The blades of the windmills revolve over crops of genetically modified plantations of soybean and corn, plantain and farms that have been crushed by the extended use of concrete. The Caribbean Sea appears, with green areas to the left, and to the right an exit leading to an occupied territory: multinational seed corporations, such as Monsanto, control 31% of the land with the greatest potential for agriculture in the municipality of Juana Díaz. It is the transgenic epicenter of Puerto Rico.
From north to south, from east to west, seed corporations already dominate about 9,712 public and private acres in the island. The area controlled by these corporations is equivalent to the area destined in 2016 for the cultivation of plantains, which the territory’s Department of Agriculture identifies as the most important crop in the country, economically speaking.
No one knew of the silent boom of agrochemical and transgenic corporations on the island’s finest farms, until the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, for its Spanish acronym) completed an inventory of the properties after field visits and consultations with public documents, and then analyzed the area with digital geographic information provided by the Planning Board. With the advance of seed corporations in Puerto Rico, the Island became, between 2006 and 2015, the locality with more permits to do experiments with transgenics in the United States and its territories.
In Juana Díaz, khaki-colored military trucks appear behind the fences of Fort Allen in the US Army Reserve, and taking a turn right, in the Capitanejo neighborhood, employees of the seed corporations walk by wearing white protective gear from head to toe. They are clear signs of the intensive work with chemicals that takes place in the repetitive landscape of soy and corn. This US colony is a paradise for the corporations that dominate the global transgenic seed and agrochemical industry: Monsanto, Bayer CropScience, DuPont Pioneer, Syngenta, Dow AgroSciences, AgReliant Genetics and Illinois Crop Improvement.
This industrial sector received more than $526 million in subsidies and tax exemptions between 2006 and 2015, according to an analysis of those benefits contained in government documents. Those were the years when Puerto Rico was involved in defaulting on its $69 billion debt, prompting the imposition of a Fiscal Oversight Board on the Island by the United States Congress.
In that same decade, multinationals took control over 14% of the public lands belonging to the Lands Authority of Puerto Rico that had the greatest potential for food production in the agricultural corridor that runs from Guayama to Juana Díaz. This is indicated by the calculations made with geographic information systems by David Carrasquillo, President of the Puerto Rican Planning Society, at the request of the CPI. The U.S. territory only produces 15% of its food, according to the Department of Agriculture. Multinationals do not use these lands to produce food, but to experiment with seeds they send out of the country where the research and development process continues, and then they sell them in the global market. Seed corporations not only lease, but indeed have bought about 50% of all the farms they control. Monsanto already owns 1,711 acres, while the Dow AgroSciences and Mycogen Seeds alliance has 1,698.
To the left of Highway # 1, just before reaching the Bucaná River, a wire mesh fence topped with barbed wire rises. It does not display a sign with the Monsanto logo, the company to which it belongs, according to the Registry of Property. Between the gaps of the fence you see a land without grass, trucks that pour a chemical on the ground, and a white shed in the distance.
With 1,030 acres, the equivalent to 600 soccer fields, this is the largest estate of the entire seed company’s inventory. To the north, in the Sabana Llana neighborhood, 494 acres of property begin, belonging to the same multinational company based in the state of Missouri. To the east, fields destined to experimentation are being rented out by the Illinois Crop Improvement, an association that works for the agricultural interests of the state of Illinois and Syngenta Seeds, a Swiss company.
Amid all the experimentation activity is Arús, a community only comprised by seven streets, a barbershop, a Catholic chapel, an Evangelical temple, a school and a bar.
José Ramón Campos, who has been living in Arús for 51 years, gets up at 5 a.m. to take a walk in the baseball park and stay in shape. “But now it’s the opposite. There is a stench,” says Campos, worried about his health. “I’ve had to go down there, to get their attention,” he says pointing to the other side of the street, where Monsanto has its experimentation field. “They throw chemicals during the day and at night. It burns our eyes,” adds Leonor Campos, his wife. “We always have headaches and sore throats.”
The doors and windows of the houses are always closed. Not only to protect themselves from the chemicals, but to avoid the dustpan raised by trucks and wind, because the soil is uncovered due to the herbicide. The dirt sticks to windows, curtains, tables. From a group of 10 neighbors gathered to discuss how the seed corporations affect them, Héctor Luis Negrón Cintrón takes a step forward, helping himself with a cane. “I get difficulty breathing. I am always scratching my entire body.” Antonio Avilés Pacheco, who has lived for ten years in Arús, bluntly states that neighbors have developed an olfactory pesticide and herbicide detector. “It’s noticeable when they use chemicals. By breathing in we can perceive that they are in the environment.”
Tomás Torres was a “listero”, in charge of the roll call of the workers of these lands that belonged to the J. Serrallés Estate, and used to produce sugar cane, mango and vegetables. He knows that agrochemicals are nothing new; they were used by their former bosses. The difference is the amount and who is in charge now: “Monsanto is the king of agriculture in Juana Díaz,” he said. Antonio Avilés Pacheco adds: “It must be the king of poison. Because that’s what Monsanto brings.” He points to the tree where neighbors meet. “We may be sitting there, but we are educating ourselves. Why do we have to be guinea pigs? We are guinea pigs! That’s a laboratory, that’s not agriculture.”
Félix Morales Torres, another neighbor of Arús, used to pass through an easement from what is now the Monsanto estate to go to Boca Chica beach. “I like to fish. But you can’t go in there anymore because they closed the gates. We do not have access to the beach. We used to fish for shrimp, we used bait, net.”
The neighbors claim that until now nobody had been to Arús so that their voices against the seed corporations could be heard. What does the community want? “To see if someone gets involved and controls this, or that Monsanto gets out of here,” Campos concluded.
Between the Catholic chapel and the Evangelical temple of Arús, the street leads to Manzanilla, a community of humble houses that is contiguous to the south with the beach and to the north with Monsanto’s farm. The pastor of the Missionary Church in the neighborhood said a company employee went to address the concerns of neighbors by showing them a corporate video. “They told us that the chemicals they are using are to kill a worm; they told us that the chemicals don’t affect us, although those who throw them wear white protective gear,” added the pastor. “I say they bribed us a little bit. They pruned some trees from the road, threw a Three Kings Day party and brought toys for the children. They donated part of the food for a community cleanup. They donated chicken and potatoes.”
Seed corporations’ land extends mainly along 117 kilometers, about 73 miles, through almost the entire southern coast of Puerto Rico. They include 139 acres from the Agricultural Experimental Station of Isabela and Aguadilla, in the northwest of the country, which Monsanto leased and is in the process of returning to focus the work on Juana Díaz. There are 17 additional acres from the German BASF, and 212 acres from the Texan RiceTec which does not work with genetically modified seeds but with hybrids. There are about 874 acres from a farmer in Santa Isabel who sows fruits and vegetables, and where 3rd Millenium Genetics grows soy and corn. The latter is very different from the other corporations, because it develops hybrid crops for the consumption of the local cattle.
There is more land in the hands of multinational companies that pay other farm owners so that they grow the experimental crops in their lands. “They are businesses and the farmer has to earn money,” explained Ramón González, former President of the Farmers’ Association. He owns lands in the municipality of Salinas, the first lands with corn that are seen going down highway # 52, adjoining with the facilities of Syngenta and DuPont Pioneer. González did not want to specify how much land is destined for transgenics or what seed corporation he gives services to. “I sow seeds for several of them,” he said.
The farms of the south. Why here? What’s so special about them? They are in Puerto Rico’s lower precipitation area while receiving water from irrigation canals; therefore, seed corporations can irrigate their crops scientifically, without plantations being exposed to too much rain, which attracts fungi. This area has been identified as “state-relevant” agricultural land with categories ranging from 1 to 4 of agricultural use, the highest rating in terms of chemical and physical capacities for food and fiber production, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a federal agency dedicated to the protection and conservation of soil. These lands are flat and have natural fertility, so they can be machined, and the work is much easier compared to the work on the “jalda” (the Puerto Rican term for the slope of a mountain). Additionally, they are en route to Puerto Rico’s two most important cities, Ponce and San Juan, with easy access by highway # 52.
“This is what I need,” exclaims entrepreneur Duamed Colón. He puts a knee on the ground, appears to grab something and shows his fist as if he had a handful of soil. Except he is not in the southern farms, but in a hotel in the capital, where a business innovation summit was held under the auspices of the Puerto Rico Science, Technology and Research Trust, which seeks to expand the country’s industrial base. Of all the summit’s participants, Colón is the only one that is trying to innovate with local agriculture. This biologist, with graduate studies in agricultural science at the Mayagüez Campus of the University of Puerto Rico, received a scholarship from the Trust for tissue culture, an agricultural biotechnology technique for the development of vigorous plantains that do not contaminate with banana root borer.
One of plantains’ main pests, pierces the plant from the roots to the center, causing farmers to apply pesticides to try to save the crop, which rises costs, increases working time and adds a toxic component to the environment. Colón is trying to develop a brand of biological pesticides that do not impact the environment, and is experimenting with the plants that cover the surroundings of plantains, in order to keep weeds at bay, dispense with herbicides and avoid erosion of soil. But the scientist, entrepreneur and farmer needs to solve the main obstacle for the growth of his company: getting about 100 acres of good land at a reasonable price. At the end of his presentation during the summit, sponsored in part by Monsanto, Colón placed on a counter two maps of the southern municipalities of Juana Díaz and Santa Isabel. He pointed at the farms of the Lands Authority, an agency that leases public land to farmers at a reasonable price. But in almost three years the Lands Authority has not yet responded to his request for lease, because its properties are allegedly already occupied. Of the 6,439 acres controlled by transgenic multinationals between Guayama and Juana Díaz, 44% are a lease with the government agency.
“A project like ours is being left out,” said Colón. “I’m not talking about the romanticism of agriculture. I’m talking about a real agricultural biotechnology company that already hired a doctor to pay him the salary that a professional of his level deserves, and a laboratory assistant. ”
Monsanto rents 768 acres to the Lands Authority in the Río Cañas Abajo neighborhood in Juana Díaz. That’s what the contract registered in the Office of the Comptroller says; but in reality, Monsanto is occupying 818 acres, according to official lease inventories. That means that the government gives away the difference of 50 acres for free. That’s half of the land that the entrepreneur Duamed Colón needs to develop his business and scientific project. Right in the middle of the government farms in the Río Cañas neighborhood, Monsanto purchased three additional properties equivalent to 74 acres, where it built its private facilities with $800,000 in public funds that they received as an “incentive” by the Puerto Rico Industrial Development Company, which promotes the Island as a destination for investments.
“The whole argument that foreign seed corporations create jobs is relative. Agro Tropical wants to grow, create jobs and produce food, but we are limited by lack of access to farm land,” added Duamed Colón.
On the other hand, Monsanto, Syngenta Seeds, Dow AgroSciences along with Mycogen Seeds, DuPont Pioneer and its parent company DuPont, Bayer Crop Science and AgReliant Genetics, each control more than the 500 acres allowed by Puerto Rico’s Land Act and its Constitution.
Why the 500 acre limit? The arrangement was devised by the United States military government after the invasion of Puerto Rico in 1898 to avoid latifundia, as huge farms owned by corporations are known. This measure was the heart of the agrarian reform after the Great Depression, amid strikes against large sugarcane corporations, which occupied a considerable part of the most productive lands that could be used for food production. With World War II in the background, Hitler’s submarines sank barges that transported food to Puerto Rico, and there was hunger on the Island. Founded under the motto of “Bread, land and freedom,” the Popular Democratic Party (Partido Popular Democrático, PPD) created the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico on the foundations of that agrarian reform. Its architect, Luis Muñoz Marín, promoted the expropriations of properties greater than 500 acres, to pass unto the Lands Authority, creating the so-called proportional profit farms, which having been born in an era of land romanticism foreign to science and technology, never paid off, as Ruben Nazario explains in his book Landscape and Power: The Land in the Time of Luis Muñoz Marín.
In the past decade, the PPD and New Progressive Party (Partido Nuevo Progresista, PNP) administrations seem to have surrendered to multinationals that exceed the constitutional acre limit. In a legal opinion from June 20, 2012, former Secretary of State Guillermo Somoza Colombani indicated that seed corporations could dominate more than 500 acres because they are not engaged in agriculture, but rather a scientific and business activity called research and development. Puerto Rico returns to the times in which big sugarcane corporations could dominate the best lands for agriculture. “What the Secretary of Justice had to do was look at the intention of the law with the eyes of the present,” said attorney Carlos Ramos, a professor of constitutional law, when he learned of the proliferation of multinational companies in the best lands in Puerto Rico. “With the seed corporations we are seeing that the latifundia of the XXI Century has already begun. This is a new version of what has been the history of Latin America and Puerto Rico during the last century. These corporations will gradually be interfering with the use of land, they will manifest themselves as a political power that influences the legislature, and that is precisely what the Constitution wanted to prevent.”
This story was produced by Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, a nonprofit news organization and member of the Institute for Nonprofit News, to which the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting belongs.