Published on:

24 May 2018

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It may seem unlikely that after a hurricane leaves you literally without a roof over your head, a tiny tree bearing papaya — not even papaya, actually, just the stem that will eventually sprout papaya — could bring you hope.

But that seemed to be the case when Dariana Mattei-Ramos distributed papaya tree seedlings — and orange, lime and soursop seedlings — to families trying to rebuild in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria hit the island last fall. Mattei-Ramos was surprised herself, but also quite pleased at the reception to the fruit trees, which were one of several projects she’s undertaken with the Caribbean Youth Environment Network’s (or CYEN) Puerto Rico chapter.

Most of the island’s agriculture was lost from the impact of Hurricane Maria, said Mattei-Ramos, who discussed her work during a presentation at WWF’s Washington, D.C., offices. In such an agriculture-heavy economy, she said, that loss means even more food must be imported to the island.

She’s working to make that less.

CYEN Puerto Rico started about three years ago, one of several groups that want to make the island more resilient to disasters. And when the devastation is as widespread as it was after the hurricanes of last summer and fall, it opens room for Puerto Rico to be much more resilient in the future than in the past.

Around the same time Mattei-Ramos and the other team members distributed fruit trees, they also distributed seeds. It was part of a two-pronged approach: On the one hand, the trees (and other items like clothing and solar lamps) went to families in hard-hit, high-poverty areas. On the other hand, the seeds, including cilantro, basil, lettuce and pepper — food that’s popular in Puerto Rico and can grow in the island’s hot weather — went to small-scale farmers with limited access to those resources.

Mattei-Ramos’ work fits well with WWF’s Environment and Disaster Management program, which focuses on integrating environmentally responsible practices into disaster management. For example, in Sri Lanka, WWF and local partners trained tsunami-impacted families in organic home gardening and composting techniques, providing training participants with seeds and plants in order to improve food security and manage waste.

More recently, WWF aided in reconstruction efforts following the 2015 Nepal earthquakes. That work included helping restore irrigation systems, restocking livestock, and training community members in soil bioengineering techniques to stabilize the landslides that resulted from the earthquakes.

“We’re committed to training the next generation of practitioners, and we’re inspired by the work Dariana and her colleagues are doing,” said Anita van Breda, senior director for Environment and Disaster Management at WWF. In addition to trainings like the ones in Sri Lanka and Nepal, van Breda and her team also train students at U.S. universities in responsible disaster management techniques.

With a long road of rebuilding ahead after Hurricane Maria, especially for small towns like Mattei-Ramos’ native Adjuntas, CYEN’s 15-member team in Puerto Rico is trying to grow the still small youth movement on the island. After the government announced the upcoming closure of 283 public schools, Mattei-Ramos and her colleagues decided they’d like to reclaim some of those schools — “rescue” them — and turn them into agricultural spaces where community members, including young children, can learn gardening and growing techniques.

Mattei-Ramos and the others have one particular school in mind, in Adjuntas, to rescue first. With more time and a bigger team, though, they want to expand to more buildings throughout the island, so more communities can grow their own food and, with it, their homes and livelihoods.

Check back for more soon on Caribbean rebuilding.