Some Puerto Rican activists are particularly concerned about construction that is destroying mangrove ecosystems that serve as natural defenses against storm surges.
Jacqueline Vazquez was sitting on the couch when her phone rang.
She has just returned from a government agency where she has filed a complaint about illegal construction in an environmental reserve. The reserve is dedicated to one of the largest mangrove forests of the island near its area in southern Puerto Rico.
“What the hell have you been doing in natural resources?” A man’s voice came over her phone.
Vazquez saw this as a threat, one of several received by community leaders like her, as outraged Puerto Ricans are demanding answers from their government officials. Weak controls, budget cuts and illegal government permits have led to increased construction in protected areas and regions, some prone to flooding or landslides.
Investigations into houses built illegally in Puerto Rico’s second-largest estuary, where officials say more than 3,600 mangrove trees were cut down, led to public hearings, a criminal investigation by the Puerto Rican Ministry of Justice and similar cases. Environmentalists warn that these incidents make the U.S. even more vulnerable to climate change amid wetter and more intense hurricane seasons.
“This is one of the biggest environmental crimes I have seen,” said Member of Parliament Jesus Manuel Ortiz during a public hearing on the issue on April 27. “It’s outrageous. A crime is happening in front of everyone’s eyes. “
Houses made of concrete blocks complete with fences, pools and even a berth were illegally built inside the Jobas Bay National Research Reserve. The reserve protects nearly 2,900 hectares of mangrove forests surrounded by waters of various shades of turquoise. Other species include critically endangered sea turtles and vulnerable West Indian manatees.
Activists and some government officials say they are frustrated and feel lonely in their struggle when they accuse the Department of Natural Resources of Puerto Rico and other agencies of failing to do their job.
When the legislator during one of the public hearings asked the director of the Jobs Bay Reserve, who exactly did not fulfill their duties by allowing illegal construction, she replied: “The whole system.”
Reserve Director Aisha Pabon also accused the Department of Natural Resources of negligence and questioned why the Puerto Rican Planning Council was absent, saying that some government agencies were dominated by “incompetence, negligence (and) lethargy.” Her voice was sometimes broken, and she said she feared a personal and professional reaction to the testimony: “But the truth delivers me, and with me God.”
Last month, the Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources resigned. He told a local radio station that some officers investigating the illegal construction were threatened with execution.
Neither the Department of Natural Resources nor the Puerto Rican Planning Council, which is responsible for verifying all permitted permits, has responded to requests for comment.
Themes of vulnerability of public land and climate are played out in another high-profile case in the popular surfing town of Rincon in western Puerto Rico. In February, a judge revoked a permit issued by the government that allowed the Sun and Beach condominium to rebuild a pool, jacuzzi and other recreation areas destroyed by Hurricane Maria in September 2017.
“The proposed construction,” the court said, “will privatize an asset in the maritime and land public domain.”
The judge also noted that 2% of the property in the case are protected areas where construction should not have been allowed, and 12% is in a coastal zone with a high risk of flooding.
Testimony in the case included an employee of the environmental department of the Puerto Rican Permits Office, who admitted that he had directly intervened to expedite the now revoked permit. He also said that the consultant in the project was his friend and business partner, but said his actions were justified because the permit officer assigned to the case had misjudged.
The judge ruled that the land is public after the Island Planning Council recognized that the government had issued a permit in violation of local laws. However, the case is still in court, and residents fear that developers will illegally resume reconstruction. In the past, endangered sea turtles nested there.
In both cases, the illegal construction was revealed after indifferent residents launched protests and demanded responsibility from government agencies.
“We feel that the struggle here is endless. It is very, very upsetting, “said Monica Timothy Vega, a civil lawyer. At the request of a friend, she is also fighting another proposed development in a wetland in the northeastern coastal town of Lukila.
The case is pending in court, and Timothy accuses the Puerto Rican Permit Management Bureau of granting developers nine extensions and three extensions, if by law it can only award three extensions and one renewal just in case.
Timothy also said that a neighbor requested public documents related to the case in January, and was able to obtain them only after she and her brother, who is also working on the case, went to court.
“Why does society need lawyers to obtain documents?” She asked. Their frustration increased, she said, when previously available documents online at the Bureau of Permit Management began to disappear as she and her brother investigated the matter.
Pedro Cardona Roig, an architect, planner and former vice president of the Puerto Rico Planning Council, said the same thing happens to him when he independently investigates what happened in Salinas, where Jobas Bay is located. He said that of the 16 documents he had previously viewed online, only a few remained.
Gabriel Hernandez, secretary of the Office of Permit Management, told the Associated Press that his agency, having a limited staff, is struggling with the recent increase in fake permits showing names, addresses and even official maps of sites illegally altered.
“The numbers are growing every day,” he said, adding that planning staff found more than 100 fake permits. At least eight of them had permits to connect utilities to illegal homes in Jobas Bay. He stressed that his office had never given any permits.
“People sometimes do whatever they want,” he said.
According to the Water and Sewerage Authority of Puerto Rico, at least 60 customers now have connections in Jobs Bay. The island’s Department of Electricity has sent nearly 50 people to the Puerto Rican Department of Justice because of illegal connections.
Hernandez at the permit office said he had ordered his staff to act prudently and be careful when considering a petition concerning a reserve or protected area.
“Some may have slipped, but that’s not the norm,” he said.
Illegal construction of the coast is of great concern to activists on the island, where more than half of the population of 3.2 million people live near the ocean. Mangroves protect the coast from storm surges during hurricanes. Corals also do this, but they are partly dying due to runoff. Global warming means hurricanes carry more rain, have more energy and intensify faster.
“The mangroves are like a man standing there and enduring anything that may come,” said Vazquez, the community’s leader. “It’s like a wall that saves us.”
An increasing number of lawmakers are in favor of investigating illegal construction in protected areas across the island. Activists are also pushing for a full moratorium on the coast, a proposal that Governor Pedro Pierlouise called “excessive.” However, he said a moratorium could be imposed in areas suffering from erosion or other effects of climate change.
The interim secretary of the department announced on April 27 that he was preparing to file eviction orders for 12 people accused of illegal residence in Jobas Bay, and requested a court order to demolish the houses. Officials said residents would be responsible for paying at least $ 4 million in environmental damage and accused the group of using the pandemic and the effects of Hurricane Maria to build and expand the facilities.
Despite the impending legal battle for protection in Jobas Bay, activists and lawyers remain wary. They note that the Natural Resources Ranger Corps has only seven members to oversee the area that includes Jobas Bay, not the recommended 12. When the Corps issued a $ 250,000 fine to those illegally occupying land, the government reduced the fines to $ 3,000. The rangers themselves also received a letter terminating and abandoning the squatters.
“You can imagine how we felt,” the sergeant said. Angel Colon informed lawmakers at a public hearing. “It was like a bucket of cold water.”
Vazquez, leader of the Las Mareas community in Salinas, knows this feeling.
The complaint, which she filed in 2019, was dropped by the Puerto Rican Department of Natural Resources. Officials say they need more information. The land use complaint is one of more than 100 filed by people from all over Puerto Rico awaiting a decision from 2019.