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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
Credit: Francisco Collazo
America's "Island of Enchantment": Environmental Hazards and Hope in Puerto Rico [Slide Show]
AS FUTURE: Despite the threats to Puerto Rico's paradise, there are also many reasons to feel more hopeful than ever about the island's future. In addition to the growth of the Sierra Club and the short but impressive history of successful activism by groups like Casa Pueblo, the most comprehensive and effective advocate for Puerto Rico's environment is the Fideicomiso (or Conservation Trust) of Puerto Rico. Fideicomiso acquires properties deemed to be of both ecological and historical value, renovates them, and reopens them to the public so locals and tourists alike can participate in guided tours to learn about the island's diverse ecological zones and the varied roles these have played in the island's history. Among their holdings are Hacienda Buena Vista, a restored coffee plantation; Cabezas de San Juan, a nature reserve with seven distinct ecological zones; and Hacienda La Esperanza, a former sugar plantation. The Trust also works with local and visiting researchers to increase knowledge about the habitats and natural phenomena characteristic of its sites. González of the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez says that Fideicomiso is doing important research and policy work in other areas as well, including in La Parguera, where it is working to protect the bioluminescent bay. In the photo above, staff members at Fideicomiso's Hacienda La Esperanza study topics as diverse as the lionfish invasion in the Caribbean and oral histories of slavery and abolition. Beyond presenting a new model for sustainable tourism and conducting vital research, Fideicomiso's other mission is to involve Puerto Ricans in the protection and promotion of these places by inviting them to participate in citizen science initiatives. The Mapa de Vida (Map of Life) has involved locals conducting censuses of wildlife, waterways, and flora, helping the Fideicomiso create the most comprehensive survey of natural life and phenomena ever created on the island. Luisa Rosado Seijo, Fideicomiso's superintendent of the Northeast region, says that involving locals as collaborators has changed the dynamics between members of those communities and the settings in which they live. The citizen science projects, especially the Mapa de Vida, have "created a community of stewards" who will fight for the island's protection, says Rosado.
AMIBVALENT ENVIRONMENTALISM In 2007, Puerto Rico's El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rain forest in the United States, was nominated to become one of the so-called New 7 Wonders of Nature, spurring a massive publicity campaign. Even the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, the island's official tourism board, took up the banner, encouraging visitors to vote for El Yunque as a natural wonder. The rain forest, whose La Mina waterfall is pictured here, is now a finalist in the 7 Wonders competition, which will conclude at the end of this year with the formal announcement of the "new" natural wonders. The irony of trumpeting El Yunque's environmental charms has not been lost on environmental activists, however. They question how business and tourism interests could champion El Yunque and urge its protection while simultaneously allowing other critical habitats to be swallowed up by development. Cesar Rivera, a member of a student environmental coalition, says that environmental advocates aren't opposed to the 7 Wonders campaign, but are opposed to the exploitation of El Yunque if the surrounding areas and the entire island are not developed thoughtfully with the end goal of being a true ecotourism destination kept in mind.
INTERIOR INSECURITY: All but unknown by tourists and overlooked by developers, Puerto Rico's mountainous interior is a lush, largely undeveloped area. The region is crucial to environmental stability, one reason being that its rivers are the primary source of water for more than one-quarter of the island's residents. This doesn't mean, however, that the land far from the coast is not under threat. The mountainous region of Puerto Rico is rich with precious metal deposits, says biologist
Arturo Massol Deyá of the University of Puerto Rico, noting that at least 17 significant veins of gold, silver and copper have been identified in the area. Deposits of nickel, iron, quartz, cobalt and manganese in the interior have also been identified by the U.S. Geological Survey. Although commercial metal mining has not occurred on the island since 1953 and open pit mining was banned in 1995, nonfuel mineral mining of cement, crushed stone and marble continues to be practiced and is a significant, if diminishing, part of Puerto Rico's economy. Local activists and experts, such as Alexis Massol González, founder of the community group Casa Pueblo and winner of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, are part of the reason why mining practices have changed in Puerto Rico. Outraged by the government's repeated concessions to the mining industry—especially the issuance of permits for precious metal mining during each decade between 1970 and the mid 1990s—Massol led a community-based movement of people in the interior to stop incursions by mining companies. Their efforts led to the establishment of "The People's Forest," a 748-acre forest reserve managed by the community itself.
COFFEE CULTURE: Eco- and agrotourism could be a vital source of income, say environmentalists and a fledgling group of business owners, including the founders of Hacienda El Jibarito, the island's first agrotourism resort. Guests at El Jibarito can help pick coffee at local farms and observe roasting demonstrations on-site. Here, an El Jibarito employee prepares freshly roasted coffee for grinding in the hotel's cafe. Despite El Jibarito's efforts, the island's coffee industry is in critical condition. Currently one of the island's few remaining commercial crops, more than half of this year's coffee yield was lost due to a shortage of pickers; the loss represents a $25 million blow to the economy. Until the mid-20th century, Puerto Rico's economy was primarily agrarian, with the harvest of sugarcane, coffee, plantains, and other tropical fruits and vegetables providing jobs for many islanders. But the complex intersection of political and economic changes, alongside an increasingly educated upper middle class whose members were no longer interested in farming jobs, all but wiped out farming within a couple decades. Land that was once dedicated to agricultural use is being replaced by structures for the island's industrial interests. In addition to exacerbating the island's dependence on external foodstuffs, the loss of land and the agricultural sector frustrates ecotourism and agrotourism efforts, such as those being pioneered by Hacienda El Jibarito.
BIOLUMINESCENT BAYS: The threats to Puerto Rico's environment aren't just on land. Puerto Rico is home to three of the world's bioluminescent bays; visiting these has traditionally been a popular tourist activity. Due to the confluence of ideal conditions—narrow entries to the bays; shallow depths; warm water; and the density of the luminescent dinoflagellates—the three bays put on a watery light show in Fajardo, Vieques and La Parguera. While most visitors to Fajardo and Vieques access the bays by kayak, visitors to La Parguera must take a motorized boat to the bay (pictured here). The excursions provide vital income for local tour operators, but the practice of using motorized boats is threatening the bay's health and the very phenomenon of bioluminescence, also known as phosphorescence. Juan González Lagoa of the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez has studied Puerto Rico's bioluminescent bays and has been actively involved in leading efforts to protect them. In the case of La Parguera's bay, Gonzalez predicts that the phenomenon of bioluminescence will no longer be visible five to 10 years from now. Without using an alternative approach to show tourists the bay, the marine biologist says, the tour operators will be forced to find another way to earn a living.
POPULAR PROTESTS: The environmental movement in Puerto Rico is relatively young. Although there are some notable exceptions—including self-described revolutionary environmentalist Tito Kayak, known for staging dramatic activist events, such as scaling a construction crane, living on it for one week, and then rappelling from the crane and into a kayak on the water below to avoid police capture—organized environmentalism is not even a decade old. The movement is gaining steam quickly, however. The Sierra Club established a local chapter on the island in 2005 and has seen its membership grow from 45 to more than 1,300 people since its inception, according to Camilla Feibelman, field organizer for the chapter. During a February 2011 public hearing held by the government regarding the plans for the Northeast Corridor, the Sierra Club arrived at the Capitol with 533 people who considered themselves stakeholders in the Corridor's future. Among those from the group who testified at the hearing were the bishop of the local Catholic parish, the forest supervisor of the El Yunque National Forest, the recently retired turtle biologist of the Puerto Rican Department of Environmental and Natural Resources, and representatives from the University of Puerto Rico's School of Architecture. Similarly, the Sierra Club and other local environmental groups, such as the Fideicomiso (Conservation Trust) of Puerto Rico are noticing a dramatic uptick in the number of locals getting involved in the island's environmental movement. In the photo above, taken in February 2011, more than 170 people took a break from a beach-cleaning project to show their love for the Northeast Corridor.
Luis Villanueva Cubero
NORTHEAST CORRIDOR: In 2007, then-governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá designated more than 3,000 acres of Puerto Rico's northeastern coast as a protected "Ecological Corridor," signing the final order into law in April 2008. A year later, Acevedo had been replaced by Luis Fortuño as governor; Fortuño revoked the Corridor's protected status and green-lighted plans for the construction of more than 4,500 residential and commercial units and four golf courses in the area. The corridor plays a vital role in Puerto Rico's ecosystem. More than three dozen native and endemic animal and plant species call the Northeast Corridor home, among them, the Puerto Rican boa, the Antillean manatee, and hawksbill and leatherback sea turtles, all of which are endangered. The second most important nesting beach for the leatherback turtle in U.S. jurisdiction is located here. Non-native and invasive species also call the area home, including the green iguana, pictured here. Local herpetologists view the Northeast Corridor as a critical research site, and they still want to learn more about species like the green iguana, which they suspect compete with leatherbacks for nesting space. Researchers also want to confirm whether the green iguana eats native plants, such as the green and red mangroves, which themselves are key to the local ecosystem stability.
COASTAL CONSTRUCTION: As the three cranes in this photo suggest, coastal real estate is in high demand in Puerto Rico's capital, San Juan, which is located on the island's northeast shore. Still more cranes are barely visible in the background. While some of the construction in the Condado neighborhood of San Juan consists of renovations of early- and mid-20th century builds, such as La Concha Resort and Condado Vanderbilt Hotel, the construction planned for the untouched eastern part of the nearby Northeast Corridor will consist entirely of new builds. Ineffective planning and accelerated development have resulted in massive urban sprawl that covers 40 percent of the island, according to Sebastián Martinuzzi, postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin. Martinuzzi spent three years as a visiting researcher with the USDA Forest Service's International Institute of Tropical Forestry in Puerto Rico, where he collaborated with colleagues to study the ways in which hyperdevelopment and land use decisions impact local ecosystems. Martinuzzi and fellow researchers found a high level of urban sprawl in metropolitan San Juan, and a ring of urban areas and sprawl surrounding the island. Without a shift in urban planning paradigms, the capital and the rest of the island will inevitably face the same acute quality-of-life challenges caused by urban sprawl in other major U.S. cities.