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  Sierra Magazine
  May/June 2006
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Between Two Worlds
Can Puerto Rico preserve its Caribbean beauty as it pursues the American dream?
by Jennifer Hattam

(page 2 of 2)

Diana de Ju (above), Miguel Dávila (below), and other community members have joined forces with the Sierra Club to protect the Northeast Ecological Corridor.
Parroquia Santiago Apóstol, the Fajardo church Beauchamp presided over until he was transferred to Rome last year, is one center of that changing attitude. Though the church's home is a quiet square surrounded by a shuttered theater and struggling stores, Beauchamp's activism helped invigorate the community in opposition to the resort-construction plans in the Northeast Ecological Corridor, which begins just outside town. With new developments clustered around the highway, and few of them locally owned, the prosperity they promised has largely passed this small town by.

Much of Beauchamp's work was done among the ramshackle cluster of seaside dwellings where the town was founded in the 1700s. It's been a fishing area for hundreds of years, and at least a third of the neighborhood's residents still make their living at sea. Miguel "Chan" Dávila is a fisherman, like his father before him, though he now spends more time at his small fish market than on a boat because of health problems. Never an easy life, his occupation has gotten more difficult in recent years as coastal developments have infringed on longtime fishing grounds. "Every day we have to go farther out. You might leave at 4 p.m. and come back at 8 a.m.," Dávila says. "There are fewer fish in the coastal areas because of contamination, and we can't go near the new marinas, where there is deeper water, because people say we're bothering their boats. We have to load and unload from a small muddy beach instead of the pier."

Dávila is a small, shy man, who looks down at his hands or out to sea as he speaks. But as a community leader, he has stood up to developers in court--winning a case against one for trying to build a new marina right in front of his shop, and challenging another for chaining off the beach to block access and threatening the fishermen when they complained to the government. Though Puerto Ricans were guaranteed the right-of-way to coastal areas when Spain ceded the island to the United States in 1898, developers have continually found ways to circumvent the law. "Fajardo is a coastal town, but it's being left without coasts," Dávila says. "Only little pieces are left for the public."

In an effort to protect these fishing grounds and the forests that rise behind them, Dávila and other residents--including de Ju and Berríos, who head environmental groups in their neighborhoods--have joined forces with the Sierra Club's Puerto Rico Chapter, Environmental Defense, the National Wildlife Federation, the Surfrider Foundation, and the Waterkeeper Alliance. While building local support through family picnics and beach-cleanup days, the coalition has taken its case against the Marriott development all the way to the Puerto Rican Supreme Court. A lawsuit by its members led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reconsider its stance that the Four Seasons project would not harm sea turtles; a coalition-supported bill under consideration in the Puerto Rican legislature would designate the whole corridor as a nature reserve. This would almost connect the already protected northeastern tip of the island, where the three promontories of Las Cabezas de San Juan jut into the Atlantic, with El Yunque.

FUTURE HIKERS WHO TRAVERSE the hoped-for expanse of protected areas would follow in historic footsteps. The Taíno Indians, who came to the island a thousand years ago, considered El Yunque the sacred home of the world's creator. In a ritual journey, they navigated small rivers from the coast just west of Las Cabezas to El Yunque's cloud-shrouded summits. The Taíno word yuque, meaning "white land," gave the forest its name. When the clouds enveloped them, the Taíno felt they were in the presence of their god. Taking cohoba, a snufflike powder ground from the seeds of a local tree and used to induce visions, heightened the heavenly feeling.

Though much of El Yunque would still be familiar to the Taíno, today's travelers can be forgiven for finding the approach to the rainforest a bit less inspiring. On the traffic-clogged road out of San Juan, panaderías jostle with Papa John's and Pizza Hut, while McDonald's advertises its "McMenú del Dólar" and a gas station offers "desayuno on the run." The trip from the capital is only 25 miles, but there's plenty of time to look around: All of Puerto Rico's 2.4 million cars seem to be on Route 3 at once, and it's not even rush hour. Soon, though, garishly colored fast-food franchises and sparkling car dealerships give way to weathered signs and garbage-strewn lots. Patches of buildings are scattered amid the greenery, instead of the other way around. Cattle egrets circle over a mangy field, and the rainforest's peaks begin to appear in the distance. Once off the main road, the landscape quickly becomes rural. The sun shines through the trees, dappling the grassy fields. One plot just before the visitor center bears a telltale sign: Se vende. For sale.

"In the early 1900s, all you could see from here to the coast was sugarcane," says Pablo Cruz, El Yunque's affable forest supervisor. But in the 1970s, after the island's economy had boomed and industrialized, cane growers began selling off their land to developers. A huge Westin hotel with condos and two golf courses looms across the highway from the rainforest entrance. Shopping malls and luxury homes are springing up rapidly, and even more-modest habitations bring problems. With homes getting closer to the forest, stray dogs and cats are menacing native birds--including the Puerto Rican emerald, green mango, whippoorwill, and Puerto Rican parrot--and other indigenous animals that dwell in the oldest established forest reserve in the Western Hemisphere.

"We want to maintain a little piece of Puerto Rico as it was before European exploration," Cruz says. Once a visitor enters the forest, the modern world indeed seems far away. Trumpet trees curve overhead, their large, rounded leaves shading the trail. Dwarf orchids smaller than your pinky fingernail--one of 50 native orchid species in the forest--grow amid moss on a tree trunk. Small stems of bamboo and reddish-orange bulbs of ginger peek out from the foliage, which includes 250 tree species and about 150 types of ferns. The red-throated Puerto Rican tody--a relict bird that once lived throughout Mexico, the United States, and the Caribbean but is now found only on the island--flits from tree to tree like a hummingbird.

Originally set aside in 1876 by King Alfonso XII of Spain, El Yunque is the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. Forest Service system. Legislation passed by the U.S. Congress last December will protect almost a third of its 29,000 acres as El Toro Wilderness. While both Spanish and American overseers of the island have recognized the importance of this place, the reign of tourism and development may leave little to enjoy. Already, concrete "heat islands" have decreased rainfall around the forest, says Ariel Lugo, director of the Forest Service's International Institute of Tropical Forestry in Río Piedras. Unchecked urbanization could leave El Yunque, which provides water for 20 percent of the island's population, as thirsty as the residents of Luquillo. But Puerto Rico's ecosystems, like its people, are resilient.

"After Hurricane Hugo came through in 1989, El Yunque looked like a fire had gone through it," says Lugo. "That four-hour event destroyed almost everything." But like fires in temperate zones, hurricanes are renewal agents in the tropics, clearing out older trees that were more susceptible to disease and opening up dense canopies that blocked access to light for smaller plants. A few years after Hugo, flowers, bushes, and ferns that hadn't been seen for decades were flourishing. "It's part of the blessing we have here that nature returns with such force," Lugo says. "But ecosystems need space and resources too. You have to give nature the chance to come back."

Jennifer Hattam is Sierra's senior associate editor.

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, visit sierraclub.org/corridor.


Photos: Jennifer Hattam

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