UTUADO, Puerto Rico—Don Julio looks down the hill where he once produced pineapples, oranges, mandarins, bananas and plantains. In the shadow of these crops grew Selección Puerto Rico, the best coffee in the world.

“Before Maria, it was beautiful. It was a pleasure being here,” said the 75-year-old farmer. “It was clean. Now, it’s all bejuco. Just weeds.”

A team of researchers from the University of Michigan hope farmers like Don Julio will benefit from a project to enhance the resilience and sustainability of the agricultural sector in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. The project would use a gasifier to turn coffee husks, clippings and other agricultural leftovers into fuel that will power hybrid microgrids. They expect to use the byproduct of the process, called biochar, to improve soil quality.

Lead researcher Ivette Perfecto, a Puerto Rican native and professor at U-M’s School for Environment and Sustainability, said the team envisions long-term impact on the island’s energy and agricultural landscape through the project, which received seed funding from SEAS and was recently awarded $200,000 by U-M’s Graham Sustainability Institute.

“The effect of the hurricane opened people’s eyes regarding the vulnerability of an outdated energy system, the dependency on fossil fuels and the dependency on imported food,” said Perfecto, the George Willis Pack Professor of Ecology.

She said the storms decimated much of the island’s coffee, plantain and citrus crops last year, causing an estimated $2 billion in damages to Puerto Rico’s agriculture.

“There is an opportunity now to transform the energy and agricultural systems on the island into sustainable systems based on renewable energy and agroecology. And we are ready to contribute to that transformation,” she said.

Perfecto and her partner, John Vandermeer, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, originally planned to visit Puerto Rico in fall 2017. They intended to collect data for a project focusing on the conservation and biodiversity of Puerto Rico’s coffee farms within the island’s “model forest,” which supports people living and working in the forests on which their livelihoods depend.

“But about a week after we started, the hurricane happened,” Perfecto said. “People were looking for water, for food, reopening roads. There was no way we could collect data.”

Immediate plans for travel were scratched and Perfecto and Vandermeer instead joined the Puerto Rican diaspora in a campaign to provide solar lanterns to the people of Adjuntas, which was organized by Casa Pueblo. The community-based organization promotes sustainable development, and Perfecto and Vandermeer have been collaborating with it for years.

Vandermeer's EEB students involved in the project are Zachary Hajian-Forooshani, Nicholas Medina, Chatura Vaidya and Alexa White.

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