Extending a hand to devastated island farmers
Elizabeth Cuevas Neunder founded the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce 12 years ago with the idea of fostering trade between her home island and Florida.
Today, she is focused on the island’s small farmers, encouraging them to become entrepreneurial and find a market niche in the mainland United States for their products – whether that be coffee, fruits, vegetables or flowers.
“Because right now you have products from every country in South America, Central America and the Dominican Republic. You don’t get anything from Puerto Rico,” Cuevas Neunder said.
She likens her goal to a proverb of uncertain origin: “You give a poor man a fish and you feed him for a day. You teach him to fish and you give him an occupation for a lifetime.”
“That’s exactly it,” Cuevas Neunder said at her home in Sarasota, which serves as the office for the Puerto Rican Chamber, where she is the only staff member.
Jorge A. Rivera, a chamber director, said Cuevas Neunder is an effective advocate through her organizational skills, creative ideas, and contacts on the island and on the mainland.
Thanks in part to national reporting on Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico, Rivera said, mainland Americans now know where the island is located and understand that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens – with big problems.
Among them, a broken political system that has taken island finances down a ruinous path.
“Although politics on the mainland are weird and nasty, if you go to Puerto Rico, you can multiply that by 1,000 percent,” Rivera said.
Cuevas Neunder knows that she can’t solve all of the problems of Puerto Rico, but she can make a dent by concentrating on agriculture.
“Agriculture is the essence of life for every human being. Our main goal is to advocate and educate. Puerto Rico plays an amazing role in the Florida economy. One million Puerto Ricans live in Florida, and another 90,000 have moved here since Hurricane Maria,” she said.
Cuevas Neunder said the Chamber is working with nearly 200 small farmers in Puerto Rico, teaching them how to meet U.S. health standards and how to target markets on the mainland.
She also helps a group of about 100 Puerto Rican woman learn how they can grow a small money crop, such as a specific type of flower on a small plot of land, while tending to their other duties.
Every single day we have something to eat, we need to give thanks not to just God but also to the farmer who makes it happen.
Elizabeth Cuevas Neunder, founder of the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce
She is particularly proud of Puerto Rican coffee, which she says is among the world’s best, and has been helping about 30 growers open new markets in Florida.
She feels blessed to be able to offer a voice for many of the small farmers.
“I am a girl from the farm. Every child in Puerto Rico, when I was young, had to work in the farm,” she said.
“The love for the farm, the love for Mother Earth and nature is in my DNA and I cannot get rid of it. Every time I see a gorgeous fruit or vegetable, or a beautiful flower I give thanks to this beautiful planet. It fills me up with a lot of happiness to see the beauty,” Cuevas Neunder said.
“Small farmers go through horrendous times. Every single day we have something to eat, we need to give thanks not to just God but also to the farmer who makes it happen,” she said.
Farmers Fund Drive
The Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce of Florida has established a farmers fund drive to assist small farmers in Puerto Rico who have lost an estimated 80 percent of their crops. For more information, visit puertoricanchamberofflorida.com