Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

ENVIRONMENT-PUERTO RICO: Citizens Rally to Save the Forest

Carmelo Ruiz

SAN JUAN, Jan 31 1999 (IPS) - Right in the middle of the San Juan metro area, next to the border between San Juan and the high- income suburban town of Guaynabo, stands a mountain with a large Puerto Rico Telephone Company antenna on its top.

That mountain is the subject of an ongoing environmental dispute. On the one hand, the surrounding communities want to preserve it as a green lung, an urban forest, “an emerald in a sea of concrete”, as residents like to call it. On the other hand, the Puerto Rico Housing Department, current owner of that piece of land, says it plans to sell it to developers who want to begin construction of condominiums there.

Known as Mount San Patricio, this hill is at the northern tip of a 21-hectare forest.

In recent times, Puerto Rico’s urban explosion has destroyed countless natural resources. Wetlands have been paved, mangrove forests have been razed to make way for resorts and hills have been levelled to make room for shopping malls and parking lots.

But pockets of green have survived. Such is the case of the San Patricio forest, as the neighbouring residents have named it.

The San Patricio forest is a reminder of a not too distant past when Mount San Patricio was part of a long chain of hills that stretched several kilometres to north central Puerto Rico, and when the nearby San Patricio shopping mall was a cattle farm, observers say.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the San Patricio forest was a United States military base with housing and other facilities. Before the end of the decade of the 50s the base was closed and was left to the mercy of vandals. Eventually the abandoned structures were demolished at the request of the community, which perceived them as a convenient hide-out for hooligans and drug addicts.

The debris was never removed. In any case it is invisible now because the forest has reclaimed the land. The former military base is now home to enormous trees of native species such as guanacaste, acacia and flamboyán, rare endangered snakes, and birds such as the guaraguao.

Last year, residents of the area formed a group called Citizens for the San Patricio Forest (CSPF/Ciudadanos Pro Bosque San Patricio) in an effort to preserve the forest and develop it as a community resource.

“This forest is an invaluable community ecological resource. It is one of the few green lungs in the capital city, and it mitigates the heating effect of cement and car traffic,” says university professor, local resident and CSPF spokeswoman Mary Axtman.

“The San Patricio forest has the effect of an enormous air conditioning system, and it also reduces the effects of dust and noise pollution,” adds a statement from CSPF.

The group is currently working to establish alliance with educational institutions to formalise the participation and commitment of nearby communities. It also plans to design educational programmes and materials, and to recruit private business firms as sponsors for the forest’s conservation.

The CSPF has received scientific advice from experts from local public and private universities, the city government of San Juan, the Puerto Rican Department of Natural Resources and the United States Forest Service.

More than 6,000 signatures have been collected for a petition calling for the forest’s conservation.

“This is an exceptionally stable community. I’ve been living here for 40 years, and very few families have moved out of here in all this time,” says 75 year-old Paquita Santiago, who climbs Mount San Patricio every day.

Like the other citizens Santiago says she does not want the area to be spoiled with huge high-rise buildings and shopping malls.

The Puerto Rican House of Representatives is expected, in the next few weeks, to vote on a bill to ensure the preservation of the San Patricio forest. The bill, introduced on Oct. 9, 1998, seeks to put a hold on construction permits in the forest area.

But the environmentalists fear that if it is approved by the legislature, governor Pedro Rosselló might take the side of the Housing Department and veto the bill, or that he might make amendments to the bill and thus weaken it.

Hence the CSPF says it will be keeping up the pressure on the relevant authorities.

“This is a historical moment to decide which quality of life we want to leave as a legacy to our children,” says Axtman.

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