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Lin-Manuel Miranda heads crusade to make Puerto Rico coffee king

By on November 2, 2018

Editor’s note: The following originally appeared in the Nov. 1-7, 2018, issue of Caribbean Business.

As you read this article, you may be enjoying your morning cup of coffee without even thinking about the long and complex journey of its ground beans in the context of Puerto Rico’s history.

The first historical record of coffee on the island is linked to the migration of Corsicans to Puerto Rico at the beginning of the 19th century, who introduced Arabic coffee beans to local agriculture. During that time, the sugarcane industry remained in the hands of the Spanish Empire’s local government, so these communities of Corsican immigrants settled in the Central Mountain Range and opted to plant coffee as a means of sustenance.

In a short time—halfway through the 19th century—coffee became one of the main agricultural products on the island, surpassing such local economic pillars as sugarcane and tobacco. In 1860, this industry recorded its greatest bonanza, with Puerto Rico positioned as the country with the sixth highest coffee exports worldwide, thanks to a boost from European markets interested in this product.

However, after the Spanish-American War, and subsequent invasion of Puerto Rico by the U.S. Army, progress made up to 1898 in the coffee industry began to fade. Nevertheless, Puerto Rico’s abandoned coffee industry’s days could be numbered.

After the island was devastated by two powerful hurricanes in 2017, new interest in coffee production appears to have reawakened in Puerto Rico. As part of initiatives by various government, nonprofit and private groups to revive food production on the island, the Hispanic Federation is leading an initiative to support Puerto Rican coffee growers and help them recover from hurricanes Irma and Maria.

The project, dubbed “Revitalization of the Coffee Industry in Puerto Rico,” provides a $5 million investment in aid for some 3,000 coffee growers who represent 70 percent of the local industry. They will receive two million coffee beans donated by the Starbucks Foundation, as well as technical assistance and other aid so farms begin to produce higher-quality coffee in larger quantities.

“After working on [disaster recovery] by providing essential emergency aid, we began to focus on high-impact projects for the island and, since the beginning of the year, a task force was formed because we are very concerned Puerto Rico still has to import 80 percent of the food it consumes. And there is also great concern about agriculture’s future on the island and the high impact these hurricanes had on the sector,” said Frankie Miranda Rodríguez, executive vice president of the Hispanic Federation, which is leading the project to revive the island’s coffee industry.

“We began to organize and speak with many people in the coffee industry in the United States, and with the help of the greatest spokesperson we have ever had, [the creator of the Broadway musical “Hamilton”] Lin-Manuel Miranda, who has lent his voice to this effort, many people approached us and we saw there was an interest in Puerto Rico’s coffee sector,” Miranda Rodríguez added, who is unrelated to the New York playwright of Puerto Rican descent.

Last week, the playwright, who founded the nonprofit entity, and his father, don Luis Miranda Jr., both made a formal announcement about the project at Hacienda San Pedro in Jayuya.

As explained by Miranda Rodríguez, due to Puerto Rico’s complicated political situation, the first challenge faced was to achieve entry of the Starbucks-donated beans. However, after agreements reached with the local and federal departments of Agriculture, half of the two million seeds are already in Puerto Rico but placed in quarantine. Once they complete that process, they will be distributed among certified farmers who will participate in the effort.

“We are concerned that in Puerto Rico, despite having an ancestral tradition of planting coffee, the industry has become limited. Coffee production in recent years has dropped significantly. We know that in 1995, 280,000 quintals [1 quintal is about 100 pounds] of coffee were produced on the island and, before the hurricanes, the number of quintals had dropped to 65,000. So, there was already a setback in production, and after the hurricane [Maria,] it was severely affected,” Miranda Rodríguez said.

“The initiative is to…make an assessment of how much knowledge we have in Puerto Rico about planting coffee and what the best techniques are for that crop. We have hired this nonprofit organization called TechnoServe, which has experience in the coffee sector around the world, in different areas and in different stages of development,” he said. With the help of organizations such as TechnoServe and World Coffee Research, Miranda Rodríguez said the needs of the industry’s farmers are addressed.

The executive director of the Hispanic Federation explained that the reason 30 percent of coffee farmers may not immediately benefit from this initiative is largely due to the nonprofit’s lack of resources to serve that group, but in the long-term, the program is expected to help the island’s entire coffee industry.

Betting on historical potential

Miranda Rodríguez said the organization is betting on the Puerto Rico coffee industry’s revival because of the product’s potential for worldwide export.

The executive director assured that Puerto Rico has the coffee tradition in its DNA, but not enough is being produced to even meet local demand.

“Right now, the reality is that the coffee consumed on the island is not being produced [in Puerto Rico]. So, there is a market, it’s there,” Miranda Rodríguez said. “The residents of Puerto Rico want to consume it. But if it can be scaled to a higher production, Puerto Rico becomes a global coffee exporter, as it once was, which would be highly beneficial for the economy. What is very clear is that there is demand, there is that desire, the support, and what we want is to [re-]create an industry.”

If the plan works “the way we think it will, we also will have to create more security for the farmers, and more people will bet on this sector generating enough [coffee] to develop businesses. We also want to promote that Puerto Ricans consume what’s local and that another type of harvest can be produced. That 80 percent of our food is imported is unconscionable and very dangerous. We have to look for ways to produce more and prevent the kinds of emergencies we experienced, when ports were not functioning and there was no way to feed a population because it depends almost exclusively on imports,” he stressed.

Miranda Rodríguez explained that the seeds donated by Starbucks do not represent an obligation for farmers to do business with the U.S.-based multinational coffee chain, since the donation was made through its philanthropic subsidiary.

“The Starbucks donation does not have any specificity or exclusivity [requiring] farmers to have to sell the final product to Starbucks. They have the freedom to market the product to whomever they like. Starbucks is interested in having coffee production on the island, and they hope high-quality coffee is produced at some point and, in the future, they can buy it from local farmers,” he said.

Miranda Rodríguez also said the Hispanic Federation is working with other organizations on other crops. For example, he pointed to a new effort between several organizations and Universidad Interamericana of Puerto Rico’s Barranquitas campus to expand production of plantain seedlings.

“When you plant plantain, from the moment you put the seed in the ground, it will take you three months to know if the seed will be viable or not. Once you discover the seeds are viable, you have to replace those that are not. What this other project creates is a technique where these seeds are collected and developed in the laboratory, disinfecting them so they do not have any kind of problem, and what they do is to provide a high number of seedlings to farmers who will plant them three months in advance, and with a tree they know will be viable. This will accelerate plantain production and will have an impact on several towns in the island’s central region,” he said.

In his blood

Judging by the small tattoo Lin-Manuel Miranda has on his leg, coffee rather than blood flows through his veins. When asked what the outline of the coffee cup means to him, he candidly assured it has been an integral part of his life, as well as of the majority of Puerto Ricans. And that love for coffee is the main motivation for the acclaimed artist to make the titanic effort to revive the island’s coffee industry.

“We are here, and there is no other way to say it, with the Avengers of coffee. We have people from Starbucks, from World Coffee Research, from the Rockefeller Foundation, from TechnoServe, and you don’t call the Avengers when the job is easy. You call the Avengers when the job is tough, and after Hurricane Maria, the work was very difficult. Agriculture was devastated, farmers were wiped out by the hurricane. Having grown up in Puerto Rico, what is it we are most proud of? Of our coffee, and that’s as important as part of the Puerto Rican identity and culture, and the island’s economy,” Lin-Manuel said during the project’s announcement in Jayuya, at Hacienda San Pedro. The farm’s namesake is also a successful artisanal coffee company on the island.

“So, we’re going to have their backs. We have assembled the Avengers of coffee here today, and this is a five-year project,” the celebrity said in English, adding, “because it’s not easy,” in Spanish. “It’s hard and we are starting now. We will fight and support our coffee growers, so Puerto Rico returns to the way it was before in history, when it was said Puerto Rican coffee was consumed even in the Vatican. We can get there again,” he said in English again, “and we’re going to get there again, because of the Avengers being here today.”

Representatives of the different organizations that joined the Hispanic Federation have already begun to visit farms to learn about the scope of the damage wrought by last year’s hurricane season and establish which needs are most pressing. World Coffee Research and TechnoServe will be training local farmers to implement the initiatives, so the knowledge acquired stays on the island.

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