Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

ENVIRONMENT: Community Nurtures Puerto Rican Forests

Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero

SAN JUAN, Jun 5 2003 (IPS) - The government of this Caribbean island is widely perceived to be doing nothing to protect the environment, especially its forests and other green areas.

But people throughout Puerto Rico are taking matters into their own hands to create community forests of their own. Two of the most successful examples of these grassroots initiatives are the People’s Forest and the Corretjer Forest.

The People’s Forest, in the mountain town of Adjuntas, is run by Casa Pueblo, a grassroots organisation born of the successful struggle against strip mining that lasted from the 1960s to the early 1990s.

After a citizens’ pressure campaign, more than 700 acres of the area slated for the mining was declared a state forest in 1996. Now called the People’s Forest, it is run by Casa Pueblo in a one-of-kind arrangement with the Puerto Rico Natural Resources Department.

The facilities include hiking paths, recreational areas designed by Adjuntas schoolchildren and a natural auditorium carved out of the side of a mountain. The forest also boasts an agro-forestry project where children and adults plant trees, including rare, endangered and forgotten species, as well as fruit trees.

In 2002, Casa Pueblo Director Alexis Massol-González received the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. When he was notified by telephone he did not believe it at first. ”I had never heard of the Goldman Prize, so I thought it was a joke,” he recalls with a laugh.

”I told them that I don’t work for money or awards, and they told me, ‘That’s why you earned it’.”

The Goldman Prize is awarded annually to six people from around the world and includes 125,000 U.S. dollars.

The award greatly increased Casa Pueblo’s local and international prestige and profile and it has since formed conservation partnerships with the University of Puerto Rico and the U.S.-based Smithsonian Institution.

Scientists from the Smithsonian have held workshops at the People’s Forest to teach Casa Pueblo volunteers, local environmentalists and graduate biology students how to monitor wildlife, carry out biodiversity surveys and to use new technologies like global positioning systems (GPS) and geographic information systems (GIS) in their conservation work.

Activists complain that the government has failed to live up to its commitments to help manage the Forest, but that does not discourage Massol-Gonzalez. ”There is no room for pessimism or cynicism in Casa Pueblo,” he told IPS. ”We are people of hope, because through our activism we have learned that Puerto Rico’s problems can be solved.”

Northeast of Adjuntas is the rural town of Ciales, home to a community forest named after one of Puerto Rico’s most renowned poets: Juan Antonio Corretjer, who died in 1985.

The Forest is located at one of the most picturesque areas of the Encantado River, one of Corretjer’s favourite sources of solace and inspiration.

Towards the end of his life the poet voiced concern about the destruction of Ciales’ forests and their replacement by pesticide-intensive monoculture plantations.

In the 1980s, coffee grower Tato Rodríguez, a friend of Corretjer, began having second thoughts about using pesticides.

”Bird populations dwindled because of deforestation and chemical use,” said Rodríguez in an interview. ”Later the butterflies disappeared, and I even saw lizards die because of insecticides.”

Guided by Corretjer’s poetry as well as by concepts of ecological agriculture and environmental protection, Rodríguez and volunteers of the Casa Corretjer Cultural Center founded the 160-acre Corretjer Forest.

The area is an abandoned, weed-infested coffee farm that is being slowly cleared and repopulated with trees mentioned in Corretjer’s poems, as well as numerous endemic species. ”We plant trees that provide lumber and also trees that give fruit,” says Rodríguez.

The custodians of the Forest want to steer clear of the tree plantation model, and aim instead to create a complex, healthy and productive ecosystem that will provide jobs and food, and serve as a resource for eco-tourism.

Since starting the reforestation project and ending pesticide use in the Corretjer, long-gone birds and insect pollinators have started to return. ”Even the bees are back!” said Rodriguez.

”The sanpedritos, which are like miniature parrots and only live in caves, had left for the mountains. But since we stopped using agrochemicals, they’re back. And we’re also beginning to hear owls at night again.”

The Corretjer Forest has a strong educational component. Since last year, hundreds of school students from across Puerto Rico have visited, to learn both about ecology and Corretjer’s poetry. And all of its trees are planted by children.

”We prepared educational modules inspired by Corretjer and the landscape that motivated him to write poems,” said Casa Corretjer volunteer Marta Nuñez.

She emphasises the cultural importance of this ecological project. ”We are retaking the folklore that we are losing and is not taught in schools. It is beautiful to see first grade boys and girls, the tenderness with which they plant trees and touch their roots.”

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