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Activists in Puerto Rico Are Fighting to Keep Beaches Public

Boat houses in La Parguera, Lajas, Puerto Rico. Photo courtesy Alberto Marty.

Boat houses in La Parguera, Lajas, Puerto Rico. Photo courtesy Alberto Marty.

Environmental activists and experts in Puerto Rico took a sigh of relief when a law that sought to privatize La Parguera, a public maritime zone in the western coast of Lajas, was rejected. But their battle is far from over. Several public beaches and maritime zones are fighting privatization proposals.

Project #1621, the bill that was recently rejected, intended to legalize floating water houses or casetas. Illegal casetas have existed in La Parguera for decades. The bill would have legalized these homes, allowed the owners to rent the property for up to 40 years and it would have turned the free public space along the casetas into an exclusive tourism zone.

Local mayors and business owners defended the proposed bill, stating that it could help increase tourism in the region. Some residents said that the owners of such homes help boost the local economy, claiming that they contribute around 2 million US dollars to the small town, which represents 20% of Laja's budget.

“The beaches belong to the people”

Despite its supporters, environmental activists staunchly expressed their opposition through protests and social media, with the phrase “Las Playas son del Pueblo” or The Beaches belong to the People, which  has become the official slogan for the anti-privatization movement.

Amigos del MAR (Friends of the SEA), an environmental organization founded in 1995 to protect Puerto Rico's natural resources, were actively lobbying against the bill, writing a letter to Governor Alejandro García Padilla urging him not to sign the controversial law, and recommending various, eco-friendly alternatives, such as allocating funds for studies related to environmental protection.

Legal scholars from various universities in Puerto Rico also joined environmental leaders in trying to orientate politicians about the potential effects of Project #1621, stating that it establishes a disastrous precedent because it conforms to an ongoing tendency of privatization in public areas and it would potentially eliminate access to such spaces.

La Parguera: a coastal gem

In 2014, the Interdisciplinary Center for Coastal Studies at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez published a comprehensive study of the environmental history of La Parguera, detailing its origins as a small fishing village to a popular tourist location with hotels, shops, restaurants and recreational activities. Famous for its Phosphorescent Bay, “the marine resources that were once the source of income for subsistence, recreational, and commercial nearshore fishing are mostly gone,” making the old fishing village a now distant memory for locals. The study also states that the casetas are indeed illegally occupying the zone and that they “constitute one of the key elements defining policy and governance.”

The law's original text stated that owners of these casetas have paid the expenses related to the sewage system in La Parguera, but this is also because the houses were responsible for much of the contamination in the area, as stated by the Association of Architects and Landscape Architects.

Puerto Rican anthropologist Rima Brusi has interviewed caseta owners, and, while these constructions are in fact illegal, many individuals are attached to them because they grew up there with their families. However, Brusi adds that there is a sense of ambivalence among locals regarding the law. The majority of the caseteros (floating house owners) belong to the professional class, with some residents claiming that they are typically wealthy, usually own other homes, and limit their boats’ access to the bay, but they also offer some temporary job opportunities cleaning or fixing anything in the casetas.

“Marriott, enemy of the environment.”

Project #1621 was only one of several bills that intended to commodify public spaces on the island. In November 2015, an altercation between Marriott hotel's administration and environmental activists made headline news after a ten year struggle erupted into a protest in Isla Verde Beach in Carolina. The organization Coalición Playas Pa'l Pueblo had established a camp site in Isla Verde over 10 years ago to protect free public access in a beach located in the northern city of Carolina. But in 2015, Playas Pa'l Pueblo received an eviction order from the township. Agencia EFE reported last November that the Puerto Rico National Parks Company had transferred the maritime zone to the city of Carolina in 2003; however, CH Properties, a real estate firm affiliated with Courtyard Marriott, has a 99 year lease on the site.

Foto de Amigos del Mar-Marriott

Mural in Isla Verde Beach: “The beaches belong to the people, they are not for sale.” Taken from Amigos del MAR's Facebook page. Used with permission.

Amigos del MAR and Playas Pa'l Pueblo remain two of the most important environmental organizations trying to protect public beaches from privatization, stating that doing so would also affect Isla Verde's ecosystem, including a Leatherback Sea Turtle nest located on the area that could potentially become property of the Marriott. Earlier this year, the Carolina Appellate Court ordered the eviction of Amigos del MAR protesters from Isla Verde, but Carolina mayor José Carlos Aponte Dalmau was against such action, stating that it represents a violation of their constitutional rights.

Sea Turtles in Isla Verde.

Sea Turtle Nest in Isla Verde Beach, Carolina, Puerto Rico. Photo from Amigos del MAR Facebook page, used with permission.

Foto de Amigos de MAR-Mariott 2

Protesters in Isla Verde Beach in Carolina. Sign reads “Marriott, enemy of the environment.” Photo from Amigos del MAR's Facebook page. Used with permission

Project #2853

Another bill proposed this year by the House of Representatives was Project #2853, which intended to legalize the privatization of Puerto Rico's coastal zones. This project would have created a Trust for Ecotourist Conservation in Puerto Rico under the Department of Natural Resources for granting special licenses for the private use of the coastal maritime zone. The bill was rejected by the Senate, and during the night of its hearing, activists gathered outside the Capitol of Puerto Rico to protest, and activist Alberto de Jesús, better known as “Tito Kayak”, climbed a flag pole and replaced the American flag with one that read “Beaches belong to the people.”

Tito Kayak started a hunger strike to protest the proposed bill, but the bill was vetoed later by the Governor. Photo courtesy Diana Valle.

Tito Kayak started a hunger strike to protest the proposed bill. The bill was vetoed later by the Governor. Photo courtesy Diana Valle.

While organizations, academics and environmental activists have united forces to protect public spaces and the Puerto Rican ecosystem, the island is routinely plagued by attempts to privatize beaches as an effort to boost tourism. On Friday, August 6, Amigos del MAR organized a protest in front of the Fortaleza in San Juan, the home of the island's Governor. The group used social media to encouraged Puerto Ricans to contact the Fortaleza via phone and urge Alejandro García Padilla not to sign the bill, and activist Tito Kayak announced a hunger strike to protest the project. Campamento Contra la Junta, a camp site established by activists against the federal control board (PROMESA) in front of the Federal Courthouse, also expressed their solidarity for Amigos del MAR.

The bill was vetoed by the Governor on Saturday night, August 7. While this struggle proved to be a triumph for environmentalists, similar projects, like Marriott's expansion, are still ongoing and the future of Puerto Rico's shore will remain uncertain while similar proposals are presented.

  • Arnaldo Colón

    There are plenty of private beaches all over Puerto Rico already. The idea that more private beaches would boost tourism is flawed anyway.

    • The issue with the floating houses in la Parguera is a symptom of a deeper problem, which is illegal squatting all over the Island on public lands. A few weeks ago the Governor rewarded over 150 of these squatters in a “communidad especial” by giving them title deeds to “their” land. This happens time and time again, with the government reinforcing the idea that you can get away with anything if you wait long enough. Look at Barrio Vietnam in Cataño. One small earthquake and they will be wiped out in a tsunami, but meantime everyone gets all warm and fuzzy about their “right” to squat there. Same story in Loíza. When the inevitable tsunami happens, the Oficina de Manejo de Emergencias estimates that between 30 to 60% of the people in that municipality will lose their homes, which have been built illegally in places that no engineer would approve. Did we learn nothing at Mameyes? Just as with traffic tickets, back taxes, or anything else – which no one pays till the government declares a “holiday” and offers to let people pay them off at a steep discount. The government applies rules and regulations irregularly, halfheartedly, and not at all – then wonders why no one obeys them. The rule of law in Puerto Rico blows with the wind.

  • Héctor E Colón

    I participated against P of s 1621 and used my main concern: the rich illegal squatters were violating laws at a “PROTECTED NATURAL AREA” called Boqueron State Forest (BASF)!

    This and other state forest (e.g. Guanica, Mona, Aguirre’s, etc) were created by Governor Yager in 1918, almost a century ago!

    At the June hearings I almost had a panic attack because I was the only person knowing this fact, not even the Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources knew this!

    Latter I discovered many unfortunate things, one that many other DARN employees, as well as UPR- Marine Sciences Department, UPR Sea Grant, and even famous Parguera writers such and Rima Brussi and Manuel Valdes Pizzinni, knew nothing about BSF! So, the publications cited in this fine article are full of HUGE MISTAKES and ERRORS.

    The problem is much bigger. The Institute De Ciencias Marinas sits on Magueyes Island, an island that belong to the BASF, and no professor nor student knew about this, nor they knew that ALL the mangroves, saltflat, and very known islands such as Caracoles, Enriquez and Laurel are as well part of BSF. Even the Biobay and all mangroves and islands of Montalva bay are part of BSF.

    If this was not bad enough, many employees from the UPR campuses are also squatters!

    It is said, that Ruperto Chaparro, Director of Sea Grant at UPR Mayaguez was the initial proponent of charging money to the squatters, something beyond his duties: only DNR is the agency to set public policies. Send. Fas Alzamora told me that Chaparro assisted him in the preparation of P of S1621, and when the bill was ready Chaparro was one of the loner supporters at the Senate! Could you believe this?

    I am building “Amigos del Bosque Estatal de Boqueron” in order to save this endangered state forest, the equivalent of a USA National Park.

    Interested people can contact me at hecolon@gmail.com

    If you can read in Spanish please refer to this article that I wrote.

    http://www.elnuevodia.com/opinion/columnas/pargueraesbosquenoarrabal-columna-2223503/

  • Héctor E Colón

    I participated against P of s 1621 and used my main weapon: Boquerón State Forest (BSF): the rich and illegal squatters were violating laws at a “PROTECTED” Natural Area, called BSF, a forest protected in papers by the Forest and Port Laws.

    This, and other state forest (e.g. Guanica, Mona, Aguirre, etc) were created by Governor Yager in 1918, almost a century ago, and they are our Yellowstone Parks!

    At the June hearings I almost had a panic attack because I was the only person knowing this fact (that the lands to be stolen belongued to BSF), not even the Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources knew this!

    Latter I discovered many unfortunate things -that I will elaborate in the future- but the most importsnt being that many other DNER employees, as well as UPR- Marine Sciences Department, UPR Sea Grant, and even famous Parguera’s writers such and Rima Brussi and Manuel Valdes Pizzinni, knew nothing about BSF! So, the publications cited about those two authors, in this fine article are full of HUGE ERRORS and half thruths…as thy belong to the squaters friends.

    The UPR’s Instituto de Ciencias Marinas sits on Magueyes Island, that belongs to BSF, and neither professors, nor students knew about this, or even worse, they were unaware that ALL the mangroves, saltflats, and very popular islands such as Caracoles, Enriquez and Laurel are as well part of BSF. Even the Biobay and all mangroves and islands of Montalva bay are part of BSF. The Institute is sbout 60 yesrs old and not even its founders knew about existance of BSF (personal comminication with to retirees).

    If this was not bad enough, many employees from the UPR campuses are also squatters! Dr. Ana Helvia Quintero from UPR-RP and Julie Morrell from UPR-Caricoos are themselves squatters!

    It is said, that Ruperto Chaparro, Director of Sea Grant at UPR Mayaguez was the initial proponent of charging money to the squatters, something beyond his duties: only DNER is the agency to set public policies not UPR. Send.

    Send. Fas Alzamora told me that Chaparro assisted him in the preparation of P of S1621, and when the bill was ready Chaparro was one of the lonners to support P of S 1621 at the Senate! Could you believe this? Corruption is even at UPR, the place were environmental education is being taught!?

    At another place, Buys, at least four other UPR-RUM professors are related, one being Geologits and “environmentalist” Wilson Ramirez, employee under Vales-Pizzini (also Dean of Arts and Sciences). In that place past UPR professor Dafne Javier (wife of the President of the environmental group “Caborrojeños Pro Salud y Ambiente” is said to own a squatter house at thi lovely beach, a clear conflict of interest.

    I am building “Amigos del Bosque Estatal de Boqueron” in order to save this endangered state forest, the equivalent of a USA National Park.

    Interested people can contact me at hecolon@gmail.com

    If you can read in Spanish please refer to this article that I wrote.

    http://www.elnuevodia.com/opinion/columnas/pargueraesbosquenoarrabal-columna-2223503/

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