Recollections on the Cartography of the Caribbean Coast
By studying the indigenous and alien species found on coastal habitats, botanist and architect Steve Maldonado Silvestrini builds a picture of an ever-changing coastline.
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A wave is a pulse, from the beyond and unknown, that reaches a limit and crashes. In the crash, not only does the wave break, but also that which is in its path. For anyone who has lived in the Caribbean, the memory of sand castles falling apart from the crashing of waves is ubiquitous. But perhaps the memory of what the coast used to look like when we were younger is dim, and even in that dim memory, there is nothing close to how it may have been for our parents and grandparents. It wasnʼt long ago that the only way one could get to many places in the world was by the sea and by the coast. But memory is diffuse, and may change with the same quickness that things in the natural world often do. We may think something could have been where it never was, like phantom islands—islands that were put on maps but later proved to have never existed. Although they may have vanished the same way new islands are being formed as you read this.
In the era of the Anthropocene,1 natural volcanic islands surface in the central Pacific Ocean, just as engineered islands appear in the Arabian Gulf and the Great Pacific garbage patch,2 which is not quite engineered and not quite an island.3 Change is inevitable, a wave crashes and erases footsteps, a wave crashes and erodes the foundations of a million dollar, all-inclusive, tropical paradise hotel, causing it to cave into the sea bed. After Hurricane María, much of what had been predicted for years by scientists and environmental activists came to pass. Coastlines with hotels or urban developments suffered greatly.4 Beaches disappeared forever and even landmarks like the pier at Crash Boat beach in Aguadilla and the Dog Rock reef in Condado were damaged considerably.5
We could argue that just as developers are making islands from scratch, the same could be done with coastlines; eventually fixing what has been broken, damaged or trashed. But perhaps it would be pertinent to ponder what is it that we are trying to restore. A memory that is already altered? Even by looking at a timeline of aerial photographs we could not know what the appropriate way to restore a coastline is. For developers, these questions tend to have an easy solution. Building sandy white beaches, planting palm trees and placing umbrellas are some of the elements used in the design of coastlines in the tropics, often disregarding the context. The homogenization of coastlines in the tropics has been used to market the idea of a “tropical” aesthetic that has been developed and replicated in a similar way architectural modernism’s International style dots major cities worldwide.6
The tourism-industrial complex a product of globalization and unrestrained capitalism,7 utilizes flora as connective tissue within this idea of “tropical,” where native context is erased and replaced with a standardized idea of “exotic.”8 In other words, native species have been plucked out and coastal ecosystems deforested just to be replaced with alien species. In the Caribbean, we now have coastlines that look very similar to those in Tahiti due to the species being planted on beachfront areas. Crystalline waters, sandy beaches, and coconut palms accompanied by alien plant species: beach naupaka (Scaevola taccada), Australian pine (Casuarina equisetifolia), Indian almond (Terminalia catappa), and screw pines (Pandanus spp.) to name a few. Some people may argue that this is not a problem since plant biodiversity is a great thing to have, especially on depleted coastlines; which if left bare would disappear due to erosion—but it is not that simple. Many of these species do not adapt to the new locations where they are introduced, and often die soon after being planted. Others are naturalized and super-adapted, having no natural predators or regulators they proliferate and eventually displace native species, many of which are already endangered.9 Beach naupaka (Scaevola taccada), an example of an alien naturalized species, has been planted in nearly every single coastal development in the Caribbean. While inkberry (Scaevola plumieri), its nearly identical—but native—sister, is threatened due to its displacement.
Conservationists generally emphasize working with native and endemic species, having zero tolerance for alien species. This agenda may sometimes have complex and questionable nationalist undertones, that may even seem xenophobic or racist if we were talking about people instead of plants. It is important to protect the local species that could be lost forever and replaced by an abundance of common look-alikes. These native species have existed for centuries in this locality, evolving to be better prepared for the changes that take place on these islands; the same way the alien species are better prepared for certain changes and conditions present in their homeland.
Not all alien species are harmful though. Some may even help in the resettling of native species. A lot of the soils in coastal areas were depleted during the times of intense sugarcane industry and many native species now lack the nutrients to thrive or survive in these pseudo-wastelands. Alien species in some cases have restored niches for native and endemic species, which thrive on the understory, protected from intense sunlight and benefiting from the distinct ecological services the alien species provide. Hurricanes often wipe out non-adapted alien species and give the well-adapted natives a head start, enabling them to take back their original place. Without the help of many alien species like river tamarind (Leucaena leucocephala), a nitrogen-fixing tree, or African tulip tree (Spathodea campanulata), which is rapid-growing and shade providing, many of our secondary forests would not exist. Secondary forests sprouted in Puerto Rico between 1930 and 1950 due to the collapse of the main agriculture industries; namely, sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum), tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum), and coffee (Coffea arabica). These lands had been deforested and depleted of nutrients due to the intensive monoculture practice of industrial agriculture. When left abandoned, native and alien plant species that are pioneers in propagation and growth, including those mentioned earlier, established themselves on these lands, generating new types of forests. Tobacco and coffee were mostly cultivated in the mountainous regions of the island, while sugarcane was cultivated in wetlands and coastal plains. During this period, people from the mountain regions and countryside started moving towards the coast to look for jobs and a better quality of life. The mountain region started to become less populated, and plants thrived more since they were left alone. On the other hand, the coast and its flora kept suffering. Barrios, slums and favela-like neighborhoods were established by many of the poor folks that could not move to already built structures because they were too expensive and had insufficient capacity to accommodate the influx of people establishing themselves in the capital and surrounding areas. Neighborhoods like El Fanguito, Cantera and Caño Martín Peña in Santurce or La Perla in Old San Juan are examples of these coastal barrios.10 Hotel development was also incentivized by the government during these years and the following few decades, always opting to build close to or on the coast. Some examples of luxury hotel complexes built on the coasts of San Juan are the Caribe Hilton, which altered the rocky nature of that coast to house a private sandy beach, and La Concha.11
In the report Rare and Endangered Plants of Puerto Rico (1975), Roy Woodbury,12 renowned botanist and taxonomist who did substantial work on Puerto Rican flora, stated:
Coastal habitats, other than mangrove, have been practically obliterated in Puerto Rico. Rapid urban, recreation, and tourist developments threaten the few remaining small patches of such habitats. Aside from land use pressure, the remaining swamps are also vulnerable to changes in their delicate water balance. Mangroves, while still numbering several thousand acres, have been reduced by over 75 percent since the arrival of the Spaniards to Puerto Rico.13
Woodbury wrote this in 1975; he passed away in 2002, and you are likely reading this in or after 2019. Much has changed since then. Today the proliferation of potential development in the coastline is of great concern: Playas Palʼ Pueblo (Carolina),14 Mar Chiquita beach (Manatí),15 Crash Boat beach (Aguadilla),16 Playuela & Punta Borinquen (Aguadilla), Rincón,17 Flamenco beach (Culebra),18 Caño Tiburones (Arecibo),19 Tortuguero Lagoon (Vega Baja),20 Caracoles Cay (Lajas),21 Matias Cay (Salinas),22 Punta Guaniquilla (Cabo Rojo),23 the Guánica State Forest (Guánica),24 and even Mona Island,25 are just a few of these threatened places. The mangroves in the protected Jobos Bay Reserve and the Aguirre State Forest have been devastated by hurricanes. Intense chemical pressure by coal plants like AES in Guayama has made the recovery of species impossible; only desolated salty patches exist now as a foreshadowing of what is to come.26 Plots of the “protected” Boquerón Nature Reserve have been cleared to establish bungalows for corrupt politicians, all of which has been done illegally.27 Meanwhile, people of scarce resources living in the Cantera Peninsula and Loíza, particularly in Piñones, face continuous pressure from the government and developers due to their proximity to the coast and high traffic landmarks like the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport.28 All of these are predicted to be underwater by 2050.29 Interestingly enough, they were all underwater not so long ago, as much of the shoreline in the Metropolitan Area was built on wetlands that were drained and filled, often with sand, and even trash. Piñones and Isabela, both coastal towns on the north side of the island, used to have natural dunes that would surpass a hundred feet in height and five hundred in width.30 Now the biggest dunes may be around seven feet high and five wide due to them being sourced for construction and land reclamation (most of the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport was built on reclaimed ground).31 Even today, with strict local and federal natural resource laws, people in Puerto Rico still source dune sand for construction because these laws are poorly enforced. There is, however, poetic environmental justice, as beach sand propitiates corrosion causing structures to crack shortly after their construction. With these poor decisions throughout the years—including the near complete deforestation of the island from 1600s to 1920s—it is hard to imagine what a coastal forest looked like, or even what flora would make a coastal dune its home.32
Imagine the strands of Pterocarpus forests that used to dot swampy coastlines in the insular and continental Caribbean. Nowadays, only small chunks of these exist. The ecosystem is endangered and very close to extinction along with the species which gives it its name: Palo de pollo (Pterocarpus officinalis). This species is very delicate and cannot withstand high salinity. Due to global warming, salinity levels are higher each year. The trees can only withstand up to certain levels, and so they start to die off because of the increase. The salinity also hinders proper reproduction, which means that few or no new individuals are produced to replace the dying ones.33 Besides that, most of the Pterocarpus strands in all of the insular Caribbean have been cleared for hotel development. In Puerto Rico, two somewhat officially protected patches exist, both saved nearly too late. Today they are marketed as attractions at the resorts through hotel packages that are offered by the two development projects that almost destroyed them. One is located in Palmas del Mar, Humacao and the other in Dorado Beach, Dorado.34 Still we keep facing pressure from developers, new projects pop up almost daily, lacking proper permits or even the finances necessary to start them. Fortunately, environmental activists counter them, defending our coasts. Many times the battles for the coast are not only against development, or the environmental problems they pose, but also to protect public access. More often than not, the coastal developments appropriate the beaches that are close by making access to them difficult through fencing or maintaining private guards at all hours. In Puerto Rico, regardless of the attitudes of usually foreign developers, the beach is regarded culturally and legally as a public space.
Amigxs del M.A.R. and Coalición Playas Pal' Pueblo have spent 14 years occupying and defending a patch of approximately five acres of coast next to a Courtyard by Marriott in the heavily developed seashore of Isla Verde, Carolina.35 The municipal government of Carolina granted a land lease to the hotel with permits to develop more parking; but the hotel had plans to build more apartments and hotel rooms on this land, violating the initial permit. The coastal land was quickly stripped bare and filled with tufa for construction. The news spread quickly among environmental activists and several got to the site to impede machines and workers from starting the illegal construction. Along the years, several reforestation efforts have been done on the space by members of the organizations defending it and other allies. In April of 2019, the municipal government finally decided to come to an agreement with the organizations defending the land, promising to maintain it instead of allowing for the construction of a parking lot. Regardless of this agreement, 4.2 acres are forested, while 0.8 acres has been paved for parking and are actively used by the hotel for staff and as a loading and unloading zone. This means the agreement is a happy medium, since none of the parties got what they fully wanted, but they all got some of what they wanted. At least in this case, the battle for maintaining the access to this beach and coast public seems to have been won by our local environmental organizations, to the benefit of all, even detractors.
In 2009, due to pressure from the local government and private enterprises for development on the beach and close-by areas, a civil disobedience camp was established on La Poza del Obispo in Arecibo; this battle is one of the few which have been won by civilians. A similar battle has been fought on and off since 1995 on Playuela in Aguadilla, a proposed 50 million dollar hotel complex beachfront, the Christopher Columbus Landing Resort, would directly impact 136 of the 150 acres of the area that Playuela encompasses. This would directly affect the wildlife, the nearby neighborhoods, the surfing community, and the several beaches (Punta Borinquen, Wishing Well, Wilderness, El Mix, Pressure Point and Peña Blanca) in the zone.36 Civil disobedience has been common in this particular battle including occupying the space with a camp, in November 2016, when efforts towards construction were seen by local residents and individuals who frequent the zone. The camp was active until September 2017, when it disbanded prior to the arrival of Hurricane María. When the developers were on site, members of the group Salvemos Playuela, Campamento Rescate Playuela, and civilians would lie on the floor or make human chains to impede the movement of trucks, machines, and construction materials to the site. When in court or interviewed by local media, the activists have not only stated that they aren’t in agreement with the developments for environmental reasons, but also that the developers had started the removal of trees, soil, or construction without proper permits. A story that seems to repeat itself during all of these environmental struggles, as exemplified by the Playas Pal’ Pueblo case mentioned earlier.37
Playuela is often regarded by developers as “non-valuable” grasslands, however I have already found 10 endangered plant species in that area. One of them, Spiracantha cornifolia, was believed to be locally extinct, while Wallenia cf. laurifolia is a new previously unregistered and unreported native tree species in Puerto Rico.38 This is another way that environmental activism can be done. Some people may have to protest, camp, and get arrested, but some others are lawyers, taxonomists, biologists, or botanists, fighting the same battle on other fronts. With the work we do, we can help slow down the process of construction or even halt it completely. Finding rare species or significant biodiversity in areas that are in danger of development can help them get protected by environmental laws or by pressure from civilians, social media, and international professionals. Not so long ago, another endemic endangered species, Fajardo's big guava (Eugenia fajardensis), was also found in the coast of the Municipality of Fajardo, in the Northeast Ecological Corridor Nature Reserve.39 One of the herbarium specimens of this rare species, which was thought to be extinct, was from the site of the El Conquistador hotel.40 From 2005 to 2008, corrupt politicians accepted money from developers to delay and scrap designating The Northeast Ecological Corridor a natural reserve, and to open it up for tourist development.41 Discoveries, or rediscoveries like these, help us halt development projects, maintain our coasts as public spaces, and let other species have a place to call home.
Many times the development is hidden from public sight until inauguration day, such as in the case of the Zafira Hotel project in Vieques,42 or the recently built Paseo Caribe43 and Paseo de Puerta de Tierra.44 Not only do we lose sight of the ocean with these buildings, but beaches become privatized. Sightings of the ocean or sea from the airport to Old San Juan on land are slim, huge buildings on both sides of the road mimic two continuous walls, a tunnel. That is why architect Andres Mignucci designed the “Ventana al Mar” (Window towards the Sea) park in Condado, on an undeveloped lot of prime waterfront real estate between two hotels.45 He stated that the placement of another building would be a huge error—essentially turning our backs on the sea, or more accurately, building on it.
Although the Caribbean is a hotspot for biodiversity and widely known for its beaches,46 lots of botanical research focuses on endangered species, endemic species, and moist high altitude forests.47 Most botanists don’t study coastal species or alien species. These subjects are understudied in the Caribbean, partly because alien species come and go, the same way waves and coastlines do. But patterns may surface with complex narratives. For example, after Hurricane María new populations of endangered rare species popped up where they had never been seen before, even on places that had already been surveyed.48 The same may happen when alien species are cultivated because of fashion or trends—which could eventually end up propagating from people’s backyards into forests and natural reserves. It is only through documentation that we may see, understand, and remember these patterns, and eventually answer questions that have not yet been posed regarding our landscape. Through documentation of flora, we can help save a plot of land from cement; we may have a place to start searching for something that has been lost, or we can understand something that appeared out of nowhere and has suddenly become dominant and invasive. Archives change inevitably due to dust, humidity, mold, fungi, abandonment, or austerity measures. They may even be lost—like the Caribbean collections of botanist Paul Sintenis, which were destroyed during World War II.49
Archives and documentation may help save living beings and places from destruction, extinction, and inaccessibility. They can provide valuable data for research, and historical context. They can also help us understand patterns and narratives that may otherwise not be in mind. For me, building an archive is an attempt towards developing and preserving a collective memory of space, even if that space and memory are endangered and subject to erosion.
- The Anthropocene is a proposed geological epoch that starts or is marked by the substantial geological impact of humans on Earth. Among these, the proliferation of plastic and petroleum related problems such as oil spills, drilling, fracking, and global warming are included as significant ecological impacts made by humans that will be long term.
Even though there are likely man-made islands all over the globe, mostly done through land reclamation, some of the most well-known are those located in Dubai. These islands are mostly made by pouring dirt, sand, and rock on the sea bed until the surface is reached.
- The Great Pacific garbage patch is a gyre of trash located in the Pacific Ocean. Ocean currents seem to take much of the trash from the neighboring coasts of North America and Asia to this area. The patch is not visible as a landmass, nor is the trash obvious to see from the surface. Instead, it is scattered in an area that is estimated to be, at its smallest, the size of the state of Texas, and at its largest, the size of Russia. It is likely that much of the trash is located at the sea bed, while smaller debris like microplastics are encountered in all of the oceanic zones. It is suggested that similar patches of trash may exist in the Atlantic and Indian Ocean.
- In Córcega, Rincón several buildings collapsed into the water after Hurricane María proving what had been said. Collapses also happened on other coastal zones like Manatí and Levittown; yet after the hurricane, many coastal projects keep being proposed and constructed.
- The Dog Rock reef in Condado is a naturally formed geological landmark, that resembles a sitting dog. There is a story behind it that is likely myth and is of similar nature to other stories of loyal dogs that stayed waiting for their owners who died or never returned, like that of Hachikō in Japan.
- An architectural style that aimed to develop an international standardized and homogeneous look for modernist or modern architecture in the early 1900s. It promoted the use of curtain walls, glass facades, concrete, steel, and highly disregarded context. It would often work and seem elegant in temperate or colder climate countries, but proved to be inefficient in more tropical climates due to the excess of heat retained by the glass facades and building materials. The style was later countered by “Regionalismo Critico” by the likes of Oscar Niemeyer and Luis Barragán, among others. It's easier to market something that is simple and doesn't need much thought or ornament. Things that lack complexity are often what mainstream trends are made up of.
- The tourism-industrial complex has similar tactics to a military industrial complex. Elements such as transportation, natural and human resource exploitation, and most importantly, manufacturing, are always present in this international web. Everything from souvenirs to full buildings are designed for international use, and mimic military bases in their proliferation. Even though hotels may be in distinct nations, the shareholders and owners, or final recipients of the influx of goods and currency, are usually located in only one country, the United States of America. The tourism-industrial complex could also be considered a form of neocolonialism.
- Native context is understood as the qualities that are indigenous to a place, these are all specific to the site and are unique. There may be similar places in the world but none like it. This is often disregarded or simplified. For example, a tropical island may be understood as having specific temperature, rainfall, and geology, but in practice, even tropical islands in the same region have distinct properties and qualities. In the Caribbean we can see geology that is shared between islands, like the karst belt s through the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, but also soil compositions that are endemic to only an island or a region on said island. Erasing the native context or disregarding it is always a crass decision, and a common one on coastal developments. The reasons to disregard it may be varied, but often have to do simply with the desire to fulfil an aesthetic.
- Displacement happens not only within the plant kingdom, but also within the animal kingdom. Needles from Australian Pine trees acidify the soil, making it difficult for other plants to grow in the understory. These needles rot slowly, quickly amassing into dense layers over the soil that may be as deep as one meter. On some coasts, endangered sea turtles such as carey: hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) are unable to nest because of this; the same situation is occurring on Mona island with the endangered Mona iguana (Cyclura cornuta stejnegeri).
- El Fanguito was a slum-community that existed in reclaimed land on Santurce, north of another slum-community, Caño Martín Peña. Both were built by clearing mangrove and coastal forest communities. These swamps or wetlands were home to thousands of people of scarce means that could not afford typical housing costs in the capital. Around the 1960s El Fanguito was cleared and residents relocated to residenciales or public government housing projects. El Caño community still exists, facing legal battles regarding their land ownership and health concerns due to trash, mosquitoes and dirty water that flows through the channel and inundates the community when long periods of rain occur. La Perla is a similar community established on a portion of land on the coast outside the walls of Old San Juan. Originally, many houses existed for several meters into the ocean, some built on top of the neighboring reef. After a hurricane, most of the houses, wooden at that time, were wiped out by the waves; giving the name to one of the three main sub-barrios of La Perla: “Guaipao,” an Anglicism for “wipe-out.”
- The Caribe Hilton was built close to the Condado Lagoon and the San Jerónimo Fort, a historical Spanish colonial structure. Hilton hotels are often built close to historic structures as a way to make their structures compete with the local context. The hotel was designed by a local tropical modernist firm, Toro y Ferrer, which proposed an International style design. Even though the hotel was built on the coastline, it did not have a beach. The coast in that particular area is mostly rock and cemented dunes, therefore developers built an artificial private beach. The hotel was inaugurated on December 9, 1949. A reference from TIME magazine named some plant species in the area “yellow hibiscus trees, breadfruit, almonds, and tall waving palms,” which are likely the species Thespesia populnea, Artocarpus altilis, Terminalia catappa and Cocos nucifera, respectively; still common today in coastal tropical landscaping. See, “HOTELS: The Key Man,” TIME Magazine. December 12, 1949, http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,854077,00.html. See also, "An Intelligent Deal," TIME Magazine, January 6, 1947, http://www.puertadetierra.info/noticias/caribe_hilton/ apertura1949.htm.
- Roy Woodbury’s work was crucial in expanding the herbarium archive and information on rare plant species—some that were even considered to have been extinct. His move to Puerto Rico was supported by the local Agriculture Experimental Station, who offered him a job and funding for doctorate studies if he came to Puerto Rico. Throughout his life, he taught courses on plant identification and was known as one of the best, if not the best, taxonomist in Puerto Rico.
- Rare and Endangered Plants of Puerto Rico is a committee report published by the USDA Soil Conservation Service in collaboration with the US Forest Service and the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources of Puerto Rico in 1975. The document was written by Roy Woodbury as an effort to develop a list of species that were of concern to conservation and as a watch list for rare and endangered plant species in Puerto Rico. The report detailed the species, their usual habitat or localities, the threats that they faced, and suggested that some localities be protected considering their qualities and ability to host significant rare species. It is stressed in the document that even though some species may be rare by nature, an important factor causing endangerment on plant species and habitat is pressure from the population of humans in the area. Regardless of reports like this, most of the efforts and funding towards endangered species go to the animal kingdom, mostly due to plant blindness, ignorance and perception of abundance. The Caribbean has many rare species that are endemic, or not found elsewhere, due to the position it holds between North and South America. For a full report, see Roy Woodbury (1975). Rare and endangered plants of Puerto Rico: a committee report. U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Soil Conservation Service in cooperation with the Department of Natural Resources, Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/265939#page/8/mode/1up.
- Playas Pal’ Pueblo is an environmental activism movement, space and collective focused on defending the public access to a patch of coast located in Isla Verde, Puerto Rico. The movement also prevented the construction and expansion of a hotel on the ZMT (Zona Marítimo Terrestre), a term that indicates where water could get to during catastrophic events. A camp was established on the plot to engage in civil disobedience and prevent construction from happening, while also restoring dunes and a coastal forest in the area. The movement began in 2005 and was supported by several nationalist, environmental and leftist movements, locally and internationally. In 2019, an agreement surfaced between the movement, the hotel, and the municipal government which stated that 4.0732 un-built acres would pass to the Balneario de Carolina, while 0.9268 would stay with the hotel since they had already developed a paved outdoor parking lot. Three main points had been agreed upon between the environmental activist and the local government: free-public access to the space, respect of the forest that had developed artificially and naturally in the space, and the promise that no structures be built on the plot of land. Unfortunately the local government seems to only have respected the last one. Mayor of Carolina, José Aponte Dalmau, Deborah Rivera (Environmental Affairs Manager of the Municipality of Carolina) and the commissioner of the Carolina municipal police, Rubén Moyeno Cintrón all decided to cut ties with the environmental activists and decimate most of the forest with intense police presence and pressure. Most of what remained were coconut palms as well as some trees, such as Kapok (Ceiba pentandra), that if cut would cause uproar. Originally a government team composed of supposed environmental specialists (government employees), Blue Flag employees, and volunteers from the Playas Pal’ Pueblo collectives that included biologists, got together to help clean out the debris and manage the space in collaboration. An extension of the Balneario’s fence was made, without proper permits, to the limit established with the hotel plot; raising questions regarding the accessibility of the space that had been negotiated. Time will tell if they at least keep their last promise of not building anything upon the space.
- Mar Chiquita, translated roughly as “Small Sea,” is a well-known beach on the north central coast of the island in the municipality of Manatí. It was proposed as one of seven new natural reserves in 2017, but was scrapped by Governor Ricardo Rosselló on July 3, 2018 by recommendation of the local planning board. Most of the lands around Mar Chiquita are private property and classified as Residential-Touristic, which means that they are legally open and encouraged to become tourist developments. Not long after the scrapping of designation of it as a natural reserve, an announcement regarding the sale of 200 acres of beachfront, at a cost of 250,000 dollars each, appeared online. It disappeared a few days later, due to public outcry. The zone has historically yielded rare endemic and native species such as Ottoschulzia rhodoxylon and the recently described Pisonia horneae.
- Crash Boat, is a beach located on the North West part of the island in the municipality of Aguadilla. Its name derives from Emergency Rescue Boats also known as “crash boats” that would dock in the area to assist the nearby Ramey Air Force Base. Their mission was to assist airplanes or helicopters that had crashed at sea. In January, 2019 an ad announcing the sale of nearly all the undeveloped surrounding lots at Crash Boat was posted online. Three lots that sum 38,931.7853 square feet were being sold for 10 million dollars. The ad was quickly taken down due to public outcry and media exposure, but it is likely still happening behind closed doors. Many people started talking about the issue that this would pose, considering Playuela, a nearby beach and coastal area was already struggling with hotel development.
- “For many years, Rincón has seen growth, some would say uncontrolled growth, to accommodate the ever growing demand for space in our town. The latest attempt is the announcement in late 2018 that Rincón was targeted for a 200+ room hotel and casino.”
- Flamenco is a beach situated on the island of Culebra, in Puerto Rico. It is one of the most marketed beaches in the Caribbean. In 2018, plans for development on this beach surfaced, promoted by the municipal government, Foundation for a Better Puerto Rico, and assisted by organizations like the Puerto Rico Conservation Trust, now Para La Naturaleza. The project has several parts, some of them aim to restore the ecological area by planting native species, removing alien species and helping the creation of natural dunes; but other parts of the project propose buildings and roads that will severely impact the ecological and lightweight/isolated paradise nature of this beach.
- Caño Tiburones is a natural wetland reserve in the town of Arecibo. In 2017 the delimitation of the reserve was ordered by a judge to increase from 3,805 to 7,000 acres. The government claimed that this was not possible due to the costs of maintenance and the already existing austerity cuts and measures imposed by the Fiscal Control Board.
- Laguna Tortuguero is a lagoon, located in between the coastal towns of Vega Baja and Manatí. Many rare native plant species have been historically collected in the zone. Although it is technically protected as a natural reserve, development close by has increased in recent years and it would not be strange to see it eventually opened up for development.
- Caracoles Cay is located in the southern part of the island close to La Parguera. It has been suggested on numerous occasions that development could happen on or close to it. Throughout the years, the cay has been the host of many intense beach parties that have impacted the ecosystem severely. Two well known cays, Icacos cay and Ratones cay, were also listed for sale by the Puerto Rico Industrial Development Company (PRIDCO)—causing an uproar, particularly in response to the listing of Icacos. After several hours of controversy, which involved the possibility of selling protected natural areas to pay for the Puerto Rico Debt due to PROMESA, the PRIDCO announced that they would not sell these cays.
- Matias Cays are located on the southern part of the island close to Salinas. A listing was put up on Exclusive Real Estate in Puerto Rico by Ana Castañer, selling the 32 acres islands for 2 million dollars.
- Punta Guaniquilla Nature Reserve is a coastal rocky area located on the southwestern part of the island, it also hosts a lagoon. It is an important bird habitat, but in recent years owners of land close by have tried to start development in the form of hotels very close to the reserve. The reserve is currently managed privately by the organization Para La Naturaleza.
- The Guánica State Forest is an important dry forest located in the town of Guánica, it hosts many rare endemic species of animals and plants. Although it is currently protected as a natural reserve and considered a very important one globally, moves to build a hotel close to, and even inside the reserve, were made by the municipal government in 2017. AMResorts seems to have donated money for several years to the mayor of the town’s party, prior to obtaining the permits, in what seems as clear evidence of corruption. The project seems to still be in question.
- Mona Island is located between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. The whole island is a natural reserve although goat and feral pig hunting is permitted with some regulations and fees. The island hosts rare species of animals and plants, and has been the object of many ecological studies. In antiquity it was populated densely by indigenous Caribbean people, evidenced by the amount of petroglyphs and pictographs in the numerous caves that hollow the island. In recent years, it has been proposed that the island be opened up for tourism, particularly ecotourism, with the possibility of building some structures to host these tourists. Although it is legal and possible to camp on the island and explore it, it is seldom done by people that are not biologists or hunters. This is also because the environment on the island is very hostile; many people have died or have been lost on the island even in recent months.
- AES is a carbon based energy company in Puerto Rico that has been the object of controversy due to their battle with communities in Guayama, Peñuelas and Arecibo. Many of the controversies have orbited around the disposal of coal ashes, high cancer rates in communities close to their plants, and neglect of environmental laws or EPA considerations. The contamination of underground water, the southern aquifer, and a huge exposed mountain of coal ash near the Guayama plant have been recent environmental breaches done by the company.
- The Boquerón State Forest extends from Cabo Rojo to Guánica, including several swamps, marshes, salt ponds, mangrove communities, and coastal and dry forests. At La Parguera in Lajas, the rapid proliferation of bungalows and private docks have destroyed several mangrove communities. Many people, even professionals don’t know that La Parguera forms part of the protected natural reserve, resulting in lax enforcement of regulations.
- In Piñones, developer Joel Katz tried to build a hotel complex titled Costa Serena on 62 acres of federally protected dunes and mangrove land. These wetland areas on Vacía Talega, a beach and community in Piñones, are highly prone to inundation throughout the normal cycles of the year. The people of Piñones fought against this illegal and corrupt proposal and won, but it was not the first, nor will it be the last time developers have tried to do projects in Piñones.
- FEMA Flood Maps indicate that much of the coastal built areas in Puerto Rico are prone to flooding, something that was experienced during Hurricane Irma and María. Global warming and sea-level rises is placing many coastal zones and wetlands underwater as well.
- There used to be huge dunes on the north coast of the islands, but urban and suburban development heavily relied on them for sand to mix with cement. Dunes on Isabela and Piñones were some of the biggest up until the ’80s, where a second wave of urban and suburban development skyrocketed. Only some photographs exist of these landscapes, unfortunately, so even the memory of it has been nearly lost.
- The first phase of construction of the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport consisted in cleaning, draining, filling and levelling the wetlands where it stands. Much of the material used to fill was sand from the nearby dunes on Piñones.
- It’s constantly been referenced by botanists, ecologists, and biologists regarding Puerto Rico’s landscape that the island had been completely deforested and cleared of trees between Spanish colonization extraction and the intensive monoculture practices of agricultural industries such as sugarcane, coffee, and tobacco. This is actually not 100 percent true, since the original reference that this statement is interpreted from, the Soil Survey of Puerto Rico on 1942, states “By the 1940s, however, only 6% of forest cover remained, while much of the rest of the island was farmed,” this doesn’t really mean that the island was deforested to near completion. Instead, the forests stated are in context referred to primary forests or near virgin forests, not secondary forests or forest cover that may have existed even on these farms. Regardless of this, a lot of the island truly was deforested or cleared of tree cover during these times. See, “Ariel Lugo, (2004). The Outcome of Alien Tree Invasions in Puerto Rico. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 2(5):265-273. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/250077879_The_Outcome_of_Alien_Tree_Invasions_in_Puerto_Rico.
- Salt water intrusion into Pterocarpus forests proves to be disastrous for the species. The effects of climate change are not the only threat to the species: land-use practices and development also pose a threat. Elsie Rivera-Ocasio has been studying Pterocarpus forest in the continental and insular Caribbean region for years and her study: “The effects of salinity on the dynamics of a Pterocarpus officinalis forest stand in Puerto Rico” forecasts the possible fatal fate of the species. For more on this topic, see, Rivera-Ocasio, Elsie & Aide, T. Mitchell & Ríos-López, Neftalí. (2007). The effects of salinity on the dynamics of a Pterocarpus officinalis forest stand in Puerto Rico. Journal of Tropical Ecology. 23(05):559 - 568.
- Both the Palmas del Mar and Dorado Beach surviving Pterocarpus Forests are now marketed in tours and part of hotel packages.
- Amigxs del M.A.R. (Movimiento Ambiental Revolucionario) is a local environmental organization that has fought to maintain public access to beaches, limit coastal construction, and the privatization of natural resources. Particularly on Playas Pal’ Pueblo in Carolina. Coalición Playas Pal' Pueblo is a collective of environmental organizations, including Amigxs del M.A.R., that aim to protect and defend the space between the Isla Verde Courtyard by Marriott Hotel and the Balneario de Carolina. Some important and renowned activists of these two movements are Alberto “Tito Kayak” de Jesús Mercado, Elisa “Gaviota” Sánchez, Alfredo “Erizo” Nieves and Vanessa “Mariposa” Uriarte.
- Playuela is a complex ecological mix of coastal zones in the northwest town of Aguadilla. In 1995, a development project was proposed for the site to exploit its proximity to important beaches, but construction did not start until 2016.
- For Playuela, many of the protesters’ complaints were about the fact that a new project was being built with permits for a completely different project. Currently, in 2020, the claims have shifted to pointing out, Caribbean Management Group’s outdated permits.
- There is little virgin nature in the world, and there is even less nature that has not already been accessed by humanity. New discoveries are still being made each year, mostly in the tropics and in other areas where scientific studies have not been able to develop correctly due to the economic and political challenges often encountered. It is also important to point out that the tropics contain most of the biodiversity on our planet, but often the resources to properly study it are developed and kept in temperate countries. Many biological discoveries follow from the rediscovery of supposedly extinct species, or new populations of species thought to be restricted to specific zones. In Playuela, a botanical inventory I created provided both, the “rediscovery” or discovery of a population of patches of the native herb Spiracantha cornifolia (apparently collected last by French botanist Henri Alain Lioger) and the discovery of a healthy population of Wallenia laurifolia trees. W. laurifolia is a new native tree species for Puerto Rico, not previously recorded in any study or specimen on the island. According to records, the species’ natural distribution was the Greater Antilles, excluding Puerto Rico until now. This is an important discovery for botany and ecology but also for the defense of Playuela; a DIA (Environmental Impact Declaration) done by the developers did not include these two species that are present on the land. DIAs are unfortunately often done by people with scarce knowledge of true biology, resulting in lists and recommendations that lack important details and are blind to important discoveries like these. Many times, those who may truly know will look the other way so that the development project may continue without substantial obstacles. For more information on the Spiracantha cornifolia, see botanical entry in Plantas de la Isla de Puerto Rico / Plants of the Island of Puerto Rico. The Institute for Regional Conservation. Delray Beach, Florida, USA. https://www.regionalconservation.org/ircs/database/plants/PlantPagePR.asp?TXCODE=Spircorn.
- “[The Northeast Ecological Corridor Nature Reserve] is located on the coastal strip north of the PR-3 between the Sandy Hills condominiums in Luquillo and the Seven Seas resort in Fajardo. The Reserve consists of approximately 3,000 acres of land that includes San Miguel, La Selva, Las Paulinas, El Convento and Colorá beaches.” “The designation of the RNCEN in 2013, along with its ecotourism development, was endorsed by numerous governmental and private entities such as the Federal Forest Service, the Federal Fish and Wildlife Service, the Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico, the Puerto Rican Society of Planning, and the Ecumenical and Interreligious Coalition of Puerto Rico.”
- On Eugenia fajardensis: “Important insights for the existence of the species also came from two governmental reports made by Woodbury, who in 1975 reported E. fajardensis for Fajardo and in 1981 (as M. fajardensis?) for Culebra (Woodbury 1975; 1981). However, we know of no herbarium specimens determined as E. fajardensis by Woodbury. Additional information on the existence of E. fajardensis was found on a publication on endangered plants from the Caribbean islands, in which Howard (1977: 111) mentioned the existence of “a probably new species of the Myrtaceae found in fruit” at El Conquistador Hotel in Fajardo, which we suspect corresponds to Howard’s above mentioned specimen of E. fajardensis collected in 1965 and deposited at HUH.” See, Trejo-Torres, Jorge & Caraballo, Marcos & A. Vives-Heyliger, Miguel & Torres-Santana, Christian & Cetzal Ix, William & Mercado-Diaz, Joel & Carlo, Tomás. (2014). Rediscovery of Eugenia fajardensis (Myrtaceae), a rare tree from the Puerto Rican Bank. Phytotaxa. 191. 154-164. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/279035519_Rediscovery_of_Eugenia_fajardensis_Myrtaceae_a_rare_tree_from_the_Puerto_Rican_Bank.
- Between 2009 and 2016, irregularities in the land management of what is now known as The Northeast Ecological Corridor surfaced. The change in territorial zone of lands in the Corridor by the local planning board opened protected land for tourism development, sparking many to want to develop the newly unprotected areas, including religious organizations and the federal government. The plan was promoted by politicians Jorge de Castro Font, Kenneth McClintock, and Carlos Díaz, who were paid for the scrapping of the designation and opening the lands to tourism development by friends of theirs that were looking to build hotels and similar structures in the area.
- After Hurricane María, disaster capitalism and opportunities for developers swarmed to Puerto Rico. Among the many new proposals for hotel developments was hotel Zafira in Vieques; a 50 million dollar hotel with questionable architectural renders and proposal photographs that are mere screenshots of other existing projects around the world and not original content. The project was seen by some people as positive due to the rise of unemployment in Vieques after Hurricane María, and the sense of despair this created among the population. The foreign investment is likely helped by laws 20 & 22, which allow foreign investors to evade the high taxes that local and native investors have to face; promoting a form of neocolonialism assisted by the local government. The development was even more problematic because the developers could have bought an existing building instead of starting a new one from scratch, considering the existence of abandoned hotel structures on the island. This way they would have evaded impacting the local natural resources on an island that has been used for military experimentation for several years.
- The construction of Paseo Caribe, an apartment complex next to the Caribe Hilton hotel building and the San Jerónimo Fort, started in 2007. Amidst many detractors and without proper permits, damage was done to historic structures, archaeological sites, the neighboring corals and Condado Lagoon. Activists like Tito Kayak, founder of Amigxs del M.A.R. engaged in protest and civil disobedience in the area for weeks, until one night police decided to detain the activists. Tito, who had climbed onto a construction crane and camped for several days in order to put the construction works on hold, managed to escape. He climbed down to where many policemen were waiting to arrest him, but when he got close to the ground he made his escape to the water via a kayak, earning him his nickname. Eventually politicians would pen a law nicknamed the “Tito Kayak Law” which enabled police to arrest and charge protesters for civil disobedience that stopped construction projects.
- Paseo de Puerta de Tierra is a landscape urbanism project built by SCF Arquitectos. The firm itself is controversial due to its monopoly on government funded or promoted projects. The original design only proposed a bicycle lane and scenic walkways with native coastal vegetation, but then renders of cement structures and a restaurant surfaced online. Protests began because many tree species were going to be cut down instead of being incorporated into the design, particularly emblematic coconut palms that had existed in the area for decades and were often harvested by the community. A lawsuit regarding the legality of the whole project due to its proximity to the coast, archaeological sites, and the lack of community participation in a 40 million dollar project was submitted. Even artistic protest was seen with the actions of Roberto “Yiyo” Tirado. Despite the protests and lawsuits, the project continued and exists today, although many problems have surfaced including the collapse of some parts of the paseo due to erosion. Less than five years later, the sea is already claiming this recklessly built foreign environment.
- La Ventana al Mar in Condado, which translates as “a window to the sea,” is an urbanist-architectural project in a coastal part of the capital of Puerto Rico, San Juan. Originally the Puerto Rico Convention Centre, built in the 1970’s, occupied the plot of land, maintaining the massive urban wall that stretches through nearly all the capital’s coast. By the 1990s, the center and neighboring hotels La Concha and Condado Vanderbilt were closed and up for auction by the government of Puerto Rico. The proposal of a new hotel that would cover the three sites sparked an uproar, and the College of Architects advocated the insertion of a public space as a metaphor of a window to the sea. This way the relationship between sea and city so well known in the Caribbean could be reestablished while promoting the construction of public spaces close to the sea.
- The Caribbean is considered one of the most important biodiversity hotspots on our planet, this is likely due to its location and proximity to other zones such as North America, Central America, and South America. This geographical placement enables the zone to have flora and fauna from these three zones while also having its endemic species that respond to local conditions. See, Myers, Norman & Mittermeier, Russell & G. Mittermeier, Cristina & Fonseca, Gustavo & Kent, Jennifer. (2000). Biodiversity hotspot for conservation priorities. Nature. 403. 853-8. https://www.nature.com/articles/35002501.
- Most conservation areas and studies in the Caribbean are done focused on animals, high altitude forests, and moist central forests. Puerto Rico’s El Yunque receives most of the studies due to federal funding and consistent historical data. For further discussion on this topic, see documentation of conference titled “Huracanes y bosques en Puerto Rico y las Antillas Mayores: ¿Qué nos dice un siglo de investigaciones ecológicas?” by Dr. Tania del Mar López Marrero, Carlos F. Rivera López, Isabel A. Escalera García, Mariangelí Echevarría Ramos and Dr. Tamara Heartsill Scalley, at University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras, 19 March 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ReeojRocumI.
- After the passing of Hurricanes Irma and María, a coalition of local and international botanists and ecologists mobilized to review the state of endangered flora, particularly species like Varronia bellonis. In the surveys conducted, new populations of endangered species were found in localities previously explored and in some not previously explored. Although many people have been involved in these ongoing projects, some important members are Dr. Martin A. Hamilton of Kew Gardens, Omar Monsegur of USFW, and José Sustache of the local Department of Natural Resources.
- Paul Ernst Emil Sintenis was a German botanist, pharmacist, and plant collector born in 1847. He spent most of his life collecting in many subtropical, tropical and Mediterranean zones. In 1884 he arrived in Puerto Rico and with the economic support of Karl Wilhelm Leopold Krug, he remained on the island until 1887. A handful of plant species have his name since his collections were significant and contained important botanical findings. During the Second World War, the first set of his Puerto Rican collections was destroyed at Dahlem (Berlin) during the bombing in the city. Duplicates in other major herbariums and archives survived, but some records were lost forever.