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Puerto Rico in the Great Depression


From Puerto Rico: A Guide to the Island of Boriquén
Federal Writers Project, 1940

Publishing Information
  1. The agriculture of Puerto Rico is specialized and commercial, devoted primarily to crops which can be sold in the United States. It is subject to all the hazards of an external market in which other tropical countries compete, and its shippers are never certain about the stability of their tariff protection, which corresponds to that given similar industries on the mainland. But there is no alternative to specialization within the existing tariff walls and the system of market distribution based on quotas.

  2. If all the arable land on the Island were planted to food crops for domestic consumption rather than cash crops for export, it would not begin to support the total population.

  3. Such crops as sugar cane, tobacco, and citrus fruits have proved the most remunerative. Besides paying excellent dividends to producers, especially in the case of sugar cane, they have employed a large part of the population. It is estimated that sugar cane alone has an annual pay roll equivalent to 55 or 60 per cent of the gross income of the crop. This figure in a normal year under quota restriction may amount to approximately $30,000,000. Considering the density of population and the high prices of farms, there is no choice but to devote the best lands to the highest yielding crops. The problem lies in the redistribution of land and the reduction of absentee ownership, which exports profits with products.

  4. Puerto Rico has depended on agriculture since the primitive tribal economy of the Boriquén Indians. Although the gold-seeking conquistadores were hardly concerned with the development of agriculture, Ponce de León appreciated the richness of the soil and had some land cleared for farming near Caparra and at the estuary of the Toa or La Plata River. On the latter site the first agricultural experiment station and grange in the New World developed, where experiments were carried on with crops from other lands and livestock were acclimated. This was "La Granja de Los Reyes Católicos" (Their Catholic Majesties' Grange).

  5. In 1765 the King of Spain commissioned Don Alejandro O'Reilly to visit the colony and make a report of his impressions. In his report to the Crown, O'Reilly recommended that skilled artisans and farmers be sent to the Island; a government-owned sugar mill be installed; uncultivated lands belonging to neglected grants be confiscated by the Crown and divided among the new farmers; and that crops be brought to the mill of the Crown for grinding. He also recommended that provision be made for vocational education in agriculture, and the opening of adequate markets for crops. One of the chief obstacles to the development of agriculture at that time was the lack of laborers, as the only people allowed to settle in Puerto Rico were Spaniards. In 1778, however, agriculture was greatly stimulated as the result of a Royal Decree issued by the King of Spain, allowing foreign Catholic laborers to emigrate to the Island, where lands were given them. In 1815 a Royal Decree of Grace was issued whereby all foreigners were admitted to Puerto Rico. For the first time in their colonial history the Islanders were allowed to trade with other nations and to import farm implements and machinery free of duty.

  6. The establishment of two experimental farms, one in Rio Piedras and the other in Mayagüezu in 1886, inaugurated the scientific study of agriculture in Puerto Rico and led to systematized plant introduction. The opening of the United States Experiment Station in Mayag˜ez in 1902 marked the beginning of a new era in scientific agricultural research. In 1905 a land-grant college of agriculture was established. In 1910 the Sugar Producers Association organized an experiment station in Rio Piedras which in 1914 became the Insular Experiment Station. The Insular Department of Agriculture was established in 1917. Through the United States Department of Agriculture, plants of economic importance have been introduced or improved. Sugar cane varieties have been imported which are resistant to the highly troublesome mosaic or yellow-stripe disease, discovered here in 1915, and plant quarantine measures have served to check the disease. Imported varieties—immune, resistant, or tolerant to mosaic—were propagated on government farms and distributed free to farmers. It has been generally recognized that this work saved the sugar industry of the Island from ruin. In the three-year period 1918-20, for example, the damage was estimated at twelve to fifteen million dollars. The new varieties that replaced the diseased and susceptible canes have also resulted in increased sugar yields.

  7. Important food plants, such as rice, mangos, avocados, maize, coffee, and green cover crops have been introduced in to the Island. The experiment stations have improved livestock by introducing better breeds of cattle and other domestic animals. Fertilizers are being used for nearly all important crops. Soil studies are carried on to increase the efficient use of land through fertilization and conservation methods, and a survey of all the soils of the Island has been made.

  8. The use of insecticides and fungicides for the control of diseases and insect pests affecting crops has become widespread, and research institutions have been responsible for the introduction of parasites that destroy insect pests. A few years ago one of the experiment stations introduced the toad (Bufo marinus), a blessing to agriculture because it has kept the mole cricket (changa) and the root borer or white grub (gusano blanco) in check.

  9. An agricultural extension service has been of great benefit in bringing research information to the farmers. The College of Agriculture of the University of Puerto Rico, a potent factor in agricultural development, supplies trained personnel to all agricultural enterprises, private and public.

  10. In recent years soil conservation practices have been introduced as a measure in solving the Island's agricultural and population problems. The general opinion in Puerto Rico has regarded overpopulation as the fundamental problem of the Island. However, soil conservation experts believe that population pressure can be largely relieved by more efficient utilization of the land. To assist in attaining this objective, the Soil Conservation Service of the United States Department of Agriculture has established in the Island, through the co-operation of the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration and Insular Experiment Stations, an office for the purpose of carrying on investigations and demonstrations and developing the best means for conserving soil and moisture. The work has attracted much attention because of its value to the future welfare of the farmers of the Island.

  11. The problem of land concentration in Puerto Rico, in view of the limited area and dense population, continually raises the issue of absentee ownership. A large portion of farm land, particularly the most productive, is not available for the use of the natives. This situation goes far toward explaining the social and economic extremes in Puerto Rico, the incidence of illiteracy, child labor, and primitive living standards, and the especial wretchedness of farm laborer families.

  12. According to the 1935 census, 246,386 persons 10 years old and over depended on agriculture for a living. Only 50,003 of them, or approximately 20 per cent, were farm owners or tenants. The others were classified as managers, foremen, and day laborers. As the population of the Island increased since 1910, the proportion of owners and tenants on the land decreased. The rate of decrease in this period amounted to about 10 per cent.

  13. The problem is further aggravated by the loss of ownership among small farmers and the growth of large holdings. Since 1910 the proportion of land worked by owners to the total under cultivation has declined by about 10 per cent. More than one-third of all the agricultural land is worked by managers in the employ of absentee owners, yet these managed farms represent only about 7 per cent of the total number.

  14. The cattle industry began with the first animals landed in 1509. Subsequently the Island received domestic animals from Europe, some directly and some through Santo Domingo. This industry has not been of great importance in Puerto Rico's economy since the American occupation.

  15. The development of the livestock industry has been handicapped by the use of pasture lands for sugar plantations. In recent years, however, dairying has progressed considerably. There are well-kept dairy farms in districts near the cities and larger towns. The grade of dairy herds has been improved by the introduction of Guernsey, Holstein, Jersey, Ayrshire, and Shorthorn strains, and work cattle have been cross-bred with Zebu or Brahman types. In spite of this, the local market cannot supply the demand, and the Island must depend on the importation of dairy products. The mountain regions, however, offer possibilities for the development of industry, when roads and hydroelectric power are made available for the farmers.

  16. In order to increase the production of milk and its consumption by the poorer classes, goat raising has been encouraged, particularly in the drier areas.

  17. The Government maintains a number of veterinarians at the service of the livestock owners, and a systematic and well-coordinated campaign is in force for the control of tuberculosis. An animal found infected with the disease is immediately slaughtered and the Government compensates the owner at the rate of about $45 per head. A report of December 31, 1936, shows that twelve municipalities have been accredited as free from tuberculosis. Cattle ticks have presented another obstacle to the livestock industry. Though efforts at eradication were made in the past by the Insular Government nothing systematic was done until 1936, when the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration launched its program against the pest. Satisfactory results have thus far been secured: the western third of Puerto Rico has been freed of ticks, and it is expected that they will be eliminated from the entire Island before the end of 1940.

  18. The Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration has undertaken a plan to educate the laborer in modern agricultural and soil conservation methods, and toward a better standard of living and health.

  19. The Central Lafayette, under French ownership for about a century, was purchased in 1936 by recently organized co-operatives, using funds borrowed from the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration. It was the intention of the purchasers to divide the land among agricultural laborers and new cane planters, and to pay off the debt with a portion of the income from cane brought to the grinding mill, owned co-operatively by the colonos (cane planters) and agricultural laborers. Concrete houses, small but comfortable and clean, with garden plots, have been erected for the laborers. In raising the standard of living, the standard of ambition is also raised, and the laborer works with a will to keep his house and ground he has contracted for.

  20. Another sugar co-operative, Central Los Caños, began operation near Arecibo in 1939.

  21. Hurricanes have frequently wrecked the Island's agriculture. Those of 1899, 1928, and 1932 were especially bad, and the 1928 hurricane is remembered as the most serious calamity in this century.

  22. SUGAR. During the Spanish regime coffee was the principal export product, sugar and tobacco occupying second and third places. With the change of sovereignty, the production of sugar cane rapidly increased, and by the beginning of the twentieth century it was the Island's most important commodity. Since that time the growing of sugar cane has continued to increase. As early as 1553, Puerto Rico was exporting some 24,000 pounds of sugar to Spain. Towards the close of the sixteenth century sugar production in Puerto Rico amounted to nearly 400,000 pounds, but this precocious development suffered a setback during the last years of the sixteenth century and early seventeenth.

  23. In the nineteenth century, the production of sugar showed a gradual and steady rise from 9,391 tons to 52,089 tons in 1899. The production in 1879 was nearly twice that of any year between 1872 and 1878. Production mounted higher in 1880 and 1884. At the time of the American occupation sugar production amounted to approximately 60,285 tons. In 1899 a hurricane caused serious damage to the crop. The beginning of the twentieth century marked a rise in sugar production that has continued, with slight intervals of decrease, until today. From 81,526 tons in 1900, production rose to 992,335 tons in 1932, and 1,103,822 tons in 1934. In 1938-9 sugar shipments valued at $53,604,381 were exported to the United States. This sum constituted about two-thirds of the Island's total export to the United States.

  24. TOBACCO. The rise of the tobacco industry has fluctuated. Since the time of the Spanish sovereignty, Puerto Rican tobacco has enjoyed a reputation for good quality, a fact which allowed it to sell in competition with the best grades of Cuban tobacco. The American sovereignty opened new and better markets to the industry. Several American companies opened cigar and cigarette factories in Puerto Rico and purchased some of the best lands in order to grow their own leaf. They also purchased the bulk of the Island crop. Tobacco in Puerto Rico is grown mainly in the mountainous region of the interior, east from Utuado to San Lorenzo. Most of it is of the cigarfiller type, but until 1926 much was used as a wrapper. Chewing tobacco is grown in the northern and southern regions. Exports of leaf tobacco, mainly to the United States, increased from $1,232,058 in 1907 to a little less than $3,000,000 in 1914 and nearly $14,000,000 in 1921. Between 1922 and 1926, exports fluctuated between $9,000,000 and $14,000,000. In 1927 Puerto Rico exported tobacco valued at nearly $21,000,000. In 1939-40 exported tobacco was valued at $7,464,394. In exports, tobacco occupies third place among Puerto Rican products.

  25. COFFEE. During the Spanish regime, the Island's coffee was popular in the Spanish, French, Italian, and other European markets, which took about 50,000,000 pounds of it annually. Production reached a maximum in 1915. The plantations were almost destroyed by the hurricane of September 1928, and as a consequence, European buyers were forced to look elsewhere for their supplies. Trade barriers erected against Puerto Rican products by various European countries also considerably reduced exportation. The greatest coffee exports of this century were those of 1913 and were valued at $8,511,316. In 1939-40 the export of coffee amounted to 3,258,639 pounds valued at $475,316.

  26. Efforts are being made by the Insular Department of Agriculture to find a market for the coffee surplus. Production in 1939-40 was 23,498,000 pounds.

  27. FRUITS. Shortly after the War with Spain a few Americans, some of them ex-soldiers who came with the army in 1898, began the cultivation of citrus fruits. Oranges, grapefruit, and limes were growing wild, and a few felt confident enough in the future of citrus to make small commercial plantings, principally grapefruit. The fruit enjoys a good reputation in both the American and European markets, especially in England where it generally brings a better price than the fruit from other countries.

  28. Fruit exports to the United States showed a steady increase from 1901, when they were valued at $109,801, up to 1930. The figure rose to $1,000,000 in 1908, to more than $2,000,000 in 1911 and more than $3,000,000 in 1930. The tropical storm of September 1928 completely destroyed the crop, causing heavy damage to trees, buildings, machinery, and supplies, and inflicting a total loss of $2,214,000 on the citrus industry. Again in 1932 more than 92 per cent of the fruit industry was destroyed by another storm. The industry in Puerto Rico has also suffered from competition with other regions. In 1939-40, $1,352,604 worth of fresh, canned, or preserved fruits were exported.

  29. Limes have been exported in small quantities in the past; an increasing demand for them is expected. In the last few years pineapples have been widely planted on a commercial scale. Bananas and plantains furnish important staple products for the population, and are not, exported. Other fruit crops are avocado, mango, soursop, breadfruit, pomegranate, cashew, and níspero (sapota).

  30. MISCELLANEOUS. With the exception of head lettuce, all the important vegetables of the temperate zone grow satisfactorily On the Island, and moderate quantities of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash, eggplant, okra, and string beans are shipped to the northern markets. High quality potatoes are grown from tubers imported from the United States, and all are consumed in the local market. Onions of the Bermuda type grow successfully in the coastal lands, especially on the northwestern section of the Island but, since the culture is intensive and wholly by hand, the cost of production does not permit exportation.

  31. The diet that prevails even today among many Puerto Ricans in rural areas—polished rice, beans, and codfish—is expensive and inadequate from the health standpoint. The Department of Education has for many years striven to encourage the planting of garden vegetables. A campaign to raise vegetables and other garden produce was waged under the administration of Dr. Paul Gerard Miller, former Commissioner of Education, and was followed by a similar campaign during the World War. The home economics teachers of the Department of Education since 1914, and the teachers of the second unit schools since they were established in 1928-29, have also encouraged the growing of vegetables. Since 1936 the PRRA has done much to encourage the planting of garden vegetables and their general introduction into Puerto Rican diet.

  32. Root crops such as sweet potatoes, cassava, yams, dasheen and taro, are staples for the Puerto Rican peasant. Were it not for these foodstuffs his diet would be even more deficient. Other crops grown wholly for home consumption are corn, beans, pigeon peas, cowpeas, peanuts, and sesame. Corn, beans, and pigeon peas are grown on a large scale in regions where crop diversification is practiced.

  33. Ginger, of Asiatic origin, became an important crop in the seventeenth century, taking first place among export products in the year 1644, but today it is grown only in small quantities in the interior where the climate is especially suitable.

  34. The coconut industry, severely damaged by hurricanes, shows alternative periods of prosperity and depression. Export values of this crop rose from $8,334 in 1901 to $129,793 in 1906 and steadily up to $1,888,321 in 1927, dropping to $523,070 in 1929 as a result of the hurricane. In 1939-40 exports of coconuts were valued at $308,620.

  35. Rice, an important crop at a time when land and labor were cheap, is now grown only in the higher altitudes. The total production is scanty compared with the large quantities imported every month from the United States. It is a main item on native tables.

  36. Cacao, from which cocoa is obtained, was important in the early days of the Island. Plantations growing cacao suffered severely from the hurricanes, and this factor, to-together with the competition of other countries, has practically eliminated its production.

  37. Cotton of the long-staple, sea island type is grown in small areas in the southern and northwestern parts of Puerto Rico, along the coastal region. Until 1932 nearly 10,000 acres were planted to cotton. Then a sudden loss of the market in the United States reduced the acreage to almost nothing. A new beginning was made in the crop season of 1934-35, and in 1939-40, 250,174 pounds of cotton lint, valued at $74,595, were exported.