental justice work, grounded in land protection efforts that began in Vieques in the 1960s, with activists striving to evict the navy and rescue the land from decades of massive water and soil contamination, toxic emissions, and sound pollution. Locals achieved the task in 2003, and now Cora and Pérez Quintero have turned to the next phase of liberation: freeing the island from the noxious and expensive foods that Viequenses have little choice but to eat.
“We want to eradicate this feeling of lack,” said Cora, referring to the fear of not having enough to eat. “Farming can liberate us from that.”
Eighty-five percent of Puerto Rico’s food is imported, often heavily processed, prepackaged, or canned, with fruits and vegetables often arriving half-dead. After traveling thousands of miles by land and sea to reach Puerto Rico, food is then transported fifty-seven miles by truck from San Juan, the capital and main port in the north, to the east coast, and then by an unreliable ferry to Vieques. What Viequenses are sold in the grocery store is old food, in many cases rotten and inedible. Add to that a lack of medical care in Vieques (the only hospital on the island has been closed since Hurricane María), and it’s easy to see why locals are eager to become independent in food and health.
Just sixteen miles east of Puerto Rico’s mainland, Vieques once thrived with family farms and sugar plantations. Then, in 1941, it lost two-thirds of its land when the United States took it by eminent domain to create a bombing range for the navy. Some say families were given twenty-four hours’ notice and thirty dollars before bulldozers demolished their homes. Many Viequenses were moved to the neighboring island of St. Croix, and others to the main island, Puerto Rico. Today, on Vieques, the navy’s use of depleted uranium, mercury, lead, napalm, and Agent Orange for over half a century has been associated with incidences of illness that are much higher than in Puerto Rico proper, although the navy and some U.S. agencies deny there’s a connection. Yet studies, including by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, have shown that cancer rates are much higher in Vieques than in Puerto Rico. A Yale researcher on toxicity, John Wargo, once called Vieques “probably one of the most highly contaminated sites in the world.” And without access to the nutritious food that people need to withstand illness and injury, locals, once poisoned by military-grade chemicals, are now being poisoned by their food.
In 2011, when I moved to Vieques from San Juan to work in a hotel, I was not aware of the severity of the contamination. The subject was underreported. I ate fruits and vegetables from different areas of the island and swam in the waters closest to the military zone, places thought to have high levels of deadly toxins. One day, my neighbor told me to stop eating the star fruit from the trees. She said the navy had used veneno (poison) on Vieques. I later learned that traces of contaminants were found by Puerto Rican scientists, like Arturo Massol-Deyá, in the leaves, soil, and water, as well as in the hair of residents.
I left the island less than a year later, mostly because I felt sick. While in Vieques, my neck grew bigger by the day, and a strange, dull pain in my thyroid became my new normal. A couple of years later, a doctor told me, “You have cancer.” Was local food the cause? Then again, with few fresh vegetables and fruits at the supermarket, I also ate plenty of low-quality, chemical-filled foods from a can.
“I can’t eat that stuff,” said Cora. He grew up in a small agroecological farm in rural Arroyo, on the southern coast of Puerto Rico, picking the best food from the ground or a tree. He worked his family’s land and became a beekeeper, until Hurricane Georges destroyed his hives in 1998, and he left, never to return. A few years later, he found opportunity in Vieques, working as a farmer for a Russian landowner in Monte Carmelo. The owner one day left for the United States and died, leaving Cora the storied slice of earth.
Pérez Quintero, by contrast, is a daughter of the city, born and raised in the college town of Río Piedras. Losing her father to cancer made her think about the connection between food and health, and this inspired her to become an ecologist. She found her way to Vieques after visiting the island through the University of Puerto Rico. There, she met Cora and decided to stay on his farm for a few months to share her knowledge of agroecology. A few months turned into eight years.
Cora and Pérez Quintero are betting on local farming to bring health to the island, but the aftermath of the military exercises still lingers, making it difficult to find progress. Bodies of water, knolls, and basins were wiped out by the navy, and today there are virtually no water sources. The dry plots left in their stead are especially laborious to farm. “Our fruits and vegetables are warriors, very resilient, because they have to fight to survive here,” said Pérez Quintero. “It’s a lot of work for us, but warrior foods are incredibly delicious and nutritious.” They say that on Vieques, these warrior foods include arugula, sweet potato, tomato, mango, lemon, tamarind, pineapple, bananas, and passion fruit. Finca Conciencia is known for its arugula and tomatoes, which they are able to grow in the dry, desertlike soil thanks to the raised dirt beds Cora created to retain water, something the Indigenous Taínos practiced.
“The first sovereignty is food,” she said, chopping and wiping the sweat off her face. “If we are free to feed ourselves, we can aspire to free Puerto Rico as well.”
The soil may still contain toxins—on the south side of Vieques, which the navy never bombed, tests have come back normal, but other parts of the island, including Monte Carmelo, have not been tested. Yet agroecology remains the farmers’ best weapon for battling the island’s food deficiency. They make use of sustainable methods passed down from previous generations, like soil building, seed selection, crop diversification, and water conservation. They recycle biomass to increase the availability and flow of nutrients; create microclimates using trees to control temperature, wind, rain, and sunlight exposure; and apply ground-covering plants to reduce heat and moisture loss. Most of all, they believe in rescuing and implementing traditional farming methods from decades past, because those methods respect the land.
“We listen to the land and work with what she gives us,” said Cora. They cultivate a variety of fruits and vegetables in a plot, and avoid monoculture farming, which can disrupt natural ecosystems and degrade the soil. They also believe that agroecology can heal toxic soil—a belief supported by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which has stated that agroecology can reverse chemical, biological, and physical degradation by preventing water runoff; reducing the release of carbon dioxide as temperatures rise; helping soil retain nutrients; and improving natural pest resistance and fertility. A 2005 study by Puerto Rican scientists, including Massol-Deyá, even noted that toxicity in Vieques could be reduced, because “plants naturally remove heavy metals from soils” and “could be employed for the restoration of this and similarly contaminated sites.” The FAO also suggested that farmers spearhead these soil restoration efforts because they understand local conditions best.
Building on the knowledge they and other Vieques farmers have accrued through experience, the Finca Conciencia farmers incorporate biological remediation into their work by farming on more areas of the island—not just on Finca Conciencia—and stimulating the soil with natural materials like compost, which works to transform inorganic contaminants into lesser bioavailable forms. “We have to keep farming sustainably until the land is cured and Viequenses have access to nutrient-dense foods,” said Pérez Quintero.
Still, without action from those with power—proper cleanup, funding to help farmers rent more land, and acknowledgment of the connection between environment, food, and health—these local efforts to heal the land and achieve food sovereignty will always be limited. It also means dispensing with the popular idea of Vieques as simply a tourist destination, and the tourism industry as a necessary provider of jobs. “This mentality that we can’t do it, that we can’t feed ourselves, is the problem,” said Cora as we traversed their plot.
But some locals and government officials are opening the doors to investors, potentially closing off some available land for farming. Hotel and time-share developers, along with expat-run Airbnbs, are proliferating quickly, gentrifying many culturally relevant neighborhoods. “The best way to use the land in Vieques is by occupying it with something real, like farming,” said Pérez Quintero.
Twice a week, they fill their truck, La Sambumbia, with vegetables, fruits, and preserves from Finca Conciencia and other Vieques farms. They head to the village of Esperanza, where earnings from their sales to urbanites, who must otherwise buy packaged or wilted food, help rural farmers continue their work. They also keep using their farm as a school, teaching others to become farmers as well. “Everybody should grow at least some of their food, even if it’s in pots,” said Cora.
Cora and Pérez Quintero believe that teaching farming and working increasingly more land will make the farming life more popular—and raise the odds of establishing a reserva agrícola. Maybe extreme weather will even help their cause. When food and water stopped arriving to the port after Hurricane María, people were left to fend for themselves. Desperate, many turned to local farms. Finca Conciencia’s structures were destroyed, but some of their crops—arugula, tomato, and dill—survived. Cora and Pérez Quintero harvested what remained and gave it to local residents, then planted what they could at the finca and built a small community garden at a local church. After fifteen days, green food was growing again. Locals swarmed the finca and the garden, especially after receiving government aid “in the form of canned spicy sausages,” said Pérez Quintero. “That experience introduced Viequenses to real food and the value of farming.”
She showed me what was left of their home—some parts still had no roofing. “It seems like we are here for this imaginary paradise of beautiful beaches and piña coladas,” she said. “This paradise is for others to enjoy while we lack something as basic as fresh food.”
It’s a dichotomy I know all too well. Postcards of Vieques don’t show the side that might’ve damaged my health. They don’t show the bruising and depletion of the land. They don’t portray the people who died from the navy’s toxic legacy or the shortage of important nutrition necessary to survive their illnesses. After Hurricane María, I sailed to Vieques and drove to the jungle in Pilón, where I used to live. It was bereft of grass and fruit trees. The coast was chocolate milk brown. There was no trace of the paradise promoted by tourism companies—only its ugly, hidden face. Some say the violent hurricane winds stirred old toxins hidden within the soil and interred in the depths of the sea. They say now this is just more proof of the contamination: the veneno was agitated and released. The dirty secret just can’t stay away hidden.
“Esto es eneldo (this is dill), aquello es arúgula (that over there is arugula), y allá están los tomates (and over there are the tomatoes),” explained Cora as we explored the finca. Pérez Quintero followed closely on his heels, her short hair enveloped in a red paisley kerchief. We reached a clearing where hundreds of leafy greens sprouted from the ground. “Let’s pick our lunch,” she said, collecting foliage and tomatoes in a makeshift pouch of the yellow cotton tank top she wore, the bottom now folded up.
Cora sat on a log, admiring the farm. “The land is a puzzle, and you need to know how to solve it,” he said. “Once you do, the land won’t stop producing riches.” The wind blew from the east, and las matas de plátano (the plantain trees) briefly danced. Cora was ringed by a papaya tree to his right, crisp lettuce to his left, and a lemon tree not too far behind. I could sense his immense peace of mind.
“I’m rich and free, you see?” he said, smiling wide.
We walked inside a wooden casita, and Pérez Quintero placed the tomatoes and arugula on a cutting board. “The first sovereignty is food,” she said, chopping and wiping the sweat off her face. “We can pursue energy sovereignty or political sovereignty, but food sovereignty is basic and crucial. If we are free to feed ourselves, we can aspire to free Puerto Rico as well,” she said.
Then she handed me a fresh tomato, a brave red sphere filled with warrior nutrients my body craved to fight for my health. “Tu medicina (your medicine),” she said. I bit one end, and some of the sweet tomato juice dripped down my shirt. I ate the rest in a frenzy and asked for more. I never knew a tomato could taste so good.
This essay is an adapted excerpt from The World We Need: Stories and Lessons from America’s Unsung Environmental Movement (The New Press).
Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica de Puerto Rico, founded in 1989, is a grassroots organization of small-scale farmers and farmworkers across Puerto Rico and the islands of Vieques and Culebra who are working to promote food sovereignty, conserve the environment, and regenerate the land through agriculture.