Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

ENVIRONMENT-PUERTO RICO: Rural Community Fights Urban Sprawl

Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero

SAN JUAN, Nov 20 2000 (IPS) - The rural community of Caimito, in the south end of San Juan, is bearing the brunt of the suburban expansion of the metropolitan area. But the residents of this 200 year-old community are fighting back against urban sprawl by combining struggle and dialogue.

All over this Caribbean island, forests, wetlands and poor communities have been levelled to make way for highways, shopping malls and suburbs.

In southern San Juan, the urban invasion is symbolised by Montehiedra, a super-elite suburb with houses valued at over 300,000 dollars, next to a vast shopping mall that bears the same name. Montehiedra is surrounded by an ever-expanding cluster of high-priced housing projects that are eating away at Caimito.

In terms of culture and values, Caimito and Montehiedra couldn’t be any more different, according to Caimito community activist Haydee Colon. “Caimito was born of the effort of our ancestors, with great economic limitations. It was built with a vision to which everyone contributed,” said Colon.

“On the other hand, Montehiedra was born on some planner’s desk. Mortgage bankers joined the project, and its residents became prisoners of the debt cycle. They work to pay the bank. That’s what the consumption and throwaway society are all about. In that type of society you never save money, because your whole life goes by and you still haven’t finished paying the mortgage.”

Caimito residents complain that Montehiedra and related developments are being built without any consideration for the area’s topography, the community’s concerns or environmental laws. Mountains are being demolished and valleys filled in order to make flat surfaces to build on.

“We’d go to work one morning and drive past one mountain, and when we returned in the afternoon the mountain wasn’t there anymore,” said Colon. “The mountains were felled with the help of permits supplied by government regulatory agencies. They were also felled by the developers’ lies, who claimed they were building on semi-flat grounds. The government agencies knew full well that those grounds were not semi-flat.”

A good example of this destruction is the case of Caimito’s Chiclana creek, which in recent months had a 500 foot-long segment buried under 50 feet of soil trucked in by the A.H. Development Company, which wanted to build 25 houses there.

Residents downstream fear that the dyke that keeps the huge mass of soil in place might collapse during a rainy day, causing a tragedy.

“A.H. Development documented the creek in an incorrect manner,” accused Colon. “They made a hydrologic study in which the creek didn’t appear. The government agencies had documented the area’s topography, but authorised the construction anyway.”

The community carried out a protest campaign that compelled regulatory agencies to act and enforce the law. Four agencies, including the PR Natural Resources Department and the United States Environmental Protection Agency, have now issued cease and desist orders against A.H. Development.

Caimito residents fear, based on past experience, that the developer might respond by firing an endless barrage of administrative appeals. In order to second-guess such a move, they have taken to the courts seeking to have a judge issue an order to make A.H. to remove the soil and restore the creek.

Local environmentalists have repeatedly warned that these construction projects are clogging the springs and creeks that provide fresh water to rivers and lakes downhill. They point out that such practices could cause disastrous floods and landslides, as well as destroy sources of already scarce drinking water.

The San Juan Bay Estuary Programme, a joint effort of US and Puerto Rican government agencies, assures dire consequences if the urban tide is not stemmed.

“The increase in impermeable surfaces throughout the hydrographic basin has reduced the amount of time that it takes rainwater to arrive to the rivers,” explained Programme spokeswoman Edna Villanueva in a recent testimony to the Puerto Rico Senate.

“As a consequence, the creeks and rivers receive a bigger volume of water in a shorter time period. This, as a consequence, increases the extent and frequency of floods.”

The disruption of springs and creeks in southern San Juan’s highlands are causing erosion and siltation on an unprecedented scale.

The Piedras river, which begins in Caimito and ends in San Juan harbour, has not been the same since Montehiedra was built. According to studies by the US Geological Survey, the Piedras river washes four inches of Caimito’s topsoil down to San Juan harbour every year.

That amounts to over 2.8 million cubic yards of sediment annually. These abnormal quantities of sediment threaten the currently ongoing efforts to dredge the harbour, warns the San Juan Bay Estuary Programme.

Residents of Caimito and Montehiedra are currently engaged in a dialogue aimed at joining forces to protect the remaining green areas.

“The Montehiedra Residents Association approached us, asking for a meeting. We accepted because the protection of green areas is everyone’s responsibility,” said Colon. “They bought houses here because they were lured by a propaganda. They are our neighbours now. We can save the environment if we don’t fight each other. We’ll be able to save it if we join together.”

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