River Rail Puerto Rico Issue
Editor's Message

Art, Activism, and the Environment in Puerto Rico

Editorial introduction by Iberia Pérez González and Natalia Viera Salgado.

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Water issues have become one of the most pressing global challenges of the 21st century, and Puerto Rico is no exception. Although freshwater abounds, the island’s streams and rivers are running dry, lakes are shrinking, and aquifers are being critically depleted. Declines in groundwater levels in combination with climate change-related threats—such as rising sea levels and recurrent periods of intense drought—put further pressure on water supply systems, potentially leading to longer periods of water rationing and reduced availability of safe potable water.

In fact, water pollution is one of Puerto Rico’s most serious environmental problems today as the island suffers the worst rate of drinking water violations of any state or territory in the United States.1 Factors such as an inefficient water management system, a dilapidated infrastructure, intense industrial and development activities combined with lax environmental regulations, and lack of a public policy for effective and sustainable management of water resources, have all contributed to Puerto Rico’s long-sustained water crisis.

Ongoing challenges regarding water access, unstable and unequal water distribution, and contamination risk were further aggravated after Hurricane María left the archipelago in a state of emergency. The aftermath of Hurricane María made evident that Puerto Rico’s water crisis is not one discrete crisis, but overlaps with a series of social, economic, political, and ecological crises that exacerbate one another. The collapse of potable water systems and other essential services such as power and communication networks, and the inefficient emergency response by both local and federal governments, made evident the “slow violence” that Puerto Rico has been suffering for decades.2 The extensive unfolding of multiple crises and structural social and economic injustices affecting Puerto Ricans are directly tied to the island’s colonial-neoliberal regime, and have been exponentially intensified by the federally-imposed austerity measures implemented in response to the economic debt.

However, the post-María experience also mobilized community action on critical issues such as energy independence (Casa Pueblo),3 food sovereignty (Boricuá),4 and alternative community water systems (non-PRASA communities),5 to name a few. These collective struggles join in the historical continuum of political resistance and environmental activism movements that since the 1960s have been condemning colonial-capitalist policies and development strategies which favor corporate profit over the environment and livelihood of the Puerto Rican people.

This special issue of the River Rail brings together an array of voices from diverse disciplinary backgrounds—arts, literature, sciences—to address the water crisis in Puerto Rico, its inextricable connection with the land/territory, and the multiple projects and strategies deployed to give visibility to and actively transform long-standing conditions of social and environmental injustice in Puerto Rico. Drawing on the notion of environmental colonialism, the texts as well as artistic, poetic and performance-based projects highlighted in this issue underscore the historical continuity of colonial exploitation, extractivism, and dispossession that continues to impact the social and natural ecologies of Puerto Rico today.6

Foregrounding the idea of the environment as a colonized space, environmental sociologist José Anazagasty-Rodríguez discusses how, since the early days of US domination, the management of Puerto Rico’s natural resources has been tied to a relentless capitalist ideology and logic of exploitation and extraction. Anazagasty-Rodríguez’s contribution to this issue, “Colonial Waterscapes: The Water Issue in Puerto Rico,” presents a brief historical account of water management in Puerto Rico since 1898—when the island passed from Spanish to US possession—and offers insights into the ways in which the transformation of the Puerto Rican waterscape has been intricately connected to the island’s colonial-capitalist history. As he notes, the management of our natural resources, including water, continue to be regulated by both local and federal laws and agencies, with the former subordinated to the latter. Hence, to thoroughly understand the transformation of Puerto Rico’s waterscape, one should consider the complex historical interrelations that have shaped it, including the power relations that have been at work throughout Puerto Rico’s colonial history under both Spanish and US-colonial rule.

The extractive logics and the exploitation of natural resources that have dominated Puerto Rico’s colonial history manifest today in myriad ways—from energy dependency, intense GMO production, or the new land-use zoning map that eliminates protections to existing agricultural and conservation lands across the island. In the context of this special issue, environmental colonialism is particularly discussed in relation to: 1) the hidden violence of pollution caused by petrochemical, pharmaceutical, and military industries; 2) community-based activism against socio-environmental degradation due to non-sustainable industrial and tourism development, and environmental injustices endured by disadvantaged coastal communities; and lastly, 3) the rupture of our connection with the natural environment.

Toxic Landscapes

Guided by a sense of environmental concern, visual artist Dhara Rivera has addressed the current state of our bodies of water for more than a decade. Instead of representing the hydrological landscape, Rivera’s multimedia works, collaborative projects, and public interventions in urban and natural spaces invite us to reconnect with the environment by invoking the symbolic healing and restoration of waterbodies that have been historically neglected.

Rivera’s multimedia project Río y Respiro (River and Breath, 2011–2012) pays homage to the largest watershed in the island, Río Grande de Loíza, situated on the north coast of Puerto Rico. This river, which has been a source of sustenance for nearby communities for centuries, is shrinking and is now highly contaminated with sediments as well as industrial and pharmaceutical waste. This sediment toxicity endangers marine life as well as the livelihoods of fishermen that rely on fishing for survival.

Anchored in site-specific research and oral histories, Río y Respiro is guided by the need to mend our natural and social landscapes. In this collaborative project, the notion of repair emerges through the connection of art, ritual, and memory. The use of glass spheres, a recurrent element in Rivera’s visual language, is highly significant in this work. They hold references to globes such as terrariums, which contain living environments within them. These hand-blown glass spheres operate like healing cups—breathing life into the tainted waters—as well as repositories of knowledge—vessels that contain the voices and collective memory of the surrounding communities.

From poetic references to the sea, to subtle engagements with environmental issues such as contaminated water or water scarcity in the island, the motif of water recurs in the literary work of contemporary Puerto Rican poet Mara Pastor. Her poems in Sal de magnesio (Magnesium Salt, 2015)—some of which are included in this issue—also explore the theme of healing and evoke the restorative properties of salt water through word play and a stripped-down poetic style.

In Falsa heladería (False Ice Cream Shop, 2018), Pastor’s poetry responds to the overwhelming reality of a colony in a perpetual state of collapse and unrest. For instance, her poems “Perishable Paradise I” and “Perishable Paradise II” from this collection address the problem of air and water pollution in the island from a testimonial perspective. The experience of moving back to Puerto Rico and living in the southern city of Ponce, after nearly 10 years abroad, led her to reflect on the ecological violence endured by local communities since the 1950s as a result of large-scale industrial development in the southern coast of Puerto Rico. Particularly, these poems address the devastating effects of the Commonwealth Oil Refinery Company (CORCO), the first major petrochemical and oil-refining industrial complex in the island, located between the towns of Peñuelas and Guayanilla. Established in 1954 in the context of Operation Bootstrap, the CORCO was part of a governmental strategy launched in the mid-1940s to develop and modernize Puerto Rico’s economy. While the refinery represented a shift on the local economy—becoming an important source of employment and one of the largest independent petroleum refiners and petrochemical producers worldwide—it also brought devastating environmental and social results, which are still felt today.

Several generations have witnessed the environmental impact caused by toxic emissions into the air, hot water discharges, and percolation of toxins in soils and aquifer systems in this coastal region. Even though various decontamination treatments have been carried out in the site since CORCO became inactive in 1982, these have not yet succeeded in completely removing the toxic waste and chemicals from the area’s land and waters.7 In addition, the creation of this huge petrochemical factory also had a significant impact in the transformation of the coastal landscape. Once a fertile agricultural area used to produce sugarcane and coffee, today most of the imposing structure and territory occupied by CORCO remains abandoned, except for a small portion that operates as a terminal for marine transportation and as a storage for crude oil and petroleum products.

The experience of living within toxic spaces/geographies, referenced in Pastor’s poetry, is all the more evident in the legacy of toxicity resulting from the military operations and activities carried out by the US Navy across the Puerto Rican archipelago. For decades, especially in the years following World War II, US military forces conducted ship-to-shore bombing exercises and other live-fire training activities on the island-municipalities of Vieques and Culebra, located off the southeastern coast of Puerto Rico. While the Navy was expelled from Culebra in 1975, after years of sustained anti-military mobilizations and protests, the island of Vieques was used as a training ground for war until 2003.

Vieques military occupation in 1941 resulted in the expropriation of vast expanses of land, which were formerly divided into western and eastern areas. Between these military sites lay the local civilian communities; around 10,000 US citizens caught among an ammunition depot and a military training zone.8 For more than 60 years, the Navy bombed the small island of Vieques from air, land, and sea. The fallout from six decades of military-training exercises—including the use of napalm, depleted uranium, and a host of other toxic chemicals and heavy metals—has caused irreparable harm to the environment and the health of the people.

The intense bombings and military maneuvers carried out in Vieques altered the landscape and social fabric in ways that linger long after the activities had ceased. The performative, literary, and visual contributions by Viveca Vázquez, Nicole Cecilia Delgado, and Beatriz Santiago included in this issue address Vieques’s toxic legacy, underscoring a history of sustained—visible and invisible—violence and environmental injustice rooted in colonialism and militarism.

The video piece Las playas son nuestras (The Beaches Are Ours, 1989) created by Viveca Vázquez—one of the pioneers of experimental dance and performance art in Puerto Rico—can be understood as a powerful criticism against the military occupation. The video portrays a group of women who walk towards the shore and submerge into the seascape. Their movements turn from vigilant to chaotic as a US Navy vessel looms on the horizon. A choreography of convulsive bodily movements precedes an image of floating lifeless bodies, which eventually are dragged onto the shore.

Filmed in the beaches of Vieques and Piñones (Loíza), the video highlights the coastline as a site of contention, alluding to Puerto Rico’s ongoing strife with colonialism. The women’s voluntary submersion into the contaminated waters recalls the response of many civilians who, using their bodies as defiant human shields, would persistently enter the toxic landscape of the bombing range as an act of civil disobedience. While, on the one hand, Vázquez’s powerful performance and video piece emphasizes the improvisation of movement as a vehicle of freedom, on the other, it enacts the violence of militarism, drawing our attention to the corporeal effects of toxicity, and the material and ideological residue of military and colonial exploitation.

Bookended with an image of a graffiti that reads “Las Playas son Nuestras” (The beaches are ours), Vázquez’s video also evokes the collective struggles that emerged in the late 1960s and intensified in the ’80s, in response to the privatization of land and public access to beaches across Puerto Rico.9 In this way, Vázquez’s work aligns with a long history of social movements advocating for the demilitarization of Vieques, as well as grassroots struggle to reclaim the coastal lands and beaches as a public space belonging to all Puerto Ricans. Moreover, Vazquez’s all-women video work reminds us of the crucial role that women have and continue to play in socio-environmental activism across Puerto Rico.10

While Vázquez’s video dates to the 1980s, its relevance today is striking—particularly in the ways it resonates with a younger generation of artists and writers engaged in a dynamic process of inquiry into post-military landscapes. In Subtropical Dry (2016), Nicole Cecilia Delgado—contemporary Puerto Rican poet, translator, book artist, and activist—denounces the ravages and burdens of colonialism and militarism from an ecopoetic perspective. Written in Vieques in 2015, this poetry book was the outcome of Delgado’s experience in Sonido Vieques, an itinerant walking seminar and collective sound project focused on the sensorial, social, and material traces of military training on the island.11

Delgado’s poetry in Subtropical Dry relays stories of resistance such as the social movement led by the island’s fishermen, and the massive popular protests sparked by the death of David Sanes in 1999. Sanes, a civilian guard on duty in the Naval base, was killed when bombs were fired next to the observation post where he was working. His death marked a rallying point for opponents of the US military occupation of the island, leading to the largest public demonstration ever recorded in Puerto Rico—prior to the historic summer of 2019 protests—and the Navy’s subsequent withdrawal from Vieques.12

After the US Navy left Vieques in 2003, the former military grounds were transferred to the US Department of the Interior and turned into a “wildlife refuge.” The conversion of a bombing range into a wildlife preserve allows the US military to evade responsibility for a toxic legacy of unexploded ordnance and cleanup of hazardous waste.13 Delgado’s poetry draws our attention to these toxic residues permeating the landscape, alluding to the ways in which the island's tropical ecology coexists with environmental devastation.

In addition to the continued struggle for the island’s decontamination and sustainable development, the Viequenses are also contending with gentrification. Vieques’s status as a wildlife refuge, a site preserved from development by its former military use, has been exploited by tourist corporations that promote the island’s landscape as representing untouched nature. Consequently, its increased tourist value is effectively displacing working-class residents from the island.14 All these challenging conditions reveal the multiple layers of violence that coalesce in this small island—described by many locals as “a colony of the colony” of Puerto Rico.

Contemporary artist Beatriz Santiago Muñoz’s silent 16 mm black-and-white film, Black Beach/Horse/Camp/The Dead/Forces (2016), is the result of long periods of observation and documentation of the island’s entangled social, political, and environmental histories. Shot in Vieques in 2016, the film evinces the artist’s interest in experimental ethnography, weaving together images of a man who performs a ritual intended to restore the “cosmic balance” of the land and release the island from toxicity; horses roam through an old target range filled with unexploded bombs; an artist helps to resurrect a sacred tree that was once on the naval base and has healed herself more than once; kids play with a skeleton on a black magnetite beach that is slowly eroding. Narrating stories of occupation, contamination, resistance, celebration, and death, these images draw our attention to the complexities between visual representation and the island’s underlying history of violence and political conflict.

Establishing relationships with people directly connected to the territory, Santiago Muñoz’s film blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction. Through the visual exploration of the sensorial and material world these subjects inhabit, Black Beach addresses the embodied experience of intergenerational trauma, attesting to how issues of environmental pollution are also profoundly social in character. The lack of sound throughout the film can be read as alluding to the six decades of sonic contamination caused by military training activities. The silence combined with rapid exposures of black and white images further enhance the invisible, immaterial traces concealed by Vieques’s seemingly unspoiled post-military landscape.

An interest in the legacies of colonialism and militarism in Puerto Rico is also present in the work of dancer-performance artist nibia pastrana santiago. Strongly influenced by Viveca Vazquez’s experimental dance approach and mentorship, pastrana santiago investigates the relationship between dance and post-military territories through site-specific “choreographic events.” Her large-scale piece fuerzas sutiles (subtle forces, 2017), featured in this issue, is anchored in a two-year research project on the coastal site of San Juan Bay, an inlet adjacent to Old San Juan in northeastern Puerto Rico. This semi-enclosed body of water is home to the Port of San Juan, the main port during the Spanish colonial times, and one of the busiest seaport facilities in the Caribbean today. It also borders the Isla Grande Airport, a former military base built by the US Navy on mangrove swamps prior to World War II.15

Once considered “the most complete and most modern American [military] base,” Isla Grande Airport provided the ideal framework for pastrana santiago’s piece.16 Set inside a plane hangar—overlooking the airstrip, the San Juan Bay, and the Capitol Building of Puerto Rico—fuerzas sutiles combined a series of fixed and improvised dance sequences, pastrana santiago’s own movement language, and maritime and aviation elements from the surrounding landscape. Here, the concept of dance can be understood as operating in an expanded field where chance, scale, and aerial soundscape acted as extended choreographic gestures. Rather than operating as a stage or scenography, the urban topography relayed the frictions and complex political and historical layers of a site that currently manages tourist and commercial operations. While this airport may no longer bear explicit association with militarism, today its military imprint finds continuity in “colonial tourism.”

pastrana santiago describes this site as “a highly choreographed space” in which the entry and exit of cargo ships and cruises comprise a series of maneuvers, imported products, protocols, and laws. These intricate arrangements directly allude to Puerto Rico’s economic dependence on the United States, as it is here where the import and export of goods and merchandise continues to be controlled.17 This way, fuerzas sutiles foregrounds the San Juan Bay as a complex site where uneven power relations and colonial structures are not only enacted, but systematically reinforced and perpetuated. Combining the poetics of corporeal movements with the politics of everyday operations, pastrana santiago’s piece disrupts—even if temporarily—the choreographed systems of oppression at play in the site, prompting renewed ways to think and understand territory.

Environmental Justice & Community Activism

The struggles against US militarism and its toxic legacy in Puerto Rico should be understood within a broader historical framework that connects environmental justice movements with a rich history of resistance and anticolonial and anti-imperialist mobilizations in Puerto Rico. Dating back to the mid-1960s, early environmental groups mobilized against industrial and petrochemical pollution brought about by Operation Bootstrap, open-pit mining, and exploitation of nonrenewable resources.18 Opposing extractivism and defending natural resources as part of the island’s national patrimony, environmental discourse in the 60s and 70s was inherently political, and linked to claims for independence and national sovereignty.

Since the mid-1980s, environmental activism in Puerto Rico has centred mostly on issues pertaining to the management and disposal of hazardous waste,19 water pollution,20 and protection and access to natural resources, particularly in coastal zones. Since the 1990s, there has been an increase in community-based environmental mobilization rooted in a deep democratic consciousness and a discourse based on socio-environmental justice and sustainability. These environmental groups collectively design and implement tactics and strategies, educate and organize communities, engage in co-management arrangements, and underscore the importance of local indigenous and traditional forms of knowledge and resource use.21 Additionally, these organizations have been crucial in broadening the composition of environmental movements in the island and its diasporas, encouraging civic engagement practices and public debate, while placing environmental issues as a priority on the political agenda.

Even though environmental problems have been present throughout Puerto Rico, including in mountainous inland areas, the coastal zone has been one of the main sites of social and political contention in the past few decades.22 Most of these historical contentions have emerged in response to development and construction projects connected to the tourism industry, which has led to the commodification of the coastal areas at the expense of the environment.

The case of Playuela, a beach located in Aguadilla at the northwestern tip of the island, is a significant example of ongoing community-based struggles against deforestation, “coastal gentrification,” and the devastation of the island’s coastal resources due to construction and tourism-driven predatory developmental practices. Covering more than 4,000 feet of coastline, Playuela is among the few unspoiled and undeveloped strips of land remaining in Puerto Rico. Since 1995, the community of Playuela and several local environmental organizations have been fighting to stop tourism development projects in what is considered one of Puerto Rico’s most important ecological areas. For over three decades, they have engaged in protests, civil disobedience practices, legal disputes, as well as cultural and educational programs to halt the controversial Christopher Columbus Landing Resort. The proposed luxury hotel would dramatically alter 121 acres of ecological value, disrupting multiple ecosystems, causing irreversible damage to the flora and fauna, as well as to marine habitats and recently found archeological sites. Citizen/grassroots opposition to this project illustrate the ways in which environmental activism in the Puerto Rican archipelago has been inextricably connected with struggles for the defense of territory/land as well as defense for the livelihood, culture, history, and sense of identity of the people.

Among the initiatives to protect this natural reserve, the community of Playuela has been documenting the flora and fauna that inhabit the coastal valley for years—to date, the inventory amounts to more than 500 species. During 2016 and 2017, artist, writer, and naturalist Javier Román visited the campsite Campamento Rescate Playuela. Drawing on his experience in star- and birdwatching, he photographed endemic birds, including many identified as endangered species.23 Román’s photographic documentation contributes to mitigate biodiversity loss in the area and joins in the community’s efforts to create public awareness of the negative environmental impact of this development project.

Similarly, Steve Maldonado Silvestrini’s contribution to this issue illustrates how botanical research can be instrumental to the preservation of coastal habitats and support environmental activism in significant ways. By focusing on the study, identification, and archival documentation of coastal plants, Maldonado Silvestrini discusses the devastating impact that intense urbanization and proliferation of hotel-tourist development projects have had in coastal zones around the island. For instance, the botanical research in the natural reserve of Playuela, often regarded by developers as “non-valuable” grasslands, has enabled the identification of several endangered plant species and the discovery of an unregistered native tree that was previously considered extinct. After Hurricane María, new populations of endangered rare species popped up where they had never been seen before. These findings attest to the rich biodiversity of these areas and provide valuable insight into the transformation of coastal landscapes and coastal ecosystems dynamics. Building an archive of local botanical species, as Maldonado Silvestrini contends, is also an attempt at preserving the collective memory of natural spaces. In this case, the coastal zones that are continuously under threat by development projects as well as erosion due to rising sea levels and global warming.

The non-sustainable approaches implemented by the tourism and urban development sectors often include inadequate planning strategies and policy moves, with poorly addressed long-term environmental and socio-economic impacts.24 One of the many consequences of this top-down approach has been the social and economic marginalization, dispossession, and impoverished livelihoods of local communities. Coastal neighborhoods such as Barrio Vietnam in Guaynabo and El Caño Martín Peña in San Juan are examples of communities that have been marginalized by state and municipal governments through the lack of provision of adequate basic services/resources, and overall disregard for their social, cultural, and environmental needs.

Historically, these informal settlements emerged as the result of internal mass migration during the post-war period. The economic transformation and emerging tourism industry drew waves of Puerto Ricans from rural areas into the island’s cities. The rapid urbanization growth exerted pressure on existing infrastructure and imposed new demands on the urban planning apparatus. The government’s inability to meet the growing lodging needs led many impoverished families to settle informally in ecologically sensitive areas of the city such as low-lying wetlands, mangroves along rivers, mountain slopes, and coastal areas close to the sea.25 The fact that the inhabitants of these shantytowns continue to live in conditions of marginality and poverty is not a coincidence. As Law Professor Érika Fontánez Torres observes, this speaks to “the history of inequality, class prejudice, and racial and political discrimination in the country.”26 The ongoing class struggles of communities like Barrio Vietnam and El Caño Martín Peña expose the failure and systemic inequality embedded in the housing and urban planning systems, as well as the role that federal and local government neglect have played in the perpetuation of poverty and exclusion of Puerto Rican citizens.

Like many other informal settlements that emerged in the second half of the 20th century, Barrio Vietnam was created by low-income families that relocated to the metropolitan area in the 1960s and ’70s and built makeshift shacks on reclaimed, landfilled mangroves. Since then, this community has endured multiple floods, hurricanes, and eviction attempts. Located in Guaynabo, bordering the southern banks of the San Juan Bay, the Vietnam neighborhood is the only sector of the municipality with a coastline. However, this landscape is dotted with empty lots as local officials have expropriated over 300 homes in the area. According to many residents, this neighborhood looks like a battle ground due to the constant demolitions of houses and buildings. Alluding to the Vietnam War—where many Puerto Ricans had been conscripted to serve—the name of the barrio references the resident’s long standing fight over property rights and gentrification. The visual essay featured in this issue by photographer Chris Gregory-Rivera illustrates the resiliency of this disenfranchised neighborhood and gives visibility to the struggles and hopes of a community that has been mostly kept out of sight.

Barrio Vietnam’s conflict has involved intimidation tactics, harassment, illegal expropriations, and years-long legal battles because of a waterfront tourism development plan. The proposed high-end tourism project, which comprises a mixed-use complex that includes a luxury hotel, an aquarium, a boardwalk, among other commercial and leisure facilities, would capitalize and take advantage of Vietnam’s seaside views. Although promoted as a “revitalization project” meant to boost the city’s economy, the government’s strategic displacement of people and intent to gentrify the area has been mining the coastal landscape as well as the wellbeing, culture, and identity of the community for over two decades. These circumstances have prompted the community to take matters into their own hands. By empowering their communities and creating strategic alliances with other groups and organizations, they confront the State and advocate for their right to remain in the land that they built.

Amongst the most notable examples of community activism in PR are the informal urban settlements established along the Caño Martín Peña (CMP), a main channel and artery of the estuary of San Juan Bay. With a strong focus on civic participation, these marginalized communities have been able to transform an infrastructure project initially led by the State into a participatory project aimed at the integral development of its communities. Combining the fight for the restoration of water resources and the fight for basic services and against environmental degradation, these communities strive to overcome their historical conditions of poverty and restructure Puerto Rico’s relationship with its underserved communities.27

Originally used as an inland waterway for transport and commerce in the north of the island, over the years the channel has become clogged with sediment and debris, blocking the flow of water to the bay. Aggravated by an inadequate sanitary sewer system and stormwater systems, today the CMP is heavily polluted and one of the most flood prone areas in Santurce. Thus, at times of heavy rain, entire streets, houses, and schools get flooded with polluted waters putting at risk the health and safety of the community.

In the early 2000s, the ENLACE Project, an environmental rehabilitation and social justice initiative, was created to tackle the environmental problems caused by accumulated in-fill, on-going illegal dumping, historical neglect, and legal land disputes. Working closely with the non-profit organization Grupo de las Ocho Comunidades Aledañas al Caño Martín Peña (G8) and the CMP Community Land Trust, Proyecto ENLACE coordinates and implements public policy regarding the sustainable restoration of the Caño Martín Peña ecosystem and the urban, social, and economic development of its surrounding communities. The essay featured in this issue, “Caño Martín Peña: A Case Study in Community Action,” written collectively by leading members of ENLACE and G8, explores the origins of this community-led project and discusses some of the strategies developed to transform this important ecosystem into an asset for the surrounding communities.

Among ENLACE’s main concerns has been the urgent dredging to restore water flow within the channel and improve water quality within the estuary. Notwithstanding the multiple efforts and proposals presented by the CMP community (e.g. campaign ¡Dragado Ya! (Dredging Now!)), to this day this environmental justice project remains a pending agenda item awaiting the allocation of federal funds.28

In a context where local communities tend to be excluded from policy and decision-making processes, ensuring effective participation of the residents of the eight communities in all aspects of environmental restoration and community development is fundamental to the CMP collective initiatives. Residents of all ages work together in a variety of programs and activities such as community gardens and art-related activities that foster environmental awareness, community empowerment, and prevent the involuntary displacement and gentrification of these communities. Collective actions toward environmental restoration of the CMP have also included water quality monitoring. Involving students and “non-expert” citizens, this kind of initiative challenges top-down approaches to environmental knowledge by recognizing the critical participation of ordinary citizens as an effective strategy to address environmental concerns. More importantly, CMP’s community-based activism has played a key role in pushing forward an environmental discourse that extends beyond nature to encompass broader health, social justice, and human rights issues.

Similarly, the Institute for Socio-Ecological Research (ISER Caribe) has been joining efforts between government institutions, academia, civil society, and local community and environmental organizations in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean since its foundation in 2012. Some of ISER’s transdisciplinary research and educational projects include citizen science monitoring programs for water quality control, as well as coastal clean-ups and marine vegetation restoration projects. In the aftermath of Hurricane María in 2018, ISER collaborated with the School of Architecture of the Universidad Católica de Ponce, on a green infrastructure project at The Playa community, a coastal area in the southern town of Ponce that suffers from flooding problems and non-point source water contamination.

The Playa Rain Garden Project consisted of the recovery and transformation of abandoned spaces into a sustainable and functional community space. Projects like this have been key to the environmental conservation of vulnerable seaside communities as they help reduce pollutants carried by rainfall runoff. Given its location in a flood prone area, these rain gardens also help to mitigate the processes of flooding and erosion of the coasts, while contributing to the conservation of marine ecosystems in the southern coast of the island.

By encouraging citizen participation in socio-environmental projects, ISER contributes to the transition from centralized governmental management into community-led stewardship of natural resources within social ecological systems. This increases the autonomy for local populations to shape and take control of their livelihoods, establishing a memory of direct action amongst the citizens that can serve to empower future generations.

Paradigm Shift

The narratives of socio-environmental justice and community activism featured in this issue raise awareness on environmental change and ecological sustainability, while imagining practical solutions for more sustainable futures. The research and practice of agroceramicist, multidisciplinary artist, and environmental advocate, Amara Abdal Figueroa is closely aligned with those community and environmental justice movements that not only condemn the commodification and extraction of our natural resources but actively pursue alternative approaches that counter the logics of colonial extractivism and various modes of dependency we have inherited—economic, energetic, subjective.

Abdal Figueroa’s ongoing interdisciplinary project, Tierrafiltra, consists of a water filter made from locally sourced clay that aims to improve the water quality in Puerto Rico. Although water access had always been central to Abdal Figueroa’s practice, the focus on a clay water filtration system emerged in 2017, after the passing of hurricanes Irma and María exacerbated Puerto Rico’s water-related issues (e.g., lack of potable water, contamination, deficient water management system), further exposing the island’s colonial situation. Since then, achieving water sovereignty has been one of her main goals. Tierrafiltra challenges the “capitalist developmentalism” model that has dominated the planning and use of land and water in Puerto Rico by generating infrastructure to improve the access and quality of water.29 Relying on rainwater collection or water from natural springs and open-source technology, this regenerative project offers a viable alternative model to the dependency of imported materials, equipment, and high operational costs.

Working across art, ecology, microbiology, and archeology, Abdal Figueroa’s project combines the study of local clay bodies with the construction of a network of wood and gas fueled kilns. The project builds on conversations with members of the non-profit, social justice organization Potters for Peace, and furthers the legacy of Ron Rivera, a Puerto Rican activist who dedicated his life to opening filter factories around the world guided by the belief that access to potable water is a basic human right.

Abdal Figueroa’s Tierrafiltra project reclaims and reinterprets indigenous ancestral knowledge in pottery making techniques. In so doing, it contributes to strengthening traditional ceramic practices in the island which have been slowly eradicated by colonial and capitalist policies that alienate us from our land/landscape. Her investigations into the relationship between water and landscape are evident in her poetic reflection Jácana, ¿dónde estás? included in this issue.30 Here, she evokes the sacred ceremonial site of Jácana in Ponce, a pre-Columbian site of immense archeological and cultural significance. Although its history has been obliterated, its existence perpetuates the connection with our indigenous ancestry. In a Caribbean context where water abounds yet it is often the focus of multiple injustices and violences, Abdal Figueroa proposes a trajectory towards collective healing, and invites us to connect with indigenous traditions and practices through nature. To consider nature as an integral part of our identity rather than an extension or product of capital.

Similarly, in her contribution to this issue curator Michy Marxuach addresses the ways in which capitalist demands for productivity, individualism, and excessive consumerism have led to a radical disconnect between us and our natural habitat. This disjuncture has resulted in recklessness, inaction, and neglect of that which sustains our lives in this world. As environmentalist Gustavo García López argues, we can no longer think of water as a commodity and inexhaustible resource, but rather as a common good that must be managed collectively for the well-being and sustainability of the population.31

We have to “change everything.” Marxuach’s text is a call for action. She underlines the importance of listening to nature and cultivating a more ecologically responsible relationship with our environment. Most of all, it is fundamental that we acknowledge our interdependence with nature. To this end, we need to reformulate from the ground up our hegemonic ways of relating to nature as well as with other living organisms. Thinking of non-anthropocentric modes of governance, Marxuach proposes water as the new protagonist, as a potential agent of change that can guide us in the process of relearning new forms of relating to and existing in the world. Although many of our bodies of water have been neglected and contaminated, they “contain the common denominator to all forms of life.” But how much do we know about the hydrologic relationship that constitutes us? Marxuach asks. Can we allow ourselves to be guided by the wisdom of the waters? Can water teach us to treat our environment more carefully and responsibly?

A different approach to water ethics could surely be guided by these reflections, which are also present in “Waters,” an essay by Anayra Santory, scholar and former editor of Para la Naturaleza. Tracing the route of this material substance—water—as it makes its way from the source to her home, Santory addresses the precarious infrastructure of our water system in the aftermath of Hurricane María. She highlights the relationship between water and landscape by linking it to the island’s geographical and geological topography, while elucidating the intricate, underground networks that connect us to this vital resource.

For many of us who come from the Caribbean, water anchors our sense of home and belonging to this world. Our lives are irremediably connected to water: the waters that surround us and sustain us; that divide us and connect us. Yet we have an extremely limited understanding of the nexus between water, culture, and environment. This lack of knowledge, as Santory argues, normalizes and perpetuates resource exploitation and makes us complicit in the systemic negligence and lack of preservation of our water bodies. Echoing Marxuach, Santory addresses the human-nature disjunction and warns us: “If we don’t rebuild the route to the water that sustains us and that to an extent we all have lost … we won’t reestablish the relationships of mutual care that we should have with life itself.”

The need for a deeper human connection with nature suggested by Abdal Figueroa, Marxuach, and Santory Jorge, is represented by the Calendario Ecológico (Ecological Calendar) created by Para La Naturaleza, a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of Puerto Rico’s lands and ecosystems. Co-authored by Anayra Santory Jorge and Ramdwin González-Otero, the calendar includes a variety of scientific data on natural processes that occur throughout the year, such as lunar phases, sunlight hours per day, the flowering-fructification periods of native trees, as well as rainy and drought seasons. The visual illustration of these events proposes a different understanding of time to that of our modern capitalist culture. Instead, it helps us to observe and locate ourselves in relation to the natural phenomena that affects our subsistence and well-being. In this way, the ecological calendar serves as an educational tool that seeks to foster an ecological culture in Puerto Rico and raise awareness about natural cycles and their fundamental interdependence with our everyday lives.

Now more than ever we need to pay closer attention to nature. The current state of the planet—characterized by a global health pandemic, climate change, and multiple systemic crises—demands a radical paradigm change based on a shared sense of responsibility and stronger connection with the earth, other species, and the natural world around us. In this spirit, the interdisciplinary contributions included in this special issue of the River Rail not only bring to the fore vital questions of environmental precarity and degradation, but also envision and rehearse new ecological imaginaries and ways of inhabiting the world.

  1. For more information, see: “99.5 Percent of Puerto Rico’s Population Served from Drinking Water Systems that Violated Federal Standards,” NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), May 10, 2017, accessed May 3, 2020, https://www.nrdc.org/resources/threats-tap-drinking-water-violations-puerto-rico /.
  2. Frances Negrón-Muntaner, “Puerto Rico Was Undergoing a Humanitarian Crisis Long before Maria,” Pacific Standard, September 29, 2017, accessed September 20, 2020, https://psmag.com/social-justice/puerto-rico-was-undergoing-a-humanitarian-crisis-long-before-hurricane-maria.
  3. For more information on Casa Pueblo, their projects, and history, visit: https://casapueblo.org/.
  4. For more information on La Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica, visit: http://organizacionboricua.blogspot.com/p/enlaces.html.
  5. See Javier A. Arce-Nazario, “Resilience and community pride after a hurricane: counter-narratives from rural water systems in Puerto Rico,” Alternautas, accessed March 30, 2020, http://www.alternautas.net/blog/2018/9/7/resilience-and-community-pride-after-a-hurricane-counter-narratives-from-rural-water-systems-in-puerto-rico.
  6. To read more about environmental colonialism in the context of Puerto Rico, see for example: Carmen Milagros Concepción, “The Origins of Modern Environmental Activism in Puerto Rico in the 1960’s,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 19, no. 1 (1995): 112–128. Also: José M. Atiles-Osoria, “Environmental Colonialism, Criminalization and Resistance: Puerto Rican Mobilizations for Environmental Justice in the 21st Century,” RCCS Annual Review 6 (October 2014): 3-21.
  7. Javier Almeyda Loucil, “Un Balance Vital (CORCO 1976),” Biblioteca Virtual de Puerto Rico, August 30, 2016, accessed November 20, 2020, https://bibliotecavirtualpr.wordpress.com/2016/08/30/un-balance-vital-corco-1976/.
  8. Javier Arbona, “Vieques, Puerto Rico: From Devastation to Conservation and Back Again,” Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review 17, no. 1 (Fall 2005): 36.
  9. Although Vázquez’s practice does not abide to any particular political party or organization, the graffiti effectively calls forth the slogan of the campaign “Las Playas pa’l Pueblo” (The beaches are for the people) promoted by the Movimiento Pro Independencia de Puerto Rico (MPI), and later the Partido Socialista Puertorriqueño (Puerto Rican Socialist Party, PSP) in the ’60s, which aimed at recovering the beach from foreign hands and the military by denouncing colonialism and privatization, and arguing for the access to the beach as a right of Puerto Rican working families. See Érika Fontánez Torres, “El discurso legal en la construcción del espacio público: Las playas son públicas, nuestras, del pueblo,” Revista de Ciencias Sociales 20 (2009): 42–77.
  10. See Roxanna Domenech Cruz, “Las mujeres, la justicia socioambiental y el cambio climático: Un homenaje a Haydée Colón Cardona,” Perspectivas en Asuntos Ambientales 4 (2015): 14-24.
  11. Sonido Vieques was organized by Beta-Local, a non-profit art organization, with artists Beatriz Santiago Muñoz and Michelle Nonó in collaboration with Radio Vieques. These seminars—anchored in geography, local knowledge, and emergent artistic practices—critically examine Puerto Rico’s current and past political and social conditions, particularly in the context of post-military spaces.
  12. For more information on the September 2019 protests that ousted Ricardo Rosselló, former governor of Puerto Rico, see Pedro Cabán, “The Summer 2019 Uprising: Building a New Puerto Rico,” NACLA, October 21, 2019, accessed July 27, 2020, https://nacla.org/news/2019/10/11/puerto-rico-political-future-protests.
  13. Arbona, 40.
  14. Ibid. 40.
  15. Though Isla Grande was originally an island, it and the surrounding mangrove swamps were filled in to accommodate the construction of the WWII San Juan Naval Air Station.
  16. “Puerto Rico Air Base” The Kalgoorlie Miner (WA: 1895-1954), January 16, 1942, 5, accessed August 15, 2020, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article95157767.
  17. The Merchant Marine Act of 1920, or Jones Act, is the foundation for protectionist cabotage laws that administer shipping in the United States, and it is imposed in the mainland territories across the globe (Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam, and Alaska). In Puerto Rico, the Jones Act had two purposes: it declared that Puerto Ricans were American citizens; and at the same time, it limited Puerto Rico’s commerce by only allowing it to sell its products to the United States. For a recent study on this outdated policy, see Colin Grabow, “New Report Exposes Jones Act’s Flaws,” The Cato Institute, May 23, 2019, accessed June 23, 2020, https://www.cato.org/blog/new-report-exposes-jones-acts-flaws.
  18. According to Carmen M. Concepción, environmental activism in Puerto Rico started almost 20 years before many other nations. For more on this topic, see Carmen M. Concepción, “The Origins of Modern Environmental Activism in Puerto Rico in the 1960’s,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 19 (March 1995): 112.
  19. In recent years, movements such as Campamento Contra las Cenizas de Carbón en Peñuelas (Encampment Against Coal Ashes in Peñuelas) have fought to eradicate the practice of dumping toxic ash from coal in local landfills. The group formed to demand the closure of the islands’ only coal-fired plant, owned by Applied Energy Systems (AES), and to expose the health and environmental threats impacting vulnerable communities like the southern town of Peñuelas.
  20. In the 1990s, cases such as Movimiento Agua Pa’l Campo and Movimiento Agua Para todos (MAPT) emerged in the metropolitan area and eastern region of the country. These environmental movements were characterized by their struggles for access against unequal distribution of water resources and lack of planning and maintenance of water systems infrastructure, defending water as a human right, and promoting citizen participation to demand access to drinking water.
  21. See Ambiente y democracia: Experiencias de gestión comunitaria en Puerto Rico, ed. Gustavo García López, Carmen M. Concepción, and Alejandro Torres Abreu (San Juan: Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, 2018): 26.
  22. Manuel Valdés Pizzini, “Historical Contentions and Future Trends in the Coastal Zones: The Environmental Movement in Puerto Rico,” in Beyond Sun and Sand: Caribbean Environmentalisms, ed. Sherrie L. Baver and Barbara Deutsch Lynch (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2006): 47.
  23. Some of Javier Román’s publications include Sounds of Watching: A Visual Guide to Urban Ornithology in Old San Juan (Roqué Stahl Ltd, 2015), and A Book of Stars: Un Libro de Estrellas (Roqué Stahl Ltd, 2020).
  24. Edwin A. Hernández-Delgado, Carlos E. Ramos-Scharrón, Carmen R. Guerrero-Pérez, Mary Ann Lucking, Ricardo Laureano, Pablo A. Méndez-Lázaro, and Joel O. Meléndez-Díaz, “Long-Term Impacts of Non-Sustainable Tourism and Urban Development in Small Tropical Islands Coastal Habitats in a Changing Climate: Lessons Learned from Puerto Rico,” in Visions from Global Tourism Industry—Creating and Sustaining Competitive Strategies, ed. M. Kasimoglu, (IntechOpen, 2012): 360.
  25. Line Algoed, María E. Hernández Torrales, and Lyvia Rodríguez Del Valle, “El Fideicomiso de la Tierra del Caño Martín Peña Instrumento Notable de Regularización de Suelo en Asentamientos Informales,” Lincoln Institute of Land Policy (June 2018): 7, https://www.lincolninst.edu/sites/default/files/pubfiles/algoed_wp18la1sp.pdf.
  26. Erika Fontánez Torres, “Vivienda, titularidad y resiliencia,” El Nuevo Día, September 6, 2019, accessed January 11, 2021, https://erikafontanez.com/2019/10/21/vivienda-titularidad-y-resiliencia-columna/.
  27. Algoed, Torrales, and Rodríguez Del Valle, 2.
  28. Rafael R. Díaz Torres, “Cuerpo de Ingenieros y Departamento de la Vivienda impiden que los residentes del Caño Martín Peña logren su justicia ambiental,” Centro de Periodismo Investigativo: Los Chavos de María, January 28, 2021, accessed February 5, 2021, https://periodismoinvestigativo.com/2021/01/cuerpo-de-ingenieros-y-departamento-de-la-vivienda-impiden-que-los-residentes-del-cano-martin-pena-logren-su-justicia-ambiental/?mc_cid=2cf2f5b783&mc_eid=6befe586ed.
  29. García López, “From the political-economic drought to collective and sustainable water management,” Alternautas 2, issue 2 (December 2015): 57.
  30. Amara Abdal Figueroa’s poem “Jácana, ¿dónde estás?” was previously published in nos vemos el miércoles a las diez de la mañana, printed in risograph at La Impresora, Puerto Rico, 2019. For more information on the pre-Columbian archeological site of Jácana, see Ernie Xavier Rivera Collazo, “El barrio Tibes: cuna de uno de los más antiguos asentamientos del país,” La Perla del Sur, July 24, 2019, accessed January 27, 2021, https://www.periodicolaperla.com/el-barrio-tibes-cuna-de-uno-de-las-mas-antiguos-asentamientos-del-pais/.
  31. For more on this topic, see García López, “From the political-economic drought to collective and sustainable water management,” 56.


Iberia Pérez González

Iberia Pérez González is the Andrew W. Mellon Caribbean Cultural Institute Coordinator at the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM). She received a Ph.D. in Art History and Theory from the University of Essex (United Kingdom), and an MPhil in Contemporary Art in a Global Perspective from Leiden University (the Netherlands). Her interdisciplinary research engages with contemporary art in Latin America and the Caribbean, with a focus on artist’s initiatives and self-organized networks, and the intersection between art, politics, and the environment. She has written for scholarly publications and exhibition catalogues, and worked in various research, curatorial, and editorial platforms in Europe, the United States, and Puerto Rico. Prior to joining PAMM, she was a C-MAP Fellow for Latin America and the Caribbean at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, where she also collaborated with the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Research Institute.

Natalia Viera Salgado

Natalia Viera Salgado is a Puerto Rican curator and curatorial consultant based in New York City and Puerto Rico. She is also the co-founder of Pública Espacio Cultural, an independent art space in Alto del Cabro, Santurce, Puerto Rico. Her art historical research focuses on contemporary art in relation to decolonial practices, architecture, social and environmental justice, and new media with a keen interest in hybrid and interdisciplinary projects. She has collaborated with División de Diseño, and worked at El Museo del Barrio, Art in General, Socrates Sculpture Park, and The Nathan Cummings Foundation. Currently, she is the Assistant Curator of Visual Arts at Americas Society, and is the curatorial resident at the Abrons Arts Center (2020-2021).


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