Can Puerto Rico preserve its Caribbean beauty as it pursues the American dream? by Jennifer Hattam
TAKE ACTION: Write to the governor of Puerto Rico, Hon. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, at La Fortaleza, P.O. Box 9020082, San Juan, Puerto Rico 00902-0082, and ask him to support permanent protection of the Northeast Ecological Corridor. To send a message online or plan your own trip to the island, visitsierraclub.org/corridor.
Just 25 miles from San Juan's highly developed beaches (above), idyllic coasts are still easy to find--for now. A 1,000-unit construction project is planned for the stretch of shoreline below.
Diana de Ju lives in a rustic but comfortable hillside home in the town of Luquillo, Puerto Rico, with her husband and teenage son. The area is a potential mecca for ecotourism: Playa Luquillo is a popular beach among locals, and its surroundings encompass many of the island's best offerings--sandy shores, dramatic rocky coastlines, ancient forests, coral reefs, and mangrove-lined lagoons. On moonless nights, the largest of these, Laguna Grande, erupts in sparks of light as fish stir up millions of tiny dinoflagellates, an ecological oddity called bioluminescence.
"It's so natural and quiet here. You can still breathe clean air and not be so tense," says de Ju, who was born in nearby Fajardo but raised in New York City's Lower East Side, traces of which still linger in her accent and no-nonsense manner. "It's one of the few places left that is so peaceful--we don't even close our doors." As we talk in her living room, a light ocean breeze blows through, rustling her collection of beads, dream catchers, and Asian fabrics. The backyard is thick with banana and cashew trees and herbs growing wild. "Our wealth is our land," she says.
About ten years ago, de Ju went to turn on a faucet, and nothing came out. The water had been rerouted to a new gated community. Since then, says her friend Sally Tully-Figueroa, "all we do with our lives here is chase water." De Ju's family keeps four huge tanks on hand and still has to plan its baths. Tully-Figueroa has had to get up in the middle of the night--the only time water was available--to do her washing. A local church with many elderly parishioners has gone for two months at a time without it. "Nature has always provided us with water," says Angel Berríos Benítez, a friend from a neighboring community. "Now it just comes and goes."
A bad situation promises to get worse if two proposed mega-resort complexes are built along the nearby coastline. Between them, the Four Seasons' San Miguel Resort and Marriott's Dos Mares Resort would boast 700 hotel rooms and 2,000 luxury residences, plus four golf courses, all demanding water. The surrounding area is hardly undeveloped--de Ju and I meet Berríos in a strip-mall parking lot, and the four-star Wyndham El Conquistador Resort dominates one of Fajardo's hills--but there is still much left to save.
The prospective developments are just two of five planned for the seven miles of coast between Luquillo and Fajardo, a stretch of shoreline that is an important nesting ground for endangered hawksbill and leatherback sea turtles. "My parents used to go for walks on the beach while they were courting," says de Ju. "They knew that if you stepped out on the sand and felt it trembling, you had to step back because the turtles were hatching." But the planned resorts could destroy the sea creatures' sanctuary. "They nest in dark areas," says Hector Horta, a biologist in charge of the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources' turtle-monitoring program. "Light hesitates them." Adding that turtles have reduced nesting in parts of Florida because of artificial light, Horta says that coastal development is a far bigger problem than the more highly publicized poaching.
From the beach where we stand talking, the shoreline curves west to the sites of the proposed developments. Looking inland, we can see shades of green rising all the way up the mountains--each a different type of forest, still intact and connected. Local environmental activists have dubbed the 3,200-acre area along this stretch of coast, just north of the mountainous El Yunque rainforest, the Northeast Ecological Corridor; protecting it is one of their top priorities. "If we allow development here," says Horta, "it won't end until they have a five-star hotel on top of the rainforest." Like the rest of the island, the area is at a crossroads, torn between being American and Caribbean, between development and conservation, between having too little and wanting too much.
MANY RESIDENTS REMARK that the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico has a "continental mentality," an all-American expansionist view that's unsuitable for an island its size. With 3.9 million people in less than 3,500 square miles, Puerto Rico has a higher population density than Japan. If the United States were as densely populated, it would have 4 billion instead of 298 million people.
The island holds other dubious distinctions: It generates more solid waste per capita than almost any U.S. state and packs in more roads per square mile than any country in the world. With public transportation limited to a slow and schedule-less "system" of públicos--private vehicles that transport people between cities, leaving whenever they're full--Puerto Rico is almost completely car dependent.
"People complain about traffic jams, but they see congestion as a sign of progress," says Father Henry Beauchamp, a passionate advocate for protecting the Northeast Ecological Corridor. Once one of the poorest places in the Caribbean, Puerto Rico was transformed after World War II when the U.S. government began a campaign to encourage economic development by replacing agriculture with manufacturing and tourism. Businesses are still drawn to the island by its tax incentives and low wages. (Until this year, U.S. companies paid no federal tax on profit earned in the commonwealth, whose three branches of government operate independently under the U.S. Constitution. While Puerto Rico functions in many ways like a state, its residents can't cast a ballot for president, and their sole representative to Congress can't vote on legislation.) With a per-capita income of $17,700, Puerto Ricans are poorer than Mississippians but richer than almost any other group in the Caribbean. Companies such as J. C. Penney have some of their most profitable stores in the world here, and strip malls and SUVs are as ubiquitous as in the 50 states.
"Many Latin American countries have a desire to plug into a development model that causes great damage to the environment," Beauchamp says. A large man with a trim beard graying at the chin, the priest has a soothing manner. His hands move gracefully as he talks, but his commentary packs a punch. "Puerto Ricans often feel insecure when they compare themselves to the United States, but there's no way we can justify a lifestyle where everyone plugs into the American dream. Anyone who has eyes can see there's a price."
After decades of rapid development, Puerto Rico is 14 percent urban, compared with 2.6 percent of the U.S. landmass. While
developed areas are growing three to four times faster than the population, urban density is decreasing, leaving huge numbers of abandoned buildings. Three-fourths of the island's construction
projects are granted zoning exemptions, and government support is usually obvious even prior to the hearings and public-comment
period. (The agencies that are supposed to be enforcing U.S. laws on the island are often too far away to be very influential--the EPA, for example, oversees Puerto Rico out of its Manhattan office.) "The fast-tracking of many projects makes community groups suffer a kind of fatigue," says Beauchamp. "People will say, 'What's the use? If the government wants it, there's nothing to be done.'"
That attitude, however, is slowly changing, and the commonwealth government has responded with plans to nearly double the percentage of protected land. (It's currently only about 5 percent, half the average for Latin America and the Caribbean and far less than Costa Rica, Panama, and the Dominican Republic.) In 2001, the government established a national park system. "Environmental awareness has grown as the pressure of development carries to people's doors," says Ramon Luis Nieves, who oversees the new parks. "The park system would not have been accepted a decade ago."