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America's "Island of Enchantment": Environmental Hazards and Hope in Puerto Rico [Slide Show]

Politicians, business leaders and environmentalists wrangle over the island's environmental future



Francisco Collazo

Its nickname is "Isla del Encanto," or "Island of Enchantment," and on the surface, Puerto Rico seems to fulfill every paradisiacal promise made about it by glossy travel magazines. The 111 x 36 mile island has a remarkable range of geological, biological, and habitat diversity, including a rain forest, a dry forest, mangroves, karst formations, three bioluminescent bays, and one of the largest underground cave systems in the world. Mona, one of the five islands in the Puerto Rican archipelago, has been called the "Galapagos of the Caribbean," and approximately 75 miles offshore is the Puerto Rico Trench, recognized by the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as the deepest part of the Atlantic Ocean.

But America's Caribbean commonwealth is beset by problems that endanger these rich ecosystems, including the twin threats of short-range planning and hyperdevelopment. Only 7 percent of the tropical island is designated as protected, and the administration of Governor Luis Fortuño is actively supporting plans to construct a 92-mile long natural gas pipeline, five incinerators, and a coal-fired power plant; the island is also dangerously close to maxing out its landfill space, stressed by the island's population of nearly 4 million people. The Fortuño administration has also given the green light for construction in the Northeast Corridor, an area that was formerly protected as an environmental refuge.

»View a slideshow of Puerto Rico's environmental future

Critics complain the government is too close to commercial interests. In their view, the urgency to dot the environmentally sensitive "Northeast Corridor" with tourist resorts and luxury residences is less related to propping up the island's sputtering economy than it is to repaying political favors. Members of Puerto Rico's nascent environmental movement contend that the island could be "the next Costa Rica," intelligently exploiting its abundant natural resources through ecotourism, but they worry that poor planning and accelerated development will prevent the possibility.

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