Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

ENVIRONMENT-PUERTO RICO: Fighting to Keep the Mangrove Forest

Carmelo Ruiz

LOIZA, Jan 6 1999 (IPS) - Right off the eastern edge of the San Juan metropolitan area in the coastal town of Loíza, lies the Piñones mangrove forest. The Piñones coastline is known for its 12 kilometres of pristine beaches and quaint food stands that sell traditional Puerto Rican seafood.

But this could all change if some Puerto Rican developers armed with a plan to change the mangrove into concrete structures have their way, residents of this wetland say. That, they say, is hard to accept, given the importance of the mangrove.

The ecological value of Piñones has been exhaustively documented by universities as well as agencies of the Puerto Rico and United States governments. It controls floods, reduces erosion, attenuates the San Juan metro area’s searing urban heat, serves as a fish spawning area, and shelters a wide variety of species, such as the hawksbill (carey) and leatherback (tinglar) turtles.

Piñones is Puerto Rico’s largest mangrove forest and accounts for 22 percent of all of the island’s total mangrove area. It covers most of Loíza.

Puerto Ricans also hold Piñones dear because of its rich historical and cultural heritage.

But the environmental problems which Piñones has experienced go back decades. In the 1950s, millions of tons of sand were extracted from its beaches in order to fill its western edge and build there an international airport. Millions of tons more were extracted in order to make the concrete that fuelled Puerto Rico’s urban boom. The majestic sand dunes of Piñones were virtually wiped out, never to be seen again.

With the removal of so much sand, Piñones’ coastline became exposed to the erosive action of sea waves. It is estimated that the sea advances into Piñones at a rate of 0.5 to 2.3 metres a year.

Developers tried several times to build resorts in this forest in the 1970s and 1980s, but were turned back by stiff opposition from environmentalists and community residents.

In 1987 a group of local residents, that included schoolteachers, small business owners, architects and engineers, concluded that neither the Puerto Rico government nor private business interests had come up with any proposal to develop Piñones, or the rest of Loíza for that matter, in a socially and ecologically sustainable manner.

They formed a grassroots organisation called Frente Loiceños Unidos (United Loíza Citizens/ FLU), in an effort to propose ways to ensure the preservation of the area.

“We are organised as a work team, not as a mass movement,” says FLU spokesperson Lydia Milagros González. “We work as a group of proposition, not opposition”.

Right now the FLU is trying to stop four major tourism development projects in Piñones. The organisation’s members feel that these would inflict irreparable harm on the forest and are all in violation of environmental laws.

As for their socioeconomic impact, FLU claims that the four projects will not contribute to Loíza’s economy. On the contrary, they will displace local residents in order to make way for what they call “reservations”.

Three of these proposed projects are next to a sewage treatment plant that creates pollution problems so severe that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has expressly forbidden the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewers Authority (PRASA) to hook up any new users to it.

This leaves FLU members wondering just where these resorts sewage will be treated.

The treatment plant has been a headache to Loíza residents for many years. It receives sewage from five municipalities, including part of the San Juan metro area. But ironically, 75 percent of Loíza households are not connected to the sewer system. Community members see this as an environmental injustice.

“It was a real struggle to get PRASA to allow community residents to inspect the plant and take water samples, as the law requires,” says Sarah Peisch, scientific consultant to FLU.

FLU members and local residents find it inconceivable that developers would want to build resorts next to such a troubled, overloaded treatment plant.

They believe that the construction projects are actually a pretext for sand extraction, an activity that has generated passionate opposition among Loíza residents.

“I don’t believe they’ll build anything there. All sand extraction projects in Loíza were originally sold to the community as housing construction projects,” says González.

In 1992 FLU presented a detailed proposal for the economic and social development of Piñones and Loíza. The proposed plan calls for the development of eco-tourism, a trolley to reduce car use in the tourist areas, canoe trips through canals in the mangrove, bike paths, and the installation of basic infrastructure, like aqueducts, public telephones and sewage tubes.

“It is important to preserve the scenic and cultural value of Piñones. People don’t drive here to eat hamburgers or Kentucky Fried Chicken,” says Piñones resident and FLU member Rafael Ortiz.

 
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