The fate of the finca: Smallholders in the Hispanic Caribbean

Project Overview

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2008: $10,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Grant Recipient: University of Texas at Austin
Region: Southern
State: Puerto Rico
Graduate Student:
Major Professor:
Gregory Knapp
University of Texas at Austin


  • Agronomic: sugarcane
  • Fruits: bananas
  • Additional Plants: coffee


  • Sustainable Communities: quality of life


    In Puerto Rico agronomists’ training geared towards commercial agriculture in the United States led to imposed cultivation techniques that disregard local knowledge and led to a loss of autonomy and sustainability. Recognizing the difficulties and inapplicability of many of the farming techniques taught by local extension agents, either the farmer survives “illegally” or cuts him/herself off completely from government support. The lengths to which a farmer will go in order to farm without government interference depends primarily on their relationship to ecological resources.


    The purpose of this project is to analyze the role informal networks play on farmer survival in the central region of Puerto Rico. Recent rural livelihoods research has focused on niche markets and income diversification (Morris and Evans), for the adoption of improved land management practices, and landholder’s integration into an increasingly globalized economy (Zimmerer 2007). The role of small landholder regional networks, reciprocity, and family structures play a critical part, albeit non-monetized, in small farmer survival and management (Netting 1993), but has not been the central focus of current rural research. This investigative project evaluates the ability of small farmers to maintain their livelihoods in the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico using informal networks and local knowledge.

    Current discourse on economic development and environmental conservation, places the farmer as inefficient producers in the densely populated Caribbean islands (Ryder 2002). Further scientists and politicians tend to agree that the land would be more beneficial as forest (Aide and Grau 2004). Madsen and Adriensen (2004) state that recent research in geography leaves most of the dynamic world of land use by rural actors unexplained, calling for renewed attention to the physical and philosophical research of rural areas. This research analyzes the linkages of smallholders with each other and their environment, and the degree to which farmers shape the highly diverse landscape in which they live, thereby creating the Puerto Rican agricultural landscape.

    The current largest threats to sustainable agriculture in the Caribbean are the increasing costs of production (Martin 2007) and its consideration as environmentally detrimental. For this reason, governments and conservation efforts have focused on fomenting migration and concentrating population into urban areas (Rocheleau et al 2001). This work’s hypothesis is that the ecological services and informal networks help to decrease operating costs, helping farmers maintain livelihoods. Further, our hypothesis is that farmers are efficiently managing the resources available to them by increasingly relying on informal resources, such as ecosystem services.

    Recent research has focused on income diversification as the way for smallholder survival. Netting, in his 1993 work, hypothesized that family farms will have the best chance of surviving given their ability to rely on family networks. This work will expand on Netting’s hypothesis of survival mechanisms used by smallholders, focusing not only on families, but also on social networks and resources used by farmers. The goal of this research is to analyze the contribution of networks to farm survival, extending beyond family networks. If my hypothesis proves correct, the disappearance of these networks would accelerate the decline of smallholder farmers even when income diversification strategies are put in place.

    This research will focus the analysis on: social networks that buoy the rural economies, without which, I argue, income diversification would not be enough to maintain smallholder farming; and on the general positive contribution of farming in the Caribbean to local economy and ecology.

    This research identifies survival mechanisms used by farmers so that conservation goals can be implemented.By learning from and building on established local techniques, tapping into the resources and networks farmers already use will help validate and start a local knowledge database that will compliment scientific research. Such knowledge can be used to help farmers skip generations of experimentation by implementing successful techniques to farmers in similar situations and areas. Implications extend to other island nations, areas of development, land use management and policy towards alleviation of poverty, as well as towards what Bebbington calls the linking of international actors through local networks (Bebbington 2001) by its potential future connections of farming technologies and knowledge to other Caribbean islands or smallholders in developed areas.

    Project objectives:

    1. To analyze how much of the farmers’ current survival relies on a diverse set of social networks, by documenting sources of income, and estimating costs of labor and services not accounted for in the formal economy

    2. To analyze the history of land use and evaluate how rural space is used in Puerto Rico, and what changes are occurring in land management and the current concentration and ownership of land.

    3. Document ecological services and local knowledge that farmers identify as decreasing costs

    4. To analyze the potential benefits of small farm agriculture in the highly populated island of Puerto Rico.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.