Sustainable Development through Model Forests on the Island of Enchantment

Summary: Though the U.S. Constitution does not have an explicit right to a safe environment, many commonwealths, including Puerto Rico, do. For decades natural resources on the Island of Enchantment have been threatened. As a result, legislation has been enacted in order to protect the environment for future generations. The proposed Puerto Rican Model Forest Act attempts to mediate the conflict between humans and nature.

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By Roxanne M. Almodóvar-Pérez

The environment is the basis of life and thus the basis of human existence. Consequently, environmental issues are rooted in complex and conflicting fields. By focusing on sustainable development, model forests attempt to mediate the coexistence of humans and nature. However, good governance of natural resources demands public participation.

For instance, in the 1940s Puerto Rican landscapes had only 6% forest cover while the rest of the land was agricultural. However, after a shift from an agricultural based economy to an industrial economy, forest cover started to re-emerge. Open pit mining during the 1980s and, more recently, the 2010 government-proposed construction of a gas duct—‘Vía Verde’—threatened life in some of the most important forests on the Island. At the end of 2010, the Puerto Rican government partnered with energy developer EcoEléctrica and started negotiations to build a 93-mile pipeline that would have directly cut through the interior of the Island. According to the State Government office and the “Autoridad de Energía Eléctrica” (AEE) (the Puerto Rican Department of Energy), the project was supposed to enhance the “poverty-stricken island.” But, it would have done so at the expense of essential ecosystems and natural habitats for endangered species.

Guánica Dry Forest 2Even though the U.S. Constitution does not have an explicit right to a safe environment, the Puerto Rican Constitution, Article VI § 19 states: “It shall be the public policy of the Commonwealth to conserve, develop and use its natural resources in the most effective manner possible for the general welfare of the community.” ‘Vía Verde’ threatened about 1,500 acres of protected forestland and more than 369 acres of wetlands. Additionally, the ‘Vía Verde’ would have directly impacted the habitat of 34 endangered species, along with 235 rivers and streams, which include a critical conservation zone that produces 25% of the water consumed in Puerto Rico. All of these areas are protected under the Puerto Rican Urban Forest Act (P. del S. 1842 Ley 213 of 1999). Furthermore, the Puerto Rican Forest Law establishes that “it is public policy that [Puerto Rican] forests and land have an ‘inherent essence’ which demands they be protected as such” (P. del S. 1842 Ley 133 of 1975).

Yet, for nearly three years former Governor of Puerto Rico Luis Fortuño, and Daniel Pagán, Director of AEE, remained adamant that the project would provide “a new energy era that [would have] strength[ened] the competitiveness of [the Puerto Rican] economy and [would have] improve[d] the quality of Bosque del Pueblo Adjuntaslife of [Puerto Ricans].” State government officials insisted that sustainable development was a “balance between the protection of the natural resource, and their social and economic use.” Moreover, project developers claimed ‘green energy’ would significantly reduce: (1) electricity costs (by 30%), (2) carbon dioxide emissions (by 60%), and (3) generate 4,500 new jobs while “temporarily impacting a minimal portion of the country’s physiography.” Although the project promised to decrease the Island’s dependence on oil while boosting natural gas usage to 71% from its current 15%,the public remained concerned about the environmental impacts.

Private interests argued that sustainability should focus on the economic benefits the project would bring to the Island, while minimizing the temporal environmental harm. However, as Harding points out, a more sustainable development project prioritizes the environment over economy because “there are many ecological assets that are essential for human survival.” Accordingly, in the case of “La Vía de la Muerte” many Puerto Ricans decided against “the invasive and volatile nature of the pipeline, and its influence on the long-term energy portfolio of the Island[’s]” economic development which was intrinsically tied to the fossil fuel industry.

“La Vía de la Muerte” enlightened Puerto Rican citizens to the importance of maintaining protected forestland. As a result, the Puerto Rican Department of Natural Resources proposed the Model Forest Act (P. de la C. 1635). This is an unprecedented law that establishes 17% of the Island’s forest cover (more than 390,000 acres of land, 240,000 people and 20 municipalities) as ecologically rich habitat with sustainable development values and promotes its conservation. “El Bosque del Pueblo” in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico served as model for this law. This forest had been part of the Ibero-American Forest Network since 2007, and paved the way for the Model Forest Act in Puerto Rico.

Class Room Bosque del PuebloThe model forest project would make protected land available to education, active scientific research, sustainable agricultural practices, and recreation. Yet the proposed act is not a new zoning ordinance and it does not impose limits beyond those already established in the zoning ordinances. The Act consists of unifying almost a third of the Island as protected territory. The Act establishes a concept of forested land where people live while conscious of their impact on nature. In essence, the Act establishes a forest where commerce, industry, and agriculture coexist by recognizing the immense amount of life and biodiversity that is on the Island. After nearly two years of debate both the Senate and the House of Representatives have approved different versions of the Model Forest Act. However, they have yet to agree on a unified version to enact. If the Act can push through legislative debate, vital resources of Puerto Rican land will be conserved for generations to come. However, the future of the Act’s enactment is unpredictable, in that the Act could be enacted tomorrow, yet it may sit in the legislature for years to come.

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For more information please visit:
Ibero-American Forest Network: http://www.bosquesmodelo.net/en/
Casa Pueblo: www.casapueblo.org/
Twitter: @casapuebloorg
Facebook: Casa Pueblo de Adjuntas | 787.829.4842 

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Roxanne M. Almodóvar-Pérez is a 2L student at Vermont Law School pursuing both a Juris Doctor and a Master’s in Environmental Law and Policy.  Prior to attending law school, Roxanne earned a B.S. in Industrial Microbiology and a M.Sc. in Ecosystem Restoration from the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez.  Roxanne is a proud Puerto Rican environmentalist on a quest to protect Mother Earth.