(This article was published in Agrotemas,
My agricultural work in Puerto Rico began exactly 20 years ago. Compared to today, it was a relatively uncomplicated time and I could fully focus on developing my own farm. Over time, it was impossible to avoid noticing that there are many things fundamentally derailed with Puerto Rico's agriculture. In an attempt to help the farmers of the island, I wrote and published "Oro Verde - Securing the Future of Our Food" with the hope of seeing some positive changes. Although I have indeed been able to observe a few positive developments within the larger farming community, every single new rule or law put forward from by the Puerto Rico Government, made everything for small-scale farmers increasingly difficult.
With this article, I hope to shed more light on one specific topic that has gone from bad to worse to impossible: the "agricultor bonafide" certificate.
The original idea behind this certificate was to help the few farmers financially who are left in Puerto Rico (less than one percent of the population) by partially exempting them from having to pay full property tax, full income tax and sales tax for agricultural goods needed to develop a farm. However, in 2015, the former Secretary of Agriculture, Mirna Comas, decided to make the already invasive, time-consuming and bureaucratic process to get this certification even more difficult than it already was.
At first our only requirements were pretty straightforward:
Once the inspection and tax forms were completed, the local director of every agricultural region of Puerto Rico sent them to the Secretary of Agriculture in San Juan. A few weeks or months later, the farmer would receive their certificate. I was told repeatedly that the process is not an extension of the old certificate, but a new certificate and application process.
Needless to say any life-long farmer found this insulting. Applications submitted by farmers who had previously received certifications should be processed differently from new submissions.
New applicants received a certificate that was valid for one year. Farmers who already had been farming for years eventually received a certificate that was valid for three additional years, but they were still required to go through yearly inspections. The Department of Agriculture (DOAG)does not work directly with CRIM, which means the farmer then had to visit CRIM (waiting between two and four hours) to get their approval and a property tax exemption per acre cultivated. The entire process did not take more than one or two unpaid days per year out of a farmer's life.
I felt that the process was too bureaucratic but still tolerable. In 2016, when it was time to renew my certificate, my first step was to approach the DOAG inspector who was holding the position, whom I ran into casually in January. I requested he come and inspect my farm as soon as possible so that I could start the process of renewing my certificate. When I hadn’t heard back from him by the end of January and all of February, I went back to the DOAG in March.
I left another reminder with him. No response. I followed up in April, then again in May—still no response. I left more messages, trying to find out what the delay was, and got only vague responses. I just renewed my request of having an inspector come to my farm in order to set the process of renewing my certificate in motion. Nothing happened over the summer, except that the same inspector visited me with a questionnaire sent by the Sec of AG, Mirna Comas that included over 10 pages of highly invasive and detailed questions.
Since I was not prepared for his unannounced visit and a questionnaire that was half a book, my first reaction was to deal with it later. That, however, he said would have the consequence of losing my license as Ag Bona. Despite the unwarranted and unlawful threat, I filled out the questionnaire. Mind you, at the time I didn't even have the certificate validated that the Sec of AG threatened to revoke for those who would not fill out her questionnaire.
Since he never came back for the actual inspection, I finally went to see the DOAG director, who listened to my case, and promised to help. He actually did: he managed to send another inspector in October of the same year, and by January 18, 2017, the document was finally ready to be picked up. Total waiting time: exactly one year. Total amount of time spent having to deal with the issue: approximately 25 hours, including time spent filling out papers, driving time and waiting time at the DOAG. The document guaranteed me a reasonably sounding extension until the end of 2019.
Fast forward 10 months: during a casual visit to the DOAG, I was informed that the current Secretary of Ag, Carlos Flores, had annulled the validity of all certificates. Objectively analyzed, this directive was nothing but a severe abuse of power. Imagine extending your driver's license for four years, only to be informed that before the end of the first year already, your license was no longer valid.
A new application process was now required, which included signing a questionable affidavit that would also need to signed by a lawyer. Following are some excerpts of the new rules a farmer has to abide:
This implied that a farmer is degraded to someone who is only allowed to sell products, and these products had to have been approved by the Secretary of Agriculture. The GMO industry and farmers who use toxic pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers produce only products that are dangerous and bad for people's health, but they get the full stamp of approval by our government. At the same time, organic and ecological farmers are placed in a position where they have to convince the same government that their products are legitimate.
Instead, the local government awarded over $500 million to multinational producers of transgenic seeds, as well as millions of gallons of free water, every tax break that can possibly be given, and of course, the "Agricultor Bonafide" certificate. Genetic engineering is not only against all principles of nature, it’s a violent, artificial and extremely costly process—in other words, it is the exact opposite of being in harmony with nature.
The demands go on, and become even more bureaucratic—to a point that it’s safe to say that there is not a single farmer in Puerto Rico who could possibly comply with all of them. Since the process and demands are so blatantly wrong, I asked several DOAG employees what they think about them. The answer is always the same: "We know that these things don't always make sense and may be wrong but there is nothing we can do about it. The only one who can directly communicate with the San Juan office is the local DOAG director." When I requested that the secretary at the DOAG set up an appointment with the current director in Mayagüez, Julio Colon, he denied the request without giving any reason. Knowing him for almost 20 years, I would have been extremely surprised if he would have shown any interest to help or listen to a farmer's concern.
Anyone who reads these documents carefully will automatically understand that this move by the Sec of DOAG was plain wrong—one can't just revoke a previously issued document whimsically—and taking bureaucracy to a new level is just a misuse of power. More money is needed to be spent on accountants and lawyers, and of course more unpaid time to waste with unreasonable demands. Despite the nationwide directive, farmers were not personally informed about this change. Only the DOAG and CRIM were informed about it. CRIM didn't waste any time and immediately cancelled all the property tax exemptions for agricultores bonafides island wide. The DOAG can't reach the farmers with new directives, but they know how to reach CRIM?!
CRIM in turn, requires even more documents now:
This means another unpaid visit to an accountant, plus accountant fees. It also means additional time driving to and from, time spent waiting and lastly time spent dealing with seemingly robotic officers. It drives the total amount of time spent from 25 unpaid hours per year to approximately 40 hours, which is a full week of unpaid work. Even if I wanted to comply with CRIM’s demands, the DOAG doesn't give me the required documents to complete the process.
In short, the process is invasive, time-consuming, illogical, unreasonable, costly and above all, a bureaucratic hurdle with the intention to get rid of as many certified agricultor bonafide and those wanting to apply to become one as possible.
One may wonder why all recently passed agricultural laws and rules are making our farmers’ lives more difficult. The answer is simple: the local government is bankrupt and is using any and all means to empty as many pockets of as many people as they possibly can. Secretaries of AG are just extended arms of a system that is primarily centered around increasing old taxes and inventing new ones. In order to avoid having to deal with this sad situation, over 500,000 people have left the island since 2008 (with somewhere north of 100,000 since Hurricane Maria), and many more will follow. Those who stay behind will be harassed to a point where they will either also leave or wish they could leave. Life in Puerto Rico is being made unbearable by a government that has absolutely no concern for its people.
Everyone who has read War Against all Puerto Ricans by Nelson Denis, understands why we are in the situation we are facing now. But why farmers are pushed down, especially after just having lost most of their farms due to the devastating impact of Hurricane Maria, is one of the worst crimes committed against the island's people so far. The same government that tells us that "only" 64 people died as a consequence of Maria(despite an extensive study conducted by Harvard University that brings the total to 4,645) also tells us that Puerto Rico is importing "only" 80 percent of its food. The truth is that we are still importing somewhere between 92 and 97 percent of our food. (The number fluctuates annually but has been quite consistent the past few decades.) Another truth is that agriculture is in danger of extinction in Puerto Rico. There are more old generation farmers dying than new farmers replacing them.
Instead of protecting our farmers and farm lands, the local secretaries of agriculture are hell bent on trampling on the small-scale farmers, with an open ear (and hands) for corporate farms alone that are dedicated to genetically manipulating nature and destroying whatever is left of the steadily dwindling agriculturally usable land here. Ecological farmers are still treated like exotic animals who are worthless to the government. The position of the Secretary of Agriculture is 99 percent of the time a political one, and all the secretaries of agriculture in Puerto Rico I have observed over the last 20 years had the following in common:
Positions like this one should be strictly separated from politics and entirely based on experience, knowledge and visionary ability. We don't have farmers in charge of agriculture here, but political career animals who are experts in false propaganda, self-glorification and destroying what little is left of Puerto Rico's agricultural future.
We a living in a system that has all the symptoms of a dictatorship—the only difference from a conventional dictatorship is that we are dealing with a two-party dictatorship. First one party hits its people from the left until people vote for the other party with the hope relieving their pain. The pendulum then swings to the opposite party. They, in turn, hit everyone from the right, and thus the beating is complete.
It’s nothing but a systematic left-right beating. It is commonly known that each administration wastes, misappropriates, or simply loses tens of millions of dollars. Since the island's debt is currently over 73 billion, it’s obvious that taxpayers’ money was wasted, misused, etc. As explained above, over $500 million was given to both Big Ag and biotech companies. That’s just one of many mistakes made by the government.
Each administration wastes or steals tens of millions of dollars each turn they are in office, and in the end they both declare that the island is bankrupt and the people of Puerto Rico—victims in a crime they had no part in committing—end up paying for the debt created.
As an agricultural consultant, I have helped countless foreign and local investors with the faith needed to invest in Puerto Rico. These investors brought millions of dollars to the island. However, I don't think I can, in good conscience, continue advising anyone to continue investing. I always kept up my hope that their involvement could lift up the island and protect farm land from the onslaught of agro chemicals promoted by the DOAG but seeing how everything went from bad to worse to practically impossible, tells me that this hope is becoming increasingly unrealistic.
Those "in charge" will continue to invent new ways of repressing people, while trying to steal as much money from them as they can. Now that it’s extremely difficult and time consuming to be an agricultor bonafide, the door for the government will open to change the entire property tax system that was in place for many years.
Farmers who have farmed their entire life but don't want to deal with the bureaucracy of the DOAG anymore, will soon be forced to pay high land taxes that will force them to give up. The land that will be "freed up" this way, will then be sold to elite investors and corporations. What has transpired here in the last decade is an expertly executed form of gentrification: good people will be pushed off the island in droves, and small-scale farmers will be harassed to a point where they will be forced to give up.
Until these issues fundamentally change, the island will continue to be a sinking ship, and any healthy food production will become a small-scale fringe activity. Food dependency will continue to increase to a historically unprecedented level.
I know that it’s risky to speak out about issues such as the ones I’m raising, because our government leaders have learned to NEVER ADMIT ANYTHING and ALWAYS dismiss and discredit anyone who challenges them. But I do hope that our farmers realize the current danger and stand up for the sake of their own future and the future of Puerto Rico.
As far as the agricultor bonafide exemption document goes, I will not pursue it anymore, unless a process is put in place that is reasonable, fair and beneficial for farmers. I know that my decision in this regard is playing into the hands of those who made the process purposefully unpleasant but I can't support a dangerous dictatorship. 100 percent of my humble income is generated through agriculture, and it should be the duty of the government to acknowledge this fact, and not my duty to follow their never ending, unreasonable, contradictory and illogical demands. My time is valuable and I want to use it to keep working on positive agricultural projects that actually benefit Puerto Rico and its people.
©Sadhu Govardhan, August 2018