Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-PUERTO RICO: Environmental Tragedy in Vieques

Carmelo Ruiz

SAN JUAN, Jun 11 1999 (IPS) - Several sectors of the Puerto Rican society are outraged by the U.S. Navy’s announcement earlier this week that it intends to continue its manoeuvres in the island town of Vieques.

“The resumption of military exercises in Vieques or its vicinity ” would constitute a grave provocation,” said Governor, Pedro Rossello in a letter to U.S.President, Bill Clinton.

Two days ago about 100 Puerto Ricans protested in front of the White House, demanding that the Navy leaves Vieques.

The demonstrators included Puerto Rico-born U.S. Congress members Luis Gutierrez, Nydia Velazquez and Jose Serrano.

“This shows the arrogance with which the U.S. government treats Puerto Rico,” said Serrano, commenting on the Navy’s intention to resume manoeuvres in Vieques.

“This is an insult and an immoral act perpetuated against the people of Vieques and Puerto Rico,” said Gutierrez.

A civil disobedience campaign against the United States military’s presence in Vieques began two months ago.

The U.S. Navy has occupied most of Vieques since 1941 and has been using it for target practice ever since.

The current protest campaign, which follows a local decades- long tradition of anti-Navy activism, was triggered by a tragic event on Apr 19. That evening, a civilian was killed in Vieques by bombs dropped from an American fighter plane.

Since late April, several groups of protestors have been camping out in the area used by the Navy for target practice, and so far have shown no signs of leaving.

One of the groups camping out in the Navy area is the Puerto Rico Independence Party (Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño (PIP)). The PIP campers, led by senator and party president Rubén Berríos, have been protesting on the beaches of Vieques for over a month now.

The PIP’s environmental advisors have been surveying the ecological damage brought about by the military, and have found that the target practice area is habitat for the endangered brown pelican and the leatherback turtle, which is the world’s largest turtle.

During the first 17 days of camping, PIP environmental advisor Jorge Fernández reported seeing three leatherback turtles laying eggs in a part of the coast that is frequently bombed by airplanes.

“We found countless 20 and 30 millimetre ammunition shells and a buried bomb around the turtles’ nests,” said the advisors in recent testimony to a commission appointed by Rosselló to study the impact of the U.S. Navy’s activities on Vieques.

“Leatherback turtles return to lay their eggs in the place where they were born. How many of these turtles and their eggs have been killed by the Navy’s bombing?” asked the advisors in their statement to the commission.

According to the PIP, the U.S. Navy is violating a number of United States federal laws in Vieques, including the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Executive Order on Environmental Justice.

Even more startling has been the recent disclosure that the U.S. military had tested depleted uranium ammunition in Vieques. The Navy admitted to this on May 10 in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the Military Toxics Project, a U.S.-based Non- Governmental Organisation (NGO).

According to the PIP, a depleted uranium particle less than a thousandth of a millimetre thick lodged inside a human lung can generate 800 times the amount of radiation considered safe by U.S. regulations.

Meanwhile, New York City will get a taste of the anti-Navy campaign next Sunday in the annual Puerto Rican Day Parade. Vieques will be one of the main themes in this year’s parade.

“The parade will have a large contingent of people who will demand the U.S. Navy’s departure from Vieques,” said José Rivera, member of the N.Y. City council.

Rivera also said that he is trying to get the New York state legislature and African-American political leader Jesse Jackson to take a public stand on the issue.

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