By Javier Sierra
There's an especially bright glimmer on the Star of the Caribbean. That glimmer rests in the northeastern corner of Puerto Rico, which contains one of the most exceptional natural treasures in the world.
If a resort development proposal goes forward, this glimmer will go dull.
I am talking about the Northeast Ecological Corridor, a coastal rain forest which looks today pretty much the way it would have looked to Columbus. The Corridor encompasses only 3,200 acres, but holds seven distinct ecosystems containing unique and rare plant and animal species, as well as forest, wetland and coral communities. The Corridor's beaches are one of the most important nesting grounds for the leatherback turtle, the largest sea turtle in the world and an endangered species.
But this display of pristine beauty in which Puerto Ricans take so much pride is at the mercy of the island's Planning Board, which will decide if five huge resorts will be built in and around the Corridor. The approval process for two of them -the Four Season's Hotels' San Miguel Resort and Marriott International's Dos Mares Resort- are moving ahead rapidly because of insider contacts within the Puerto Rican government.
"In the case of the San Miguel Resort," says Luis Jorge Herrera, member of the Initiative for Sustainable Development, "the local developer is one of the largest contributors to the party in power, the Popular Democratic Party. The secretary of the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources recently endorsed the project. His wife, a former consultant to the San Miguel Resort project, is now an advisor to Governor Sila Calderón".
The two projects will include 3,500 hotel and residential units, plus four golf courses, which will destroy 1,300 acres of the Corridor. The developers allege the resorts will protect the environment, attract growth for the area and generate jobs.
The residents, nevertheless, categorically reject the development projects. On one hand, there is an alarming lack of water largely in the area because of four existing resorts near the Corridor. The area's 25,000 residents face a 4-million-gallon daily deficit, which forces them to ration water constantly.
The resorts have also damaged the local economy. Tourists are shuttled by the busload to nearby mega-stores instead patronizing local businesses in area's towns, like Luquillo and Fajardo. The resorts have also blocked access to seven beaches for the local fishermen.
"Instead of buying their fish from us, they bring it in frozen from God knows where," says Miguel Dávila, a local fisherman and community leader. "This situation has impoverished us. We have thirst for justice. We adamantly oppose the construction of the resorts."
The projects have causes opposition and outrage starting to equal that seen on the neighboring island of Vieques, which led to the Navy's relinquishing its shooting range there. Several local groups have mobilized the community, and on Feb. 3, some 200 people protested during a public hearing by the Planning Board about the resort projects.
Local activists have pushed to see the Corridor protected as critical habitat for species including the Leather Back Turtle. But those efforts have been to no avail, since taking office, the Bush Administration has removed 16.4 million acres of critical habitat protections and has opposed increasing the number of species threatened with extinction.
Some might say that turning the area into critical habitat eliminates economic opportunities for the area. But in Puerto Rico there is a saturation of luxury tourism offers -the kind these resorts attract- which only offer seasonal employment, too short for workers to get decent benefits. Also, these are gated communities which keep tourists from interacting with local residents, "as if they were afraid of us," as Dávila puts it.
Local leaders are saying turn the Corridor into a natural reserve featuring lodging facilities with minimal ecological impact which use the area and its neighboring communities as the main tourist attractions. This alternative would not only preserve the Corridor's incalculable natural value but also would generate wealth for the impoverished local economy.
It would also quench the thirst for justice of people like Dávila and Herrera and advance one step further the fight to protect bright spots like the Corridor, which belong to us all.
Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. The Sierra Club is America's oldest, largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization.
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