Nonsovereignty: Designing political ecologies in Puerto Rico

Rod Barnett

Reviewed by Cruz Garcia and Nathalie Frankowski / WAI Architecture Think Tank

07 Jul 2020

Mak­ing people

The advent of post­colo­nial the­o­ry in the 1970s and 1980s brought the real­iza­tion that lib­er­al polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy was guilty of mask­ing, even eras­ing, the social and polit­i­cal his­to­ries of many peo­ples around the world. Since then, it has become appar­ent not only that polit­i­cal and social his­to­ries were dis­placed, but also that whole envi­ron­ments, entire ecolo­gies were sub­ject to degra­da­tion, deflec­tion, exploita­tion, and ruin. Pol­i­tics and ecolo­gies are inex­tri­ca­bly linked.

What has emerged to con­found the dom­i­nant Euro-Amer­i­can white male his­tor­i­cal imag­i­na­tion that has dri­ven glob­al change? How has envi­ron­men­tal era­sure and dis­place­ment been addressed, and by whom? Puer­to Ricans, I sug­gest, have some ideas about this.

Around the world, the lon­gi­tu­di­nal event of impe­ri­al­ism entan­gled more nation­al groups, motives, and inter­ests than the vast inter­na­tion­al cor­po­ra­tion-gov­ern­ment com­plex that takes the brunt of the blame. Small­hold­ers, plan­ta­tion own­ers, tute­lary indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties, and even con­ser­va­tion groups all entered into pow­er-bar­gain­ing, with colo­nial mili­tias being replaced by board mem­bers, sci­en­tists, anthro­pol­o­gists, and NGOs. The impe­r­i­al objec­tive was — and is — to increase eco­nom­ic pro­duc­tion through the appro­pri­a­tion of the sub­ject country’s bio­phys­i­cal resource. But oth­er appro­pri­a­tions occurred. The rise of the trib­al and abo­rig­i­nal has been accom­pa­nied by local­ist blends of blow-ins.” We could even use the word indige­nous as a cov­er-all. Peo­ple who claim indi­gene­ity, James Clif­ford observes, have often come to their present home from else­where.”1

Because they are long, braid­ed his­to­ries, the mul­ti­ple tra­jec­to­ries of human-envi­ron­ment rela­tions in Puer­to Rico are not easy to trace. They involve a col­lec­tiviza­tion of pow­ers that cross and re-cross eco­nom­ic, lin­guis­tic, and bio­phys­i­cal ter­rains in the ongo­ing con­struc­tion of what we might call region­al sub­jec­tiv­i­ties. Col­o­niza­tion pro­duces not only com­modi­ties such as oil and sug­ar, but also social rela­tions, minds, val­ues, norms, needs, desires, and indeed, bod­ies. This we have learned. Like the rest of us, Puer­to Ricans think, per­ceive, act, feel, and devel­op with­in the con­tin­u­al­ly evolv­ing, inter­ac­tive milieu of our shared social ecol­o­gy. It cre­ates us and we cre­ate it. There is not even a sep­a­ra­ble us” and it.” This arti­cle attempts to show how, in Puer­to Rico, life and land­scape make each other.

It’s an entan­gle­ment shaped by long term pat­terns of co-evo­lu­tion, and inflect­ed dra­mat­i­cal­ly by sud­den short-term events. In the evo­lu­tion of biopo­lit­i­cal move­ments, the col­o­nized sub­ject has agency, the frame­work of colo­nial­ism is built togeth­er, and an event of extreme sig­nif­i­cance can change the course of becom­ing. This is the con­text with­in which we may con­sid­er the case of Puer­to Rico. Let us try, first, to recon­struct the co-cre­ation of sub­jec­tiv­i­ty by means of an imag­ined example.

In the late-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, Gabriela Moreno’s great grand­par­ents farmed in the west­ern high­lands of Puer­to Rico, just west of Utu­a­do. Poor, mixed-blood peons, they were sub­sis­tence farm­ers, the now-roman­ti­cized jíbaro. Rice, corn, plan­tain, green beans, and sweet pota­toes sur­round­ed their shack, and a few cof­fee trees bore heav­i­ly in the shade of the plan­tains. While most of their neigh­bors cash-cropped cof­fee, the plant Gabriela’s bis­abue­los grew for sale was tobac­co, known as a poor man’s crop. Run­ning through the gar­dens chick­ens, two or three goats, and always a brood of pigs returned some fer­til­i­ty to the clay soils and pro­vid­ed pro­tein for a fam­i­ly, the increase of which some nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry sci­ence writ­ers attrib­uted to the nat­ur­al fer­til­i­ty of Puer­to Rican women. 

The gar­dens required no machin­ery or cap­i­tal and had low pro­duc­tion costs. Work­ing and feed­ing their fam­i­ly, the cou­ple formed the nucle­us of an extend­ed Moreno set­tle­ment con­sist­ing, like most moun­tain cof­fee hacien­das, of a few oth­er huts and oth­er fam­i­lies grow­ing the same crops on the same steep slopes lashed by the same sea­son­al rains. When the sea­son was good, they hired Africans and mes­ti­zo day labor­ers to help. At that time, Span­ish rule was less despot­ic and more lib­er­al.2 There was a life to be had. As a lit­tle girl, Gabriela’s great-grand­moth­er chased chick­ens for the pot and wait­ed for some­thing to happen.

By the 1890s, the north­ern and south­ern low­lands were most­ly sug­ar. Land-hun­gry, rapid­ly indus­tri­al­iz­ing cor­po­rate plan­ta­tions estab­lished vil­lages of wage-labor­ers, of whom there were nev­er enough, the sug­ar work being so labor inten­sive. Africans were import­ed first as slaves, then as paid work­ers after the abo­li­tion of slav­ery in 1873. There were a lot of Africans — eighty thou­sand by the 1890s. Unable to afford large num­bers of labor­ers, the old landown­ers, such as the Moreno fam­i­ly, became share­crop­pers. But even as tobac­co held on, the cof­fee mar­ket was chang­ing. South Amer­i­can coun­tries were pro­vid­ing roasts that the US mar­ket pre­ferred over the strong Puer­to Rican bean. Work­ing for quan­ti­ty, the large cof­fee estates felled forests, replaced sub­sis­tence crops, and plant­ed the heavy-crop­ping robus­ta species in the hills. 

When her grand­par­ents came down from the moun­tains and the US took over con­trol of Puer­to Rico from Spain, Gabriela’s father, sev­en years old, was already labor­ing on a sug­ar plan­ta­tion. The glob­al cof­fee mar­ket had fall­en so quick­ly that his peo­ple—mon­tañés, too — had been sucked out of the deep, forest­ed val­leys to work in San Juan and Areci­bo, the sug­ar cap­i­tals of the north coast plains. Like the cof­fee adven­ture, the sug­ar boom declined as the mar­ket diver­si­fied and the tar­iffs came on and tax breaks came off. By World War I, the sug­ar indus­try in Puer­to Rico was pret­ty much over, and lit­tle Gabriela rode to the city on a cart drawn by hors­es. Her moth­er brought her thin chil­dren to a flim­sy shack on the south side of the San Juan fin­ger, in the Puer­ta de Tier­ra, where the man­groves flour­ished in thick, still pulp. 

Gabriela was raised in an urban shack. By the mid­dle of her teens, she was work­ing in the old town, ladling her mother’s old time criol­lo sauce onto mofon­gos for vis­i­tors to La Forteleza. Gabriela was caught between two futures that were being tout­ed for Puer­to Rico. Her hero, the pop­ulist politi­cian Luis Muñoz Marín, want­ed Puer­to Rico to remain with the Unit­ed States but to devel­op its own per­son­al­i­ty.” His adver­sary, Pedro Albizu Cam­pos, was a fire­brand who preached strug­gle as the only anti­dote to US cap­i­tal­ism. But Gabriela had a tough upbring­ing. She liked the mon­ey tourists and marines brought to the café. She joined the pop­u­lares (“Bread! Land! Lib­er­ty!”) and became a sub­ject of the new Amer­i­can Com­mon­wealth. A cit­i­zen. When Muñoz Marín sub­mit­ted to Oper­a­tion Boot­strap (“a god­send!”), it was to devel­op indus­try, to breed dol­lars in the arra­bal like pigs and chick­ens, and to send the hard­ened, mori­bund, old-fash­ioned agri­cul­tur­al sec­tor pack­ing. Gabriela was ashamed of the over­crowd­ed Puer­ta de Tier­ra and desired a bet­ter house in a bet­ter dis­trict. She moved to San­turce first, as part of the post­war slum clear­ance pro­gram, and then got relo­cat­ed to a pub­lic hous­ing project in Con­da­do, a res­i­den­ciale where she met Fran­cis­co, a deal­er. Fran­cis­co brought mon­ey, and togeth­er they made chil­dren. The 1960s meant less drag­gy work, a small gar­den court­yard, guns, lots of men around for cards and mofon­go, and life in the black mar­ket. A Mer­cedes parked on the street under the cei­ba tree. Then Fran­cis­co went to jail. 

Gabriela got a job at a phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­ny fil­ing records. She was able to send her daugh­ter to the Uni­ver­si­ty of Puer­to Rico, where she met a red-beard­ed Irish­man in her psy­chol­o­gy class. She brought him home. We’re going to buy the house next door,” Gabriela was told. They’re real­ly cheap right now.” So they bought a lit­tle house with a garage and rehabbed it into a bed and break­fast. Gabriela, now in her six­ties, ran it with her dog Jer­ry while vis­i­tors trooped through: Amer­i­cans, Aus­tralians, Ger­mans, Cana­di­ans, Clarke, Wendy, Rudy, Jacque­line, Rod… It was good mon­ey. Then Irma and Maria vis­it­ed, mak­ing their pay­ments with surge tides and gales. 

Off the grid?

Since the turn of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, the Unit­ed States in Puer­to Rico has, as else­where, been cre­at­ing pro­duc­ers and con­sumers. The con­struc­tion of sub­jec­tiv­i­ties is pow­er­ful and per­va­sive. The ques­tion has been: is it pos­si­ble for local iden­ti­ties to be estab­lished out­side of, and pro­tect­ed from, the glob­al machi­na­tions of cap­i­tal and empire?3 In many small towns in rur­al areas there is a gal­van­ic his­to­ry of polit­i­cal resis­tance with­in the all-con­sum­ing appa­ra­tus of Puer­to Rico’s lib­er­al polit­i­cal econ­o­my. Through­out the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, obvi­ous envi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion, a dete­ri­o­rat­ing qual­i­ty of life, and increas­ing pol­lu­tion led to the devel­op­ment of geo­graph­ic and envi­ron­men­tal plan­ning as strate­gies of oppo­si­tion. A string of activist suc­cess­es occurred, from halt­ing the min­ing of cop­per deposits in the cen­tral and west­ern parts of the island to estab­lish­ing the 1980s Casa Pueblo orga­ni­za­tion, which was devel­oped to lead a cit­i­zen move­ment against pro­pos­als for strip-min­ing. Objec­tions to the pro­pos­al for a super­port on Mona Island, a des­ig­nat­ed nature reserve, were extra­or­di­nar­i­ly effec­tive. Resis­tance to con­tro­ver­sial ener­gy-gen­er­at­ing projects through­out the fol­low­ing decades grew as the impe­ri­al­ist, extrac­tivist pro­pos­als mul­ti­plied. The pro­pos­al for a Cogen­trix cogen­er­a­tion plant in Mayaguez was stopped in the late 1980s, as was anoth­er for an incin­er­a­tion and con­ver­sion plant in the agri­cul­tur­al Coloso Val­ley in Agua­da. Since 2015, envi­ron­men­tal groups have been fight­ing a sim­i­lar devel­op­ment in Areci­bo for an incin­er­a­tion and ener­gy plant that would sig­nif­i­cant­ly impact soils, water resources, and pub­lic health. In the last fif­teen years, two major ener­gy trans­porta­tion projects, the South­ern Pipeline and the North­ern Pipeline, have faced well-orches­trat­ed oppo­si­tion.4 On the basis of their suc­cess­ful resis­tance to envi­ron­men­tal­ly unsound and social­ly unjust projects, many of Puer­to Rico’s envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions have won prizes and awards. The ques­tion at the top of this para­graph has been answered in the affir­ma­tive. Or has it?

The much-crit­i­cized, large-scale sys­tems of the glob­al food indus­try are in fact the source of local food secu­ri­ty in Puer­to Rico. Since eighty per­cent of the island’s edi­ble pro­duce is import­ed from the Unit­ed States, it is a frag­ile secu­ri­ty. The increas­ing abun­dance of import­ed food has caused over­sup­ply, an imbal­ance of ben­e­fits, an inef­fec­tive and envi­ron­men­tal­ly prob­lem­at­ic waste stream, and a host of ille­gal cor­po­rate entan­gle­ments that are dif­fi­cult to unrav­el, even if the glob­al col­lec­tive want­ed to. More impor­tant­ly for the issue of cit­i­zen­ship, Bor­in­queños (native Puer­to Ricans) have become sep­a­rat­ed from the lands that sus­tain their social structure.

By 2017, many Puer­to Ricans were ask­ing if it was pos­si­ble to Live Off the Grid. But things changed rapid­ly from then. Before the arrival of Hur­ri­cane Maria in Sep­tem­ber 2017, before Hur­ri­cane Dori­an in August 2019, before the Decem­ber-Jan­u­ary 2020 earth­quakes, before COVID-19, I had thought the log­ic irre­sistible: that no, if the polit­i­cal econ­o­my of glob­al cap­i­tal encom­pass­es every­thing then, ipso fac­to, you can­not live off the grid. In those days I thought that there is noth­ing exter­nal to the decen­tered and deter­ri­to­ri­al­ized glob­al appa­ra­tus that cre­ates iden­ti­ty and place. This seemed to put Puer­to Rico in an awk­ward position:

Puer­to Rico We want you to hand the pow­er back to us.
Unit­ed States We do not have the pow­er. The pow­er is in the hands of the world finan­cial sys­tem to which we all con­tribute and from which we all benefit.

Then came the sig­nif­i­cant string of events. The cri­sis that result­ed from Hur­ri­cane Maria awak­ened a mon­ster. It became an oppor­tu­ni­ty to envi­sion, imag­ine and rewrite Puer­to Rico,” as activist Rosa Clemente describes it.5 Now, with COVID-19 shak­ing estab­lished foun­da­tions, we can ask what this new, imag­ined com­mu­ni­ty could be? How do we get there? Is there to be a goal with spe­cif­ic objec­tives, a strat­e­gy? Or are we look­ing at some oth­er kind of gen­er­a­tive refor­mu­la­tion of the con­di­tions of life in Puer­to Rico? Will it be like the social protests that have emerged spon­ta­neous­ly in the open-end­ed space of glob­al activism? Clemente demands more rebel­lious behav­ior of her fel­low Bor­in­queños, not script­ed protests” or polit­i­cal the­ater.” She is assertive and direct. Puer­to Ricans in the dias­po­ra, she declares, should come back to Puer­to Rico and fight for water. Water is life.”6 Maria pushed the nee­dle,” Clemente says, and a kind of resub­jec­tiviza­tion is rapid­ly occur­ring. Bor­in­queños on the ground are reori­ent­ing polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion and lead­ing in the recon­struc­tion of the col­lec­tive nation­al nar­ra­tive. Amer­i­cans, they say, want a Puer­to Rico with­out Puer­to Ricans (in order to con­duct busi­ness unop­posed). Puer­to Ricans want a Puer­to Rico without…?

Wow! Yet anoth­er big storm head­ing to Puer­to Rico,” Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump said in a tweet two days before Dori­an hit. Will it ever end?”


Three crit­i­cal, hyper­linked ini­tia­tives are evolv­ing around a new polit­i­cal ecol­o­gy that exist­ed pri­or to Maria, but which the hur­ri­cane crys­tal­lized into a move­ment with an agen­da. Step one: retake the small­hold­ings and rebuild the agroe­co­log­i­cal knowl­edges that drove the pre-Amer­i­can econ­o­my of the high­landers. Shift fresh, organ­ic pro­duce to mar­ket. This is agency. Step two: con­nect the agroe­co­log­i­cal farms scat­tered around the islands to each oth­er, to form an island-wide coali­tion. This is build­ing togeth­er, cre­at­ing the col­lec­tive. Step three: link the endoge­nous gen­er­a­tion of food secu­ri­ty to the strug­gle for polit­i­cal inde­pen­dence. This is resub­jec­tiviza­tion.7

Know­ing that polit­i­cal inde­pen­dence does not imply or cause eco­nom­ic inde­pen­dence, indi­vid­u­als and orga­ni­za­tions already active before hur­ri­cane Maria have since been form­ing a loose net­work of farms and place-based resis­tance groups. For instances, Briga­da Sol­i­daria del Oeste, a com­mu­ni­ty ini­tia­tive self-man­aged by com­rades of dif­fer­ent ages, focus­es on the devel­op­ment of cre­ative spaces through social strug­gle. Ami­gas de MAR, anoth­er exam­ple, is an envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tion found­ed in 1995 with the pur­pose of pro­tect­ing Puer­to Rico’s nat­ur­al resources through edu­ca­tion­al aware­ness and the report­ing of envi­ron­men­tal crimes. 

These groups include hor­ti­cul­tur­al­ists, farm­ers, uni­ver­si­ty researchers, artists, and polit­i­cal activists. They are attract­ing the sci­en­tif­ic and tech­ni­cal sup­port they need to take advan­tage of the fruit­ful capac­i­ty of the local soils and to build logis­tics and infra­struc­ture appro­pri­ate for the dis­tri­b­u­tion of their prod­ucts. A new umbrel­la col­lec­tive, Jun­te­Gente, aims to bring diverse orga­ni­za­tions togeth­er for polit­i­cal action. Its web­site is a vir­tu­al call-to-arms.8 Can­ny, enthu­si­as­tic, eco­log­i­cal entre­pre­neurs are inves­ti­gat­ing new ways to turn Puer­to Rico’s abun­dant nat­ur­al resource into gen­er­a­tors not only of food, but also of ener­gy and clean water. Their goals are to build a healthy, local sup­ply-and-demand econ­o­my with­in the larg­er con­text of glob­al markets. 

An agri­cul­ture-led mod­el of land and labor sov­er­eign­ty has been advanced for decades by La Orga­ni­za­cíon Boricuá de Agri­cul­tura Ecó­log­i­ca, which is a mem­ber of the Cli­mate Jus­tice Alliance. Jesús Vázquez, an ecol­o­gist who works for this agroe­co­log­i­cal group, says: We can feed the peo­ple with sus­tain­able small-scale prac­tices that do not harm the envi­ron­ment, that pro­mote resilience with­in the envi­ron­ment and with­in the com­mu­ni­ty.”9 Orga­ni­za­tions like the Briga­da Sol­i­daria, Ami­gas de MAR, Casa Pueblo in Adjun­tas, and the eco-edu­ca­tion­al Oro­co­va Farm are con­nect­ing the land they cul­ti­vate to the fight for self-deter­mi­na­tion. They want to free their coun­try from for­eign dom­i­na­tion by devel­op­ing food and ener­gy security. 

And they are cre­at­ing an agri­cul­tur­al renais­sance. For the first time in thir­ty years, Puer­to Rican con­sumers are buy­ing rice, veg­eta­bles, plan­tains, and pineap­ples pro­duced on the island. Food is being grown and sold local­ly, keep­ing the mon­ey in Puer­to Rico and estab­lish­ing new net­works of plants and skills. Local demand, a renewed focus on farms from local lead­ers, and increased gov­ern­ment incen­tives are encour­ag­ing fam­i­lies to devel­op their eco­log­i­cal resource base. Accord­ing to the US Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture, more than sev­en­teen hun­dred new farms have begun oper­a­tions — let­tuces, beans, pep­pers, herbs, and oth­er veg­eta­bles are being raised, and cof­fee pro­duc­tion is at a new high.10 Aqua­cul­ture and hydro­pon­ics are being explored. The phys­i­cal foot­print of Agro­pon­i­cos Cosecha farm, for instance, which is locat­ed on a hill­side near Caguas, is very small because no land or soil is required to grow prod­uct. Instead, the tight­ly-packed plant roots receive nutri­tion from a con­stant flow of water fil­tered in three large tanks full of tilapia fish.11 All these new pro­duc­tion units are sup­ply­ing to super­mar­kets, restau­rants, and farm­ers mar­kets — and the num­ber of farm­ers mar­kets tripled from 2012 to 2016


A col­lec­tive vision is slow­ly com­ing into focus, but there is still a way to go. As these com­mu­ni­ties con­nect with each oth­er, they begin the tran­si­tion to an inter­ac­tive exchange and mar­ket econ­o­my that can pro­vide goods and ser­vices in a way that the for­eign invest­ment-dri­ven cap­i­tal econ­o­my of Puer­to Rico can­not.12 But what is this move­ment coher­ing around, if any­thing? I vis­it­ed biol­o­gist Alvia Menen­dez-Ack­er­man in her depart­ment at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Puer­to Rico, Piedras, to see if she could tell me how the gov­ern­ment of Puer­to Rico is sup­port­ing the agrar­i­an renais­sance. She leaned for­ward in her chair. In terms of a plan for Puer­to Rico, most peo­ple are in the dark. There is a lack of trans­paren­cy from the gov­ern­ment, except we can see they still put eco­nom­ic growth first, when it’s real­ly about qual­i­ty of life.”13 Menen­dez-Ack­er­man insist­ed that it is the agrar­i­an col­lec­tiv­i­ties” that are orga­niz­ing to attain inde­pen­dence for the basics such as food, elec­tric­i­ty, and water. At these sites of pow­er (my term, but what the Unit­ed States gov­ern­ment would call crit­i­cal infra­struc­ture”), the rev­o­lu­tion is occur­ring in Puer­to Rico as social and cul­tur­al cap­i­tal is re-made.

Cit­i­zen­ship is not an urban con­di­tion. Even the ancient Greeks, with their ago­ras and town­hous­es, knew this. The basic geo­graph­i­cal unit of Greek life was the deme, a ter­ri­to­ry which focused on the polis but includ­ed both the town and the pro­duc­tive coun­try­side that sup­plied it with food.14 In the Eclogues, Vir­gil gave an account of the rela­tion­ship between the human pas­sions (sub­jec­tiv­i­ty + affect) and the nat­ur­al world. His Geor­gics show how those pas­sions can chan­nel nat­ur­al sys­tems into a spe­cif­ic type of pro­duc­tion through labor. Com­bined, the Eclogues and the Geor­gics give us the agroe­co­log­i­cal: labor + land­scape. Bor­in­queños have found a pro­gram to make them­selves into cit­i­zens of their own envi­ron­ment. It’s not a ques­tion of local­ism. The local is a west­ern idea. The refor­mu­la­tion of Puer­to Rico’s rela­tion­ship to the pro­duc­tive ecolo­gies in which it is embed­ded is an auto­cat­alyt­ic rec­i­p­ro­ca­tion-based agri­cul­ture that exists inside the demo­c­ra­t­ic mod­el of life. It puts pres­sure on neolib­er­al ver­sions of democ­ra­cy and cit­i­zen­ship that legit­imize extrac­tive and unsus­tain­able resource use and ignore alter­na­tive mod­els of social orga­ni­za­tion.15

Shared projects can cre­ate a bond among his­tor­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent peo­ple if their dif­fer­ences are respect­ed. We move from indi­vid­ual iden­ti­ty through shared projects to mul­ti-cen­tered forms of gov­er­nance where cit­i­zen­ship is exer­cised at diverse lev­els and in a mul­ti­plic­i­ty of ways. The Puer­to Rican exper­i­ment is not a return to sub­sis­tence liv­ing. Rather, it is a re-artic­u­la­tion of the resource base in a new con­fig­u­ra­tion, as a net­worked, soft infra­struc­ture of goods mapped on to the exist­ing mar­ket econ­o­my and work­ing with­in the exist­ing insti­tu­tion­al field. By con­struct­ing new land use prac­tices and new sub­jec­tiv­i­ties, farm­ers hope to sub­vert the exist­ing con­fig­u­ra­tions of pow­er. Through per­sis­tence and the devel­op­ment of well-con­struct­ed inter­ven­tions, a com­mon polit­i­cal ecol­o­gy can be com­posed based on dif­fer­ence and activism, on inter­ac­tion and negotiation.

Such a project is in no way guar­an­teed, though. It is cru­cial that the growth-dri­ven tech­niques of cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion are not re-inscribed in the social ecol­o­gy of Puer­to Rico as a nation­al strat­e­gy for decol­o­niza­tion. The machin­ery of impe­ri­al­ism can nev­er be deployed for anti-impe­ri­al­ist objec­tives. More­over, the out­comes of mul­ti-evo­lu­tion­ary, self-gen­er­at­ing oper­a­tions can­not be pre­dict­ed. Per­haps a strat­e­gy that incor­po­rates bifur­ca­tions in its schemat­ic plan­ning can devel­op a robust­ness — an eager­ness, even — for unpre­dictable events. Like rain­forests and wet­lands, these agroe­co­log­i­cal sys­tems may just thrive on dis­tur­bance. And then there is the big ques­tion of whether the refor­mu­la­tion of impe­r­i­al struc­tures of man­age­ment and con­trol can real­ly be achieved through self-orga­ni­za­tion. While the les­son of the Arab Spring might seem to be no,” we need not accept that insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion is imperative.

Instead of gen­er­al­iz­ing from these lim­it­ed exam­ples, we should allow our­selves to become enchant­ed by their poten­tial. Fol­low­ing Chan­tal Mouffe, we can say that Puer­to Ricans are iden­ti­fy­ing nodal points of pow­er” and re-arrang­ing them into new assem­blages.16 They are call­ing on their peo­ple to be involved at diverse and mul­ti­ple nodes of pro­duc­tion in order to trans­form them into new geo­gra­phies of pow­er. They are re-design­ing their polit­i­cal ecol­o­gy from with­in, over­turn­ing the colo­nial pro­gram of respa­tial­iza­tion that occurred through­out the 19th and 20th cen­turies.17


But any project that sets out to achieve self-deter­mi­na­tion must come to terms with two para­dox­es of sov­er­eign­ty that under­mine this attempt. The Puer­to Rican soberanistas (the fastest-grow­ing polit­i­cal move­ment in the coun­try) seek full sov­er­eign­ty” with­in a rede­fined rela­tion­ship with the Unit­ed States. Sov­er­eign­ty is seen by many as the only pos­si­ble option for inde­pen­dence and self-real­iza­tion. In the pre­vi­ous sec­tion, I argued that the evolv­ing polit­i­cal ecol­o­gy in Puer­to Rico, based on inter­ac­tion and nego­ti­a­tion, must avoid the re-insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion, indeed the re-west­ern­iza­tion, the auto-exploita­tion, that lurks with­in all efforts at free asso­ci­a­tion. Now I sug­gest that, to do this, it has to aban­don the con­cept of sov­er­eign­ty. Why? First, there is the trag­ic dou­ble-bind, to which I have already allud­ed: the sto­ry of Gabriela Moreno traces the process­es of sub­jec­tiviza­tion that bring indi­vid­u­als to bind them­selves to their own iden­ti­ties at the same time as to the all-encom­pass­ing struc­tures of exter­nal pow­er.18 Sec­ond, mod­ern sov­er­eign­ty, as exem­pli­fied by the US, con­structs a we” that is not inclu­sive, because it is found­ed on an excep­tion­al­ism that places the sov­er­eign con­di­tion out­side the order of con­trol with­in which it seeks to work.

Land is at the heart of my argu­ment. Any project that strives for polit­i­cal auton­o­my is ulti­mate­ly about land: who owns it, who its cus­to­di­ans are, who dis­trib­utes its resources. The sit­u­a­tion in Puer­to Rico reminds me of the Maori renais­sance” that occurred in Aotearoa/​New Zealand in the 1970s and 1980s. In her book Maori Sov­er­eign­ty, Don­na Awa­tere set out the plat­form for Maori resis­tance. The move­ment was pop­ulist and left­ist. But nei­ther trade unions, nor the polit­i­cal left, nor fem­i­nism, nor even the strug­gle of Pacif­ic island nations could pro­vide use­ful out­comes for the Maori sov­er­eign­ty move­ment in Aotearoa. Why? Because, Awa­tere argued, they are all prod­ucts — even as Pacif­ic island pop­u­la­tions — of white cul­tur­al impe­ri­al­ism.”19 All white peo­ples are cap­tives of their own cul­ture, she assert­ed, and Maori are engaged in an epic war” with them that will set them — yes, white peo­ple — free. Awa­tere had a bat­tle plan that would con­front the weapons of white set­tler soci­ety: indi­vid­u­al­ism, his­to­ry-as-progress, spa­tial­iza­tion of time, use-val­ue, pri­vate prop­er­ty, Chris­tian­i­ty, mechan­i­cal mate­ri­al­ism, and so on. Want­i­ng sov­er­eign­ty, Awa­tere made very clear, is want­i­ng to be like white peo­ple. And, deep down, even white peo­ple don’t want that.

It is not coin­ci­den­tal that Pres­i­dent Trump’s A nation with­out bor­ders is not a nation” was first spo­ken by Ronald Rea­gan. It is an expres­sion of the sov­er­eign impulse that Reagan’s pro­gram for glob­al­iza­tion exem­pli­fied. Awatere’s white peo­ple” had invent­ed sov­er­eign­ty in ear­ly mod­ern Europe, a geopo­lit­i­cal frame­work that assumed most social cat­e­gories are eter­nal and spa­tial­ly con­sis­tent. The idea of sov­er­eign­ty based the rule of law in the pow­er of a monarch, the sov­er­eign, whose author­i­ty came from God. When in 1790 the Unit­ed States con­gress trans­ferred this author­i­ty to the peo­ple, to cit­i­zens,” it defined a cit­i­zen as a free, white per­son” who had resided in the US for two years.20 The bur­geon­ing set­tler soci­ety envi­sioned prop­er­ty as some­thing owned by white indi­vid­u­als, and native soci­eties as dis­ap­pear­ing with­in an evolv­ing project of land acqui­si­tion. Black peo­ple were legal­ly regard­ed not as per­sons but as prop­er­ty. The idea of sov­er­eign­ty there­fore encom­pass­es at its heart prin­ci­ples and assump­tions inim­i­cal to the tran­si­tion from decol­o­niza­tion to self-deter­mi­na­tion. In the prin­ci­ple of sov­er­eign­ty, colo­nial­ism is per­pet­u­at­ed. And colo­nial­ism per­pet­u­ates the double-bind.

But there’s more: mul­ti-eth­nic biopo­lit­i­cal trans­for­ma­tions, such as that which the com­mon­wealth of Puer­to Rico is under­go­ing, have to take account of retic­u­lat­ed indige­nous his­to­ries.21 Indige­nous his­tor­i­cal expe­ri­ence is not mono­lith­ic. Great diver­si­ty is dis­cov­er­able in the rela­tions between indige­nous peo­ples and the land­scapes they man­age.22 Pri­or to con­tem­po­rary social infra­struc­tures (phys­i­cal, lin­guis­tic, aes­thet­ic), the his­to­ries of land­scapes are there­fore already mul­ti­ple, and from the con­tem­po­rary per­spec­tive large­ly unknow­able. For hun­dreds of years the move­ment through Puer­to Rico of Taino, Carib, African, Span­ish, Eng­lish, and French peo­ple has been dis­tort­ed by the lens of a sin­gle nar­ra­tive: Puer­to Ricans are one peo­ple. This nar­ra­tive of Puer­to Rican uni­ty is often said to have grown from the three roots” of its cul­ture and soci­ety — Taino, Span­ish, African — to flower into a uni­fy­ing ide­al of nation­hood. Each group, how­ev­er, has its own inter­pre­ta­tion of geo­gra­phies and his­to­ries. This makes the nation­al dis­course flu­id and evo­lu­tion­ary, sub­ject to nego­ti­a­tion and recon­struc­tion, depend­ing on who is speak­ing. That’s why some Puer­to Ricans are build­ing a mul­ti­vari­ate island dis­course com­pris­ing the dif­fer­ent his­to­ries and dif­fer­ent voic­es that were con­struct­ed under con­di­tions of colo­nial­ism and imperialism. 

As a con­cept that implies sin­gu­lar­i­ty rather than mul­ti­plic­i­ty, sov­er­eign­ty would instan­ti­ate the we are one peo­ple” nar­ra­tive, even as the peo­ple of Puer­to Rico reclaim their blend­ed his­to­ries, and Afro Lati­no, Lat­inx and Nuy­or­i­can Taina iden­ti­ties come out of the shad­ows of glob­al­iza­tion. In the US the peo­ple” speak through the medi­um of rep­re­sen­ta­tion, where dif­fer­ence is flat­tened and active trans­for­ma­tion crim­i­nal­ized. Puer­to Rico is an island of con­tin­gen­cies, ambiva­lences, specifics, micro-sys­tems, autopoei­sis. It should pre­serve its sen­si­tiv­i­ty to small events and use this to build resilience in the face of large ones. 

Here’s the issue. Puer­to Rico’s vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty has been explic­it­ly pro­duced by invest­ment banks, sov­er­eign wealth funds, inter­na­tion­al agribusi­ness­es and forestry cor­po­ra­tions. The banks and cor­po­ra­tions of sov­er­eign nations have lent the coun­try bil­lions of dol­lars so that its gov­ern­ment can pay the very same banks and cor­po­ra­tions bil­lions to build infra­struc­ture to improve the liv­ing con­di­tions of its peo­ple. It is sov­er­eign­ty that has pro­duced an eco­nom­ic poli­ty in Puer­to Rico, by con­struct­ing a col­lec­tive sub­jec­tiv­i­ty trained to speak a glob­al lan­guage of com­merce, find­ing it amenable that the clus­ter indus­tries are invit­ed to move their address­es to the com­mon­wealth and receive a 4% tax rate and tax-free div­i­dends in return. In 2018 a nation­al dis­course devel­oped that thought the cryp­to-cur­ren­cy Puer­topia” shilled by blockchain mil­lion­aires would be good for a frag­ile, emer­gent polit­i­cal ecol­o­gy. But the blockchain mil­lion­aires were only there for tax relief and land. Lots of sun-filled trop­i­cal land.

If we frame the con­tem­po­rary prob­lem fac­ing the arch­i­pel­ago as root­ed in the rela­tion­ship between the peo­ple and the ecosys­tems that sus­tain them, it should be here that we look for a rad­i­cal recon­sti­tu­tion of the unin­cor­po­rat­ed ter­ri­to­ry of Puer­to Rico as self-deter­min­ing and inde­pen­dent. I have sug­gest­ed that auton­o­my is pos­si­ble only on the basis of a refor­mu­la­tion of the rela­tion­ship between Puer­to Ricans and the matrix of envi­ron­men­tal sys­tems with which they inter­act in the most glob­al and the most inti­mate of ways. The trans­for­ma­tion has begun, with the devel­op­ment of dozens of sites of pow­er across the islands. (Sites of pow­er are what I call those places scat­tered across the arch­i­pel­ago where Bor­in­queños are devel­op­ing eco­a­gri­cul­tur­al farms and orchards and mov­ing their pro­duce to local markets.) 

Envi­ron­men­tal self-deter­mi­na­tion does not require that land be owned. In fact, shared envi­ron­men­tal wealth can become the very basis of pro­duc­tion. Even now, the social and polit­i­cal projects emerg­ing in Puer­to Rico defy the rule of pri­vate prop­er­ty and pro­mote the rights of the com­mon — open and equal access to resources based on small groups and com­mu­ni­ties focused on spe­cif­ic issues. This is exact­ly what that con­fed­er­a­tion of mil­len­ni­als men­tioned ear­li­er is doing: cre­at­ing comu­nidad espe­ciales or tem­po­rary autonomous zones,23 form­ing orga­ni­za­tions such as Lib­er­tad Red, a rout­ing cen­ter for resis­tant orga­ni­za­tions, and the Our Pow­er Sol­i­dar­i­ty Brigade, focused on food, labor and ener­gy inde­pen­dence, or DeMos, a col­lec­tive of teach­ers and pro­fes­sors of UPR Cayey that denounces the nefar­i­ous impact of the aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures imposed” by an unelect­ed Fis­cal Con­trol Board,” and Guak­iá Colec­ti­vo Agroecológi­co, whose mis­sion is to pro­duce food and tech­nol­o­gy learn­ing expe­ri­ences acces­si­ble to the Puer­to Rico community. 

Already, then, sites of pow­er are becom­ing held in com­mon by the peo­ple who par­tic­i­pate in their devel­op­ment. Not pri­vate, not pub­lic, but shared by all, and par­tic­i­pat­ed in by those who wish to join. The wealth of the eco­log­i­cal com­mon can build nov­el mate­r­i­al, social, affec­tive and cog­ni­tive mech­a­nisms through the pro­duc­tion of new cul­tur­al epis­te­molo­gies. With the con­trol and man­age­ment of the land comes the con­trol and man­age­ment of organ­ic life, which is the bio­log­i­cal basis of liveli­hoods. Maori knew that own­er­ship of their land would be crit­i­cal to the estab­lish­ment of auton­o­my and inde­pen­dence. When they won back their con­fis­cat­ed ter­ri­to­ries, the they” in each case was a trib­al orga­ni­za­tion, not indi­vid­u­als. The tribes now own and man­age trib­al land. Maori knew this. Métis know this, Lako­ta know this, Rohingya Mus­lims know this, African Amer­i­cans know this. (Mal­colm X, speak­ing in 1963: Rev­o­lu­tion is based on land. Land is the basis of all inde­pen­dence. Land is the basis of free­dom, jus­tice and equal­i­ty.”24) Puer­to Rican soberanistas know this. But how can sov­er­eign­ty be the goal of rev­o­lu­tion if sov­er­eign­ty itself is based on a land-own­er­ship feal­ty that is at the heart of injus­tice, mal­prac­tice and for­eign control?

Caribbean anthro­pol­o­gist Yari­ma Bonilla’s research points in the direc­tion of divest­ment. We should not think of places like Puer­to Rico as sites that need to achieve sov­er­eign­ty through post­colo­nial­ism, she says, but as places that can unset­tle how we think of sov­er­eign­ty itself, where alter­na­tive polit­i­cal frame­works, mov­ing beyond sov­er­eign­ty, are both nec­es­sary and inevitable.25 Let us, then, recon­sid­er the idea of the com­mons, of land held in com­mon, of a com­mu­ni­ty that is com­posed or pro­duced through the devel­op­ment of open and equal access to health, edu­ca­tion and liveli­hood. It is through a con­sid­er­a­tion of how to for­mu­late a com­mon that we can rescript the project of sovereignty.

Envi­ron­men­tal Design

Self-deter­mi­na­tion, mul­tira­cial­ism, envi­ron­men­tal man­age­ment, land rights, polit­i­cal change … these con­cerns con­tribute to the evo­lu­tion­ary prac­tices of envi­ron­men­tal design. Land­scape archi­tec­ture is an exam­ple of a polit­i­cal­ly-moti­vat­ed design pro­fes­sion. Forged in 2016, the Cul­tur­al Land­scape Foundation’s New Land­scape Dec­la­ra­tion states that land­scape archi­tects can build a new iden­ti­ty for soci­ety as a con­struc­tive part of nature.”26 No longer inde­pen­dent of nature, but co-con­struct­ing plan­et Earth, social­ly-engaged design prac­tices are chang­ing away from the idea of human sov­er­eign­ty itself. New intel­lec­tu­al and cog­ni­tive frame­works are being built, and the eco­log­i­cal con­di­tion of nonsov­er­eign auton­o­my requires design­ers to work with­in the sys­tems they are help­ing to refor­mu­late, in a kind of crit­i­cal immer­sion. The new breed of envi­ron­men­tal design­ers under­stands that humans are not sep­a­rate from their envi­ron­ment but are pro­duced in time and space along with it. Polit­i­cal ecol­o­gists by train­ing, land­scape archi­tects know first­hand that social and polit­i­cal issues are spa­tial issues. And, con­verse­ly, that ter­ri­to­r­i­al issues are biopo­lit­i­cal issues. The new empha­sis on the social inter­ac­tion of spa­tial, tem­po­ral and eco­log­i­cal con­di­tions pro­vides a way to think about pow­er con­crete­ly and geo­graph­i­cal­ly — as embed­ded in spa­tial prac­tices. We now know that prof­it-dri­ven social pro­grams (such as the devel­op­ment of old-school infra­struc­ture and the pri­va­ti­za­tion of shared space) can rad­i­cal­ly affect the com­po­si­tion and evo­lu­tion of com­mu­ni­ties. But social inequities must be addressed through design strate­gies that are more than spa­tial, since they involve the influ­ence of non-spa­tial deci­sions about the trad­ing of stocks and shares, and the edu­ca­tion of peoples. 

Still, for envi­ron­men­tal design to be an effec­tive agent in the con­nec­tion of sites of pow­er to polit­i­cal self-deter­mi­na­tion requires com­mit­ment to rad­i­cal new tech­niques of design inves­ti­ga­tion. It requires a cri­tique, even, of design epis­te­molo­gies. First, the pro­fes­sion needs to re-exam­ine con­cepts such as com­mu­ni­ty, agency, social cap­i­tal, par­tic­i­pa­to­ry design, pow­er, civ­il soci­ety, and ecol­o­gy (and many land­scape archi­tects are doing just this). Sec­ond, to assist with the evo­lu­tion of per­ma­nent — not tem­po­rary — autonomous zones it must avoid and protest the instru­men­tal deliv­ery of envi­ron­men­tal design ser­vices that pro­vi­sion com­mu­ni­ties with quick­ly nat­u­ral­ized forms of con­sump­tion. Third, it must resist the spa­tial prac­tices of leg­is­la­tors whose prof­it motives mar­gin­al­ize whole peo­ples. Fourth, the envi­ron­men­tal design dis­ci­plines must link with oth­er activists and resis­tors to achieve gen­uine sites of pow­er in a col­lec­tive, sus­tained engage­ment with sys­tems, spaces and peo­ples. It’s not just about small pock­ets of agroe­col­o­gy pro­duc­tion units sup­ply­ing farm-to-table restau­rants and local con­sumers. As the Puer­to Rico Brigades are well aware, they can­not build a 21st cen­tu­ry econ­o­my on that. 

Ulti­mate­ly, in Puer­to Rico as around the globe, it is not so much phys­i­cal sites of pow­er that need to be designed, as the new agroe­co­cul­tur­al econ­o­my that these embody and exchange goods and ser­vices with­in. butdo you design a land-based shar­ing econ­o­my with­in the glob­al con­text of mass food pro­duc­tion, on-call ener­gy sup­ply, mass tourism, cli­mate change, dias­po­ra social­ism and increas­ing nation­al­ism; in mar­kets that don’t respect sea­son­al­i­ty; in an econ­o­my that par­tic­i­pates in the glob­al crush, but is dri­ven by the spe­cif­ic needs and prac­tices of a high­ly-net­worked local eco­a­gri­cul­tur­al polit­i­cal ecol­o­gy? How can archi­tects, land­scape archi­tects and urban design­ers do this? Are there models?

Of course, there are mod­els for Puer­to Rico’s sites of pow­er all over the world, where envi­ron­men­tal cadres are reclaim­ing the rights of pro­duc­tion through land use.27 It’s not a ques­tion of mod­els, how­ev­er, for the very idea of a mod­el implies the prob­lem of the copy. The autopo­et­ic process I pro­mote is by def­i­n­i­tion endoge­nous­ly-gen­er­at­ed — it comes from with­in. This is why, when con­sid­er­ing oth­er people’s for­mu­lae, we should stick close­ly to our own prove­nance, our own, deep, braid­ed sense of becom­ing. Exact­ly to what extent Puer­to Rican sites of pow­er can unplug from the Great Grid of geopo­lit­i­cal trade and eco­nom­ics is a mat­ter for the Brigades to decide. Land­scape archi­tects can bring their extra­or­di­nary sen­si­tiv­i­ty to the design — or we should say, rearrange­ment — of sys­tems, of mul­ti­plic­i­ties, to the project. As Panthea Lee of Reboot says, It’s not about the design of prod­ucts or things, but the man­age­ment of systems:

I think the chal­lenge with a lot of these prod­ucts is that peo­ple say, We’ve gone in and done our research. We under­stand the local con­text.’ And then they go and design some­thing for that exist­ing con­text: Oh, there’s no ener­gy, there’s no clean water.’ That’s a good tem­po­rary solu­tion but… why don’t peo­ple have clean water? Why are peo­ple hun­gry? Some­one said, Let’s make this emer­gency food with nutri­ents so peo­ple can have just one meal a day.’ That’s not a solu­tion!28

What sys­tems are we talk­ing about? The same ones that Gabriela Moreno’s great grand­par­ents lived and farmed with­in. If the goal of a suc­cess­ful eco­a­gri­cul­tur­al econ­o­my is the pro­duc­tion of com­mon wealth from sus­tain­able activ­i­ties deploy­ing base­line knowl­edge and exper­tise, there is no bet­ter place to look than the tra­di­tion­al gar­dens of the Bor­in­queños in the west­ern high­lands of 19th cen­tu­ry Puer­to Rico. In places like Utu­a­do, where San­dra Farms con­tin­ues to grow cof­fee, and Oro­co­vis, where Dal­ma Carteg­na oper­ates an agri­cul­ture edu­ca­tion pro­gram teach­ing stu­dents the prac­ti­cal skills of agroe­col­o­gy. In these fer­tile ter­ri­to­ries tra­di­tion­al farm­ing prac­tices actu­al­ly pro­duced knowl­edge along with crops. Knowl­edge of three tier farm­ing — cof­fee trees bear­ing heav­i­ly in the shade of the plan­tains; of sup­ple­men­tary pro­duc­tion — tobac­co grow­ing for sale to vil­lagers; of recy­cling and nutri­tion — those pigs and chick­ens. These gar­dens required no machin­ery or cap­i­tal and had low pro­duc­tion costs. This social­ized exper­tise devel­oped with­in a fab­ric of shared knowl­edges and norms of behav­ior, lan­guages, habits, under­stand­ing and trust (Canario, African and mes­ti­zo kids chas­ing chick­ens for the pot). But it can­not and should not be mim­ic­ked. Today’s par­a­digms of cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion raise com­pli­cat­ed para­dox­es of reg­u­la­tion and con­trol that the Puer­to Rican comu­nidad espe­ciales must con­front if they are to suc­ceed in refor­mu­lat­ing the whole island as a pro­duc­tive unit based on the autonomous orga­ni­za­tion of social cooperation. 

The role of envi­ron­men­tal design is infra­struc­tur­al and logis­ti­cal. The cur­rent nexus of pri­vate cor­po­ra­tions, over­seas share­hold­ers, for­eign exper­tise, and dis­tant mar­kets has grad­u­al­ly to be replaced by a lan­guage of land­scape infra­struc­ture, using land­scape both as an aes­thet­ic form of expres­sion, and a medi­um of social pro­duc­tion through the real­lo­ca­tion of nat­ur­al resources. Logis­tics is the key to the con­trol of ter­ri­to­ry, par­tic­u­lar­ly the sup­ply of oper­a­tional ener­gy.29 Can’t we imag­ine a col­lab­o­ra­tive for­mu­la­tion of land­scape infra­struc­ture that replaces the unholy mar­riage of urban plan­ning and large-scale engi­neer­ing that have caused so much destruc­tion in Puer­to Rico? This new polit­i­cal ecol­o­gy will require a diver­si­fi­ca­tion of eco­nom­ic hubs and col­lec­tors, the decen­tral­iza­tion of Puer­to Rico’s ragged ser­vice infra­struc­ture, and the appro­pri­a­tion of admin­is­tra­tive oper­at­ing sys­tems by net­worked sites of power. 

The pass­ing of infra­struc­tur­al ser­vice pro­vi­sion to land­scape-based sys­tems involves the re-bundling and redesign of these sys­tems. My study of small-scale land-based pro­duc­tion economies in dif­fer­ent coun­tries with wild­ly dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances tells me that if you have these things: fer­tile land, an abun­dant water source, con­stant ener­gy, skilled labor, three-tier farm­ing, effi­cient recy­cling, mobil­i­ty, and net­work com­mu­ni­ca­tions, then in order to cre­ate a biopo­lit­i­cal agroe­con­o­my you need these things: mar­ket devel­op­ment, trans­porta­tion, stor­age sys­tems, diverse means of pro­duc­tion to divide work accord­ing to sea­son­al rhythms, affec­tive land­scape expres­sion. Land­scape archi­tec­ture pro­vides the infra­struc­ture design to enable the reor­ga­ni­za­tion of Puer­to Rico’s bru­tal colo­nial indus­tri­al lega­cy into a respon­sive, local­ized, and fis­cal­ly effec­tive form of life, based on the inte­grat­ed devel­op­ment of sites of power.


In sum­ma­ry, the land-based polit­i­cal agen­da I have out­lined for Puer­to Rico goes like this. Build agroe­co­log­i­cal knowl­edge by cre­at­ing sites of pow­er. Devel­op a land­scape infra­struc­ture that con­nects these pro­duc­tion units to each oth­er in an island-wide coali­tion. Mate­ri­al­ize the strug­gle for inde­pen­dence by rescript­ing the project of sov­er­eign­ty as the design of a com­mon polit­i­cal ecol­o­gy based on ter­ri­to­r­i­al control. 

Land is the engine of cit­i­zen­ship and self-deter­mi­na­tion. Land is power.


By Cruz Gar­cia & Nathalie Frankows­ki / WAI Archi­tec­ture Think Tank

Post-Colo­nial Land­scapes at the end of work

Against the per­pet­u­al reimag­i­na­tion of dis­pos­sessed ter­ri­to­ries, the fol­low­ing obser­va­tions work on one side, as a man­u­al about how not to address a colony, and on the oth­er, about how to allow for the gen­er­a­tion of sub­ver­sive imag­i­nar­ies pro­duced by its sub­jects, and protagonists. 

Divid­ed in three points, this doc­u­ment is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly a cri­tique of ide­ol­o­gy and a post-colo­nial manifesto. 


Puer­to Rico is Post-Colo­nial, not postcolonial.

Achille Mbe­m­be iden­ti­fies that the post­colony is made up of a series of cor­po­rate insti­tu­tions and a polit­i­cal machin­ery which, once they are in place, con­sti­tute a dis­tinc­tive régime of vio­lence” and is char­ac­ter­ized by a dis­tinc­tive style of polit­i­cal impro­vi­sa­tion, by a ten­den­cy to excess and a lack of pro­por­tion as well as by dis­tinc­tive ways in which iden­ti­ties are mul­ti­plied, trans­formed, and put into cir­cu­la­tion.”30

Adopt­ing and depart­ing from Mbembe’s def­i­n­i­tion, we have come to iden­ti­fy the term post-colo­nial (in its hyphen­at­ed ver­sion) to describe the poten­tial fab­ri­ca­tion of archi­tec­tur­al nar­ra­tives and eman­ci­pa­to­ry imag­i­nar­ies under the sup­pres­sive appa­ra­tus of col­o­nized ter­ri­to­ries.31 In Puer­to Rico, the post-colo­nial as a spec­u­la­tive act of mak­ing takes the place of the his­tor­i­cal anti-colo­nial strug­gle and reimag­ines glob­al process­es of sol­i­dar­i­ty and sub­sis­tence under an oppres­sive system.

While the advent of post­colo­nial the­o­ry” may have tak­en place in the 1970s and 1980s, now is the time for Post-Colo­nial Imag­i­nar­ies.32


Col­o­niza­tion is a par­a­site that designs death and destruction.

When we speak of col­o­niza­tion, we are in real­i­ty describ­ing a par­a­sitic con­di­tion.33 Col­o­niza­tion doesn’t pro­duce com­modi­ties, nor does it pro­duce social rela­tions, minds, val­ues, norms, desires, and bod­ies”. Col­o­niza­tion is nev­er lib­er­al and less despot­ic. Instead col­o­niza­tion impos­es, extracts, manip­u­lates, alters, adul­ter­ates, and destroys. Col­o­niza­tion is bru­tal and vio­lent. Its after­math is death and destruction.

Like archi­tec­ture, envi­ron­men­tal design is not inher­ent­ly good. In Puer­to Rico, via more than five hun­dred years of bru­tal colo­nial rule, design has dis­em­pow­ered a pop­u­la­tion that remains with­out true demo­c­ra­t­ic rep­re­sen­ta­tion and that every time los­es more con­trol over its own land. In that sense, all its ecolo­gies have been in the midst of polit­i­cal strug­gles for more than half a mil­len­ni­um. Design is found not only in the resilient agri­cul­tur­al ini­tia­tives around the arch­i­pel­ago, but also in the aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures imposed by an unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic Fis­cal Con­trol Board, in the uneth­i­cal laws that pri­va­tize nat­ur­al resources and pub­lic pro­grams to turn them into expend­able com­modi­ties, in the schemes that make it cheap­er to import frozen pro­duce from main­land US than to grow it local­ly, in the legal appa­ra­tus that obstructs the archipelago’s capac­i­ty to trade with sol­idary neigh­bors, in the state of sur­veil­lance and polic­ing that pro­tects a lega­cy of pri­vate prop­er­ty dat­ing back to the plan­ta­tion that has trans­ferred today to local land­lords, own­ers of shop­ping malls and mass media, to the gov­ern­men­tal and pri­vate investors in the busi­ness of Gore Cap­i­tal­ism, and to Amer­i­can and multi­na­tion­al cor­po­rate interests. 

In the same way that we must decol­o­nize archi­tec­ture (not in a metaphor­i­cal way), eman­ci­pa­to­ry forms of envi­ron­men­tal design can only exist as sharp weapons to cut the ten­ta­cles of the Cthul­hu that is the hybrid between col­o­niza­tion and capitalism. 


Lazy land­scapes against the colo­nial gaze

Can we learn some­thing from the world’s old­est colony with­out the racial­iz­ing colo­nial gaze? Can a true study of ecolo­gies be exe­cut­ed with­out recur­ring to colo­nial tropes on the con­struc­tion of race that avoids true eman­ci­pat­ing engage­ment and sub­ver­sions of ide­ol­o­gy? Can the trop­ics be stud­ied with­out the fetishis­tic objec­ti­fi­ca­tion of its peo­ple? If it’s true that in the prin­ci­ple of sov­er­eign­ty, colo­nial­ism is per­pet­u­at­ed, the racial­iz­ing gaze and with it the read­ing of ter­ri­to­ries through the lens of hege­mon­ic dis­course proves to be an equal­ly prob­lem­at­ic issue to over­come. Can oth­er forms of kyn­i­cal, sub­ver­sive, utopi­an nar­ra­tives acknowl­edge how the new post-colo­nial imag­i­nar­ies would have to oper­ate with­in a régime of designed scarci­ty? Would the plat­forms that legit­imize knowl­edge open up their ivory gates to allow for the con­struc­tion of uncom­fort­able nar­ra­tives? Would new the­o­ries of land­scape acknowl­edge that under the rule of necrop­ol­i­tics fer­tile land, water, ener­gy, labor force, farm­ing, recy­cling, mobil­i­ty, net­work com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nolo­gies are tools that facil­i­tate and accel­er­ate exploita­tion? Would these the­o­ries estab­lish the con­nec­tions between con­tem­po­rary regimes of death and the bru­tal rule that in search of deli­cious­ness and plea­sure turned Puer­to Rico (as well as the rest of the colonies in the Caribbean) into a plan­ta­tion of sug­ar, tobac­co, cof­fee, Via­gra, and Xanax? Because in the king­dom of fla­vor, pro­duc­tive ecolo­gies are the per­fect tool for exploita­tion, new post-colo­nial land­scapes must strive in their use­less­ness to the empire, as they dis­guise behind lay­ers of obso­les­cence and unpro­duc­tiv­i­ty. Instead of polit­i­cal land­scapes of resilience, entre­pre­neur­ship, and com­mod­i­fi­able suf­fer­ing, post-colo­nial sub­ver­sions should be will­ing to strive in ter­ri­to­ries of lazi­ness, escap­ing the grips of labor, and demol­ish­ing the goals of end­less growth and cap­i­tal­ism. At the end of the day the archi­tec­ture of these new nar­ra­tives would have to out­line, col­lage, recite, and assem­ble post-colo­nial land­scapes at the end of work. 



James Clif­ford, Returns: Becom­ing Indige­nous in the Twen­ty-First Cen­tu­ry (Cam­bridge, MA: Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2013), 14.


In 1897, the Span­ish Queen Regent, Maria Christi­na, signed the Autonomous Char­ter grant­i­ng Puer­to Rico more self-gov­ern­ment than ever before or after. See Jorge Duany, Puer­to Rico: What Every­one Needs to Know (Oxford, Eng­land: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2017), 40.


Hardt and Negri have ded­i­cat­ed a book to this ques­tion. See Michael Hardt and Anto­nio Negri, Empire (Cam­bridge, MA: Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2000), 32.


Har­ri­son Flo­res Ortiz, Brief Envi­ron­men­tal His­to­ry of Puer­to Rico: https://​encilo​pe​di​apr​.org. Last accessed 3/20/2018.


https://​www​.youtube​.com/​w​a​t​c​h​?​v​=​W​c​-​f​d​J​E​I​2​c​E​&​t=45s. Last accessed 01/03/2018. See also Nao­mi Klein, This Changes Every­thing: Cap­i­tal­ism vs. The Cli­mate (New York, NY: Simon and Schus­ter, 2014).


Through­out the 20th cen­tu­ry, Puer­to Ricans migrat­ed to the con­ti­nen­tal Unit­ed States, par­tic­u­lar­ly to Flori­da and New York. These natives and their chil­dren and grand­chil­dren are the dias­po­ra.”


Badiou said that you do not become a sub­ject until you have a project. Alain Badiou, Being and Event (Lon­don, Eng­land: Con­tin­u­um, 2007).




Inter­view at the #ITR Action Camp: https://​www​.youtube​.com/​w​a​t​c​h​?​v​=​r​r​2​H​U​V​Wq6mc. Last accessed 07/23/2018.


NBC News: www​.nbc​news​.com/​n​e​w​s​/​l​a​t​i​n​o​/​p​u​e​r​t​o​-​r​i​c​o​-​e​x​p​e​r​i​e​n​c​e​s​-​a​g​r​i​c​u​l​t​u​r​a​l​-​r​e​n​a​i​s​s​a​n​c​e​-​n​656001. Hur­ri­canes Irma and Maria and COVID-19 have dent­ed this revival somewhat.


Alan Yuhas, Colony, State or Inde­pen­dence: Puer­to Rico’s sta­tus anx­i­ety adds to debt cri­sis,” The Guardian (July 72015).


Dan Lyons calls this stake­hold­er cap­i­tal­ism.” See Dan Lyons, Lab Rats: Why Mod­ern Work Makes Peo­ple Mis­er­able (Lon­don, Eng­land: Atlantic Books, 2019).


Per­son­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the author at the Col­lege of Nat­ur­al Sci­ence, Uni­ver­si­ty of Puer­to Rico at Piedras (Decem­ber 292017).


Rod Bar­nett, Emer­gence in Land­scape Archi­tec­ture (Lon­don, Eng­land: Rout­ledge, 2013), 136.


In Bruno Latour’s terms, Bor­in­queños are redefin­ing the local by divest­ing it of the reac­tionary. See Bruno Latour, Down to Earth, trans. Cather­ine Porter (Cam­bridge, Eng­land: Poli­ty Press, 2018), 38 – 45.


Chan­tal Mouffe, Ago­nis­tics: Think­ing the World Polit­i­cal­ly (Lon­don, Eng­land, and New York, NY: Ver­so, 2013).


Adam J. Bark­er, (Re-)Ordering the New World: Set­tler colo­nial­ism, space and iden­ti­ty, Ph.D. Dis­ser­ta­tion, Depart­ment of Geog­ra­phy, Uni­ver­si­ty of Leices­ter, 2012.


The dou­ble-bind is Michel Foucault’s for­mu­la­tion. See Paul Rabi­now, ed., The Fou­cault Read­er (Lon­don, Eng­land: Pen­guin Books, 1984), 22.


Don­na Awa­tere, Maori Sov­er­eign­ty (Auck­land, New Zealand: Broad­sheet, 1984), 9.


M. M. Iyenger, Not Mere Abstrac­tions: Lan­guage Poli­cies and Lan­guage Ide­olo­gies in U.S. Set­tler Colo­nial­ism,” in Decol­o­niza­tion: Indi­gene­ity, Edu­ca­tion and Soci­ety 3: 2 (2014): 34.


Pierre Bélanger, Land­scape as Infra­struc­ture (New York, NY: Rout­ledge, 2017), n. 8.


Colo­nial clas­si­fi­ca­tion sys­tems attest to this diver­si­ty: African, mulat­to, mes­ti­zo, cre­ole, white, Black, Indi­an, slave, free col­ored, par­do (light-skinned mulat­tos), moreno (dark-skinned mulat­tos and Blacks).


Based on Hakim Bey’s 1991 book, T.A.Z: The Tem­po­rary Autonomous Zone, in which he pro­motes the socio-polit­i­cal tac­tic of cre­at­ing tem­po­rary spaces that elude for­mal struc­tures of control.”


Mal­colm X, Mes­sage to the Grass Roots” (1963): https://​www​.youtube​.com/​w​a​t​c​h​?​v​=​K​u​2​J​z​o​lPt50. Last accessed 11/28/2018.


Yari­mar Bonil­la, Non-Sov­er­eign Futures: French-Caribbean Pol­i­tics in the Wake of Dis­en­chant­ment (Chica­go, IL: Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Press, 2015).




I think of Knepp Farm in West Sus­sex, Eng­land; the Wors­fold farm in North­land, New Zealand; Dunn Ranch in Mis­souri; the age-old rur­al econ­o­my of Cor­tona, Italy; the SAFFIES project in the UK and Europe…



Pierre Bélanger and Alexan­der Arroyo, Ecolo­gies of Pow­er (Cam­bridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2016). This book is a crit­i­cal con­tri­bu­tion to the urgent design of new polit­i­cal ecologies.


Achille Mbe­m­be, Pro­vi­sion­al Notes on the Post­colony,” Jour­nal of the Inter­na­tion­al African Insti­tute 62: 1 (1992): 3 – 37.


While Achille Mbe­m­be describes the con­di­tion of the post­colony,” the Post-Colo­nial as we use it in this text (in its hyphen­at­ed ver­sion) implies the fab­ri­ca­tion of a fic­tion­al nar­ra­tive on the future state of a cur­rent colony while allud­ing to a series of iden­ti­fi­able traits on for­mer (or cur­rent) colo­nial territories.


We wrote recent­ly about the con­tem­po­rary role of a Post-Colo­nial imag­i­nary in Cruz Gar­cia and Nathalie Frankows­ki, Loudread­ing in Post-colo­nial Land­scapes (to the beat of Reg­gae­ton),” Avery Review 48 (June 2020): http://​averyre​view​.com/​i​s​s​u​e​s​/​48​/​a​r​c​h​i​t​e​c​t​u​r​e​s​-​o​f​-​a​-​s​a​l​m​o​n​-​e​mpire.


The con­cept of col­o­niza­tion as a par­a­sitic con­di­tion was first intro­duced to us by John Kalu Osiri, the direc­tor of Inter­na­tion­al Busi­ness at Col­lege of Busi­ness at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Nebraska-Lincoln.


Rod Bar­nett is a research fel­low in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visu­al Arts at Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty in St. Louis, where he pre­vi­ous­ly served as pro­fes­sor and chair of the Mas­ter of Land­scape Archi­tec­ture pro­gram. Bar­nett earned a Ph.D. from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Auck­land, New Zealand, where he researched the poten­tial of non­lin­ear dynam­i­cal sys­tems sci­ence to inform land­scape archi­tec­tur­al design and prac­tice. As part of his stud­ies, he devel­oped a self-orga­niz­ing approach to urban devel­op­ment called Artweb, a mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary design and plan­ning strat­e­gy that focus­es on mar­gin­al­ized and under­uti­lized urban ter­rains to cre­ate a net­work of arts and sci­ence projects through­out the city. The themes of his exten­sive writ­ing and design work have devel­oped from that work, with a core com­mit­ment to link­ing eco­log­i­cal urban­ism with envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice. In 2012, Bar­nett was select­ed as one of the top twen­ty-five 25 Most Admired Edu­ca­tors in the Unit­ed States by Design­In­tel­li­gence. Recent books include Emer­gence in Land­scape Archi­tec­ture (Rout­ledge, 2013); The Baden Project, a self-orga­niz­ing design strat­e­gy for an eco­log­i­cal park in North St. Louis (2016); and The Mod­ern Land­scapes of Ted Smyth: Land­scape Mod­ernism in the Asia-Pacif­ic (Rout­ledge, 2017). Email: rodbarnett@​wustl.​edu.

Cruz Gar­cia is a Puer­to Rican archi­tect, edu­ca­tor, author, the­o­rist, cura­tor, and artist work­ing across dif­fer­ent plat­forms to ask crit­i­cal ques­tions about the role of archi­tec­ture, art and ped­a­gogy in the con­struc­tion of new worlds. In 2008, he co-found­ed in Brus­sels WAI Archi­tec­ture Think Tank to con­tribute to the col­lec­tive intel­li­gence of archi­tec­ture from a panoram­ic and crit­i­cal approach. He is co-found­ing cura­tor of Intel­li­gentsia Gallery in Bei­jing and, in response to the glob­al pan­dem­ic of COVID-19, has been devel­op­ing Loudread­ers, a series of online ses­sions and a free and acces­si­ble online trade school explor­ing net­works of intel­lec­tu­al sol­i­dar­i­ty. He is the author of Nar­ra­tive Archi­tec­ture: A Kyn­i­cal Man­i­festo (nai010, 2020), and Pure Hard­core Icons: A Man­i­festo on Pure Form in Archi­tec­ture (Arti­fice Press, 2014). His work has been fea­tured in the Chica­go Archi­tec­ture Bien­ni­al, MoMA NY, Neues Muse­um Nurem­berg, and the Muse­um of Art, Archi­tec­ture, and Tech­nol­o­gy in Lis­bon. Email: cruz@​wai-​architecture.​com.

Nathalie Frankows­ki is a French archi­tect, edu­ca­tor, author, the­o­rist, cura­tor, and artist work­ing across dif­fer­ent plat­forms to ask crit­i­cal ques­tions about the role of archi­tec­ture, art and ped­a­gogy in the con­struc­tion of new worlds. In 2008, she co-found­ed in Brus­sels WAI Archi­tec­ture Think Tank to con­tribute to the col­lec­tive intel­li­gence of archi­tec­ture from a panoram­ic and crit­i­cal approach. She is co-found­ing cura­tor of Intel­li­gentsia Gallery in Bei­jing and, in response to the glob­al pan­dem­ic of COVID-19, has been devel­op­ing Loudread­ers, a series of online ses­sions and a free and acces­si­ble online trade school explor­ing net­works of intel­lec­tu­al sol­i­dar­i­ty. She is the author of Nar­ra­tive Archi­tec­ture: A Kyn­i­cal Man­i­festo (nai010, 2020), and Pure Hard­core Icons: A Man­i­festo on Pure Form in Archi­tec­ture (Arti­fice Press, 2014). Her work has been fea­tured in the Chica­go Archi­tec­ture Bien­ni­al, MoMA NY, Neues Muse­um Nurem­berg, and the Muse­um of Art, Archi­tec­ture, and Tech­nol­o­gy in Lis­bon. Email: nathalie@​wai-​architecture.​com.