The problems related to managing natural and environmental resources have, in one way or another, played a fundamental role in the development of various human societies over time. This is due to the unavoidable relationship that exists between the state of the physical and natural environment and human beings. The efforts by societies to control the negative effects of pollution, excessive exploitation of natural resources and anthropogenic infrastructure (in its various stages and eras), has changed in emphasis and approach many times, based on the place, time in history and level of technical and scientific knowledge available.

The starting point and contemporary origin of what is known as the “environmental movement” can be traced to the publication of the book The Silent Spring by U.S. biologist Rachel Carson in 1962. This work is recognized as an inflection point that began the current phase or era of environmental action from the middle of the 20th century to today. The impact of Carson’s research into the effects of environmental pollution as a result of abuses of pesticides and other industrial chemicals discharged into bodies of water and released into the air was fundamental in the development of what has been called the “environmental decade” (the 1970s). The implications of her work, along with a growing clamor from the scientific community and social groups that grew increasingly concerned about the issue, led to legislation designed to protect and conserve natural and environmental resources, both in the United States as well as, eventually, most of the countries in the world. An example of this was the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the United States in 1970 and, in Puerto Rico, the Environmental Quality Board in 1970 and the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources in 1971.

This period coincided with a time when environmental issues began to take on more importance in Puerto Rico and influence the development of public policy on the island. This resulted from the increasing pollution and environmental deterioration on the island because of the massive industrialization process under the new economic strategies of the 1950s and 1960s, generically known as “Operation Bootstrap.” Part of the effects of these strategies was severe water pollution (surface and subterranean), erosion and degradation of the coasts (along with deterioration of coral reefs), massive deforestation because of changing land use, changes from natural and vegetative cover to impermeable surfaces (asphalt and concrete) and uncontrolled, high-density urban development, abandonment of agriculture and an increase in respiratory conditions and cancer, among other effects on public health.

This pattern was repeated in most countries around the world, with the common denominator being the post-World War II era when new efforts by capital to intensify earnings and exploitation emerged. But in Puerto Rico it also took an additional turn that made it even more complex because of the colonial problem. Many of the complaints from social groups about poor or absent management of environmental resources were categorized as simple political opposition and, on occasion, as an attack on the colonial status quo and the best interests of the island’s “economic development.” The high political, partisan and ideological sensitivity to the political status that permeated the island (and still does) influenced the perspectives of a significant number of people for a time toward the claims of environmental groups. However, the fragility of the ecosystems themselves on the island and the deterioration of the quality of life as a result of environmental pollution put into relief the importance of environmental and geographic planning on the island and its inclusion as part of any economic growth or development strategy to be tried.

In the 1950s and 1960s, one of the early successes of the environmental movement in Puerto Rio was the opposition to mining copper deposits found in the central-western part of the island, between the municipalities of Adjuntas, Lares, and Utuado. The situation was the precursor to environmental and community activism that developed in the same region in the 1980s and led to the development of the organization Casa Pueblo, a non-governmental organization that led the citizen movement against proposals for strip mining in the region. Another case of environmental activism was the movement in opposition to a proposed “superport” on Mona Island in 1975. The project proposed to use all of Mona Island, which by that time had been designated a nature preserve, as a port for transshipment of petroleum, a project that would also involve many tanks for storage, refineries, and thermoelectric plants that would serve both Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, as well as associated projects. Among these would be a desalinization plant for ocean water and a residential development for approximately 2,500 people. The opposition to the whole concept, due to the serious consequences it would have for the biodiversity of Mona Island, as well as public and scientific pressure about the viability of the project, were enough to stop the proposal.

The physical and productive infrastructure of Puerto Rico has been designed for the last 100 years to depend exclusively on imported hydrocarbons (petroleum, gas) for the generation of energy needed to power them. With the oil crisis of the 1970s, energy issues took on greater importance in much of the world and led to the development of various policies by the United States Congress that, in one form or another, involved Puerto Rico. One of these initiatives was the development of petroleum refinery complexes in the south and southeast of Puerto Rico. The development of a petrochemical complex in the southern part of the island, in the municipalities of Ponce and Peñuelas, known as the Commonwealth Oil Refining Company, Inc. (CORCO), ended mostly as a failure and now is part of the EPA “Superfund” program. Since then, proposals for energy generation projects have had a share of opposition because of the environmental implications they have on the limited territory of the island. One of these projects was the construction of the “BONUS” (Boiling Nuclear Superheater Power Station) nuclear power plant in Rincón, which had to be closed in 1967 after it was built and began operations because of accidents related to technical problems. Cleanup of the radioactive material in the plant, in general, took more than 25 years and environmental monitoring still continues.

Other example of controversial energy generation projects was the proposal for the Cogentrix cogeneration plant in Mayagüez in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This has been one of the energy projects to face the greatest opposition on the island and mobilized a substantial part of the population to oppose it. Also, in the same western region of the island, in the 1970s, another situation that produced a large-scale controversy was the disposal of untreated material in Cabo Rojo by tuna companies operating in the municipality of Mayagüez. Another important environmental case related to energy generation was the formation of Communities United Against Pollution (CUCCo, for its Spanish acronym) in Cataño in the 1980s and 1990s. It represented one of the environmental and community movement’s most significant and outstanding victories in the history of environmentalism on the island.

Another example of a controversial energy generation project was the proposal for an incineration and conversion plant in the agricultural Coloso Valley in the municipality of Aguada in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Currently (2015), various environmental and civic groups have unleashed an intense fight against a similar development in the municipality of Arecibo for an incineration and energy generation plant that appears to be a mega-project that would significantly impact water and soil resources and public health in the region, aside from its questionable economic viability. Additional energy generation projects that faced great opposition in the last 15 years have been the Southern Pipeline proposed to run from Peñuelas to Salinas (2005-2013) and the Northern Pipeline (also known ironically as the “Green Way”) that would have run from Peñuelas to Arecibo and San Juan (2010-2012).

Among the most sensitive and controversial cases were ones that were not only environmental in nature, but also were tied to political and partisan controversies. These included the war games and bombardment on the island municipalities of Culebra and Vieques by the United States Navy, from the 1940s until the early 2000s. Another environmental controversy related to the U.S. military’s practices on the island was the experimentation with “agent orange” in parts of El Yunque Caribbean National Forest in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This chemical, one of the herbicides and defoliants used by the United States military during the Vietnam War, is highly toxic and has been responsible for thousands of deaths, deformities, cancers and genetic defects.

Other environmental issues over the course of the last 70 years include opposition to the construction of hotels in the Piñones region of Loíza, from the 1970s to today; the opposition to the use of land on the island for experimental planting of genetically modified products, particularly by the company Monsanto; and the development and mismanagement of solid waste systems, such as the proposal in the 1990s for a “super landfill” in the municipality of Salinas, as well as the conditions of other waste facilities around the island. As a point of pride and a symbol of vindication for the Puerto Rican environmental movement, both the environmental and community work of Casa Pueblo and CUCCo have been recognized internationally and have won awards for their perseverance in protecting the environment and social justice. The organizations won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize (considered the Nobel Prize in the environmental area) in the category of Islands and Island Nations in 2004 and 2008, respectively.
Author: Harrison Flores Ortiz
Published: February 23, 2016.

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