Some Puerto Rican activists are particularly concerned about construction that is destroying mangrove ecosystems that serve as natural protection against storm surges.
Jacqueline Vázquez was sitting on the couch when her phone rang.
She had just returned from a government office where she had filed a complaint about illegal construction in an ecological reserve. The reserve is dedicated to one of the island’s largest mangrove forests near its neighborhood in southern Puerto Rico.
“What the hell were you doing in Natural Resources?” a male voice yelled through her phone.
Vázquez took it as a threat, one of several that community leaders like her have received when outraged Puerto Ricans demanded answers from their officials. Sloppy oversight, dwindling budgets and illegally issued government permits have led to an increase in construction in protected areas and regions, some at risk of flooding or landslides.
The ongoing investigation into illegally built homes in Puerto Rico’s second largest estuary, where more than 3,600 mangrove trees have officially been felled, has led to public hearings, the launching of a criminal investigation by the Puerto Rico Department of Justice and reviews of similar cases. Environmentalists warn that these falls will make the US territory even more vulnerable to climate change amid wetter and more intense hurricane seasons.
“This is one of the biggest environmental crimes I’ve ever seen,” MP Jesús Manuel Ortiz said during a public hearing on the issue April 27. “It’s outrageous. A crime is committed right in front of everyone.”
In the Jobos Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, concrete block houses with fences, pools and even a dock have been built illegally. The reserve has protected nearly 2,900 hectares of mangrove forest surrounded by water of varying shades of turquoise. It is home to the endangered hawksbill sea turtle and the endangered West Indian manatee, among others.
Activists and some public workers say they are frustrated and alone in their struggle, while blaming the Puerto Rico Department of Natural Resources and other agencies for not doing their jobs.
When a lawmaker, during a public hearing, asked the director of the Jobos Bay Reserve exactly who had failed in her duties by allowing illegal construction, she replied, “The entire system.”
The reserve’s director, Aixa Pabón, also accused the Department of Natural Resources of negligence and questioned the absence of Puerto Rico’s Planning Committee. She said that “incompetence, negligence (and) inertia” prevail in certain government agencies. Her voice broke at times, and she said she feared personal and professional backlash for testifying, “But the truth sets me free, and God is with me.”
Last month, the Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources resigned. He told a local radio station that some employees investigating the illegal construction received death threats.
Neither the Department of Natural Resources nor the Puerto Rico Planning Authority, which is responsible for reviewing all approved permits, responded to requests for comment.
The issues of public land and climate vulnerability play out in another high-profile case in the popular surf town of Rincon in western Puerto Rico. In February, a judge revoked a government-issued permit that allowed the Sun and Beach gated community to rebuild a pool, hot tub and other recreational areas destroyed by Hurricane Maria in September 2017.
“Proposed construction,” the court said, “would privatize an asset in the maritime-terrestrial public domain.”
The judge also found that 2% of the property in the case is protected land where no urban development should have been permitted and 12% is in a coastal area with a high risk of flooding.
Testimony in this case included an employee of the Environmental Division of Puerto Rico’s Permit Management Office, who admitted to taking direct action to expedite the now-cancelled permit. He also said that a friend and business associate of his was an advisor on the project, but said his action was justified because the permitting officer in charge misconducted the assessment.
The judge ruled the land is public after the island’s planning board found the government had granted the permit in violation of local laws. However, this case is still in court, and residents fear that the developers will illegally restart the reconstruction. Endangered sea turtles nested there in the past.
In both cases, the illegal construction came to light after concerned residents protested and demanded accountability from government agencies.
“We feel like the fight never ends here. It’s very, very frustrating,” said Mónica Timothée Vega, a civil attorney. At the request of a friend, she’s also fighting another proposed development in a wetland in the northeastern coastal city of Luquillo.
That case is pending in court, with Timothée accusing Puerto Rico’s Permit Management Office of granting developers nine extensions and three extensions, even though by law it can only award three extensions and one extension per case.
Timothée also said a neighbor requested public documents related to the case in January and only received them after she and her brother, who is also working on the case, went to court.
“Why does the community need attorneys to obtain documents?” she asked. Her frustration increased, she said, when documents previously available online at the Permit Management Office began disappearing as she and her brother were dealing with the case.
Pedro Cardona Roig, an architect, planner and former vice president of the Puerto Rico Planning Committee, said the same thing happened to him while he was investigating on his own what happened in Salinas, where Jobos Bay is located. He said of the 16 documents he previously read online, only a handful remain.
Gabriel Hernández, secretary of the Permit Management Office, told The Associated Press that his limited-staff agency is struggling to deal with a recent spate of fake permits that have illegally altered names, addresses and even official property maps.
“The number is increasing every day,” he said, adding that planning officials have now identified more than 100 fake permits. At least eight of these were utility connection permits to the illegal homes in Jobos Bay. He emphasized that his authority had never issued permits there.
“Sometimes people do what they want,” he says.
At least 60 customers now have hookups in Jobos Bay, according to the Puerto Rico Water and Sanitation Authority. The island’s Electric Power Authority has referred nearly 50 people to the Puerto Rico Department of Justice for illegal connections.
Hernández of the Permissions Office said he has ordered his staff to exercise judgment and exercise caution when considering a petition involving a nature reserve or protected area.
“Some may have slipped through, but that’s not the norm,” he said.
Illegal coastal development is a major concern for activists on an island where more than half of its 3.2 million people live near the ocean. Mangroves protect the coast from storm surges during hurricanes. Corals do this too, but they have died in part due to sediment runoff. A warming planet means hurricanes carry more rain, have more energy, and intensify faster.
“The mangroves are like the person that stands there and endures whatever comes,” said Vázquez, the community leader. “It’s like a wall that saves us.”
A growing number of lawmakers are advocating an island-wide investigation into illegal construction in protected areas. Activists are also pushing for approval of a full moratorium on coastal construction, a proposal Gov. Pedro Pierluisi has called “excessive”. However, he said a moratorium could be applied in areas suffering from erosion or other climate change impacts.
The ministry’s interim secretary announced on April 27 that it was preparing eviction orders against 12 people accused of living illegally in Jobos Bay and asking for a court order to demolish the houses. Officials said residents were responsible for paying at least $4 million in environmental damages and accused the group of exploiting the pandemic and the aftermath of Hurricane Maria to construct and expand buildings.
Despite the looming court battle over protections in Jobos Bay, activists and advocates remain cautious. They note that the Natural Resources Ranger Corps only has seven members to patrol the area that includes Jobos Bay, instead of the federally recommended 12. When the Corps fined $250,000 on those who did not illegally occupying land, the government reduced fines to $3,000. The squatters also issued a cease-and-desist letter to the rangers themselves.
“You can imagine how we felt,” Sgt. Ángel Colón told lawmakers at a public hearing. “It was like a bucket of cold water.”
Vázquez, the community leader of Las Mareas in the town of Salinas, knows the feeling.
The complaint she filed in 2019 has stalled with Puerto Rico’s Department of Natural Resources. Officials say they need more information. The land abuse complaint is one of more than 100 filed by people across Puerto Rico since 2019 awaiting action.