Caribbean Matters: In Puerto Rico, mangroves are the first line of hurricane defense

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As the June 1 start of Puerto Rico’s hurricane season approaches, islanders continue to rebuild. More than four years after Hurricane Maria, there is still a lot that has not been done. After all, homes still have blue tarp roofs. While Puerto Ricans are facing an uptick in COVID-19 cases and continuing power issues courtesy of LUMA Energy, there are also ongoing protests against government malfeasance and gentrification, and in support of reproductive choice

One of the latest scandals in Puerto Rico has island environmentalists—who worry about the impact of climate change and preparedness for future hurricanes—in an uproar. The news that illegal house construction has been happening in Bahía de Jobos (Jobos Bay), a National Estuarine Research Reserve, and that more than 3,600 mangrove trees have been cut down, thus making the island more vulnerable to future storms, has sparked a criminal investigation by Puerto Rico’s Justice Department.

Caribbean Matters is a weekly series from Daily Kos. If you are unfamiliar with the region, check out Caribbean Matters: Getting to know the countries of the Caribbean.

The Associated Press posted this video (with English subtitles) about the mangrove reserve destruction. It includes interviews with civil attorney Mónica Timothée Vega, and community leader Jacqueline Vasquez, who notes that “during tidal waves, when hurricanes come, the mangrove is like a person who stands there, holding back all that could come towards the community.”

The illegal construction of homes is threatening ecological reserves and mangrove forests across Puerto Rico. Environmentalists warn these cases are leaving the U.S. territory even more vulnerable to climate change amid more intense hurricane seasons. https://t.co/Ug3bvJipdn pic.twitter.com/9Kp7srfmvN

— The Associated Press (@AP) May 8, 2022

(The short video can also be found on YouTube.)

Dánica Coto, an Associated Press correspondent based in Puerto Rico, filed an “in-depth read” on the issue, which has since been picked up by NBC and other mainland news outlets. Her story also includes a series of stunning photographs by photojournalist Carlos Guisti.

The ongoing probe into homes built illegally in Puerto Rico’s second largest estuary, where officials say more than 3,600 mangrove trees were cut, has led to public hearings, the launch of a criminal investigation by Puerto Rico’s Justice Department and to scrutiny of similar cases. Environmentalists warn these cases are leaving the U.S. territory even more vulnerable to climate change amid wetter and more intense hurricane seasons.

“This is one of the biggest environmental crimes I’ve seen,” Rep. Jesús Manuel Ortiz said during an April 27 public hearing on the issue. “It’s outrageous. A crime is being committed right in front of everyone.”

Homes of concrete block complete with fences, pools and even a dock have been illegally built inside the Jobos Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. The reserve has protected nearly 2,900 acres of mangrove forest surrounded by waters in varying shades of turquoise. It is home to the critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle and the vulnerable West Indian manatee, among other species.

Coto is one of the few mainstream reporters covering the island from the island, and in English; if you are on Twitter, I suggest you give her a follow.

In-depth read: Lax oversight, dwindling budgets, and permits illegally issued by Puerto Rico’s government have led to an increase in construction in protected areas and regions, some of them prone to flooding or landslides: https://t.co/F0QQJYfMhB

— Dánica Coto (@danicacoto) May 6, 2022

The reserve is federally protected, under the aegis of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Office for Coastal Management, with daily oversight supposedly supplied by Puerto Rico’s Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (website in Spanish). Neither website mentions this issue.

The Justice Department was also questioned about why they didn’t initiate investigations back in 2019 when complaints were initially filed.  

Justice Secretary Domingo Emanuelli Hernández said Monday that the agency’s file on the situation in Jobos Bay in Salinas, where illegal construction has taken place, shows that in 2019 it was believed that no reasons existed to investigate.

“At that time, it appears from the file that there were no elements to [warrant] carrying out a criminal investigation,” Emanuelli Hernández said in a written statement. “In criminal terms, at that time, the evidence that emerged from the documents was not enough to act on.”

Questioned about what has changed from 2019 to now, given that the alleged environmental crimes are the same, Emanuelli Hernández replied: “Now I am the secretary of Justice. And I guarantee you that I am going to investigate and anyone who sees what is happening knows that crimes have been committed there. And I’m going to investigate.”

The island’s two main political parties are at loggerheads over the investigation, with members of the New Progressive Party (NPP) (which, name withstanding, is actually the conservative party) claiming that the center-left Popular Democratic Party (PDP) was trying to cover-up for the local Salinas government.
Meanwhile, in a Tuesday Weather Channel story, Nicole Bonaccorso reports
Aixa Pabón, director of Jobos Bay reserve, said the entire system failed when the construction was permitted to go through. She also accused the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DNER) of negligence. Officials accused those living in illegal residences within the reserve of taking advantage of the pandemic as well as the aftermath of Hurricane Maria to build and add to buildings at Jobos Bay.
[…]

Secretary of the DNER Rafael Machargo Maldonado resigned in late March as the scandal unfolded. The department’s interim secretary announced on April 27 that it is preparing to file eviction orders against 12 people accused of living in illegal homes in Jobos Bay. The department also requested a court order to demolish the buildings.

According to officials, the evicted parties would be responsible for paying at least $4 million in environmental damages.

Here’s hoping that at some point justice is served, but more importantly, that the damages are corrected as soon as possible.

But Jobos Bay is not the only mangrove forest in Puerto Rico that is endangered.

In Puerto Rico, a marathon effort is underway to restore #mangrove forests that were destroyed by Hurricane Maria in 2017https://t.co/v1dCpweBXz

— MangroveActionProject (@MangroveProject) March 25, 2022

In March, Liz Yanira Del Valle Huertas reported on efforts to restore other mangrove areas on the island, as well as the sand dunes that are also a primary line of defense from hurricanes.

Mangroves in Puerto Rico aren’t just threatened by hurricanes. Most have been destroyed by dredging for agriculture and urban development, wastewater contamination, industrial pollution from power plants and oil spills, or the destruction of protective barrier ecosystems like sand dunes.

Since Hurricane Maria, the Coastal Research and Planning Institute of Puerto Rico found that the island’s beaches and water lines have migrated inland by 2 to 35 meters (7 to 115 feet). The institute also uncovered new patterns of erosion and accretion, the loss and gain of sediment, in several municipalities on the island, including in coastal ecosystems like mangroves and dunes.

“In addition to protecting coasts, serving as nurseries for tropical oceans, and being temples of biodiversity, mangroves contribute [by acting] as natural filters for contaminants and sediments, resulting in clearer, better-quality water,” said Jorge Bauzá-Ortega, an environmental scientist with the San Juan Bay Estuary Program, which leads the mangrove reforestation efforts around the Puerto Rican capital.

Join me in the comments for more on environmental efforts in Puerto Rico, including programs encouraging the engagement of young people in environmental efforts, and for the weekly Caribbean Matters Twitter Roundup.

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