As world travel resurfaces after two years of COVID-19 shutdowns and restrictions, marketers and media are promoting Puerto Rico as an accessible hot spot destination for continental American travelers. The Commonwealth set a visitor record in 2021, and it is expanding tourism-related developments to turn travelers away from more exotic destinations.
Tourism income is central to Puerto Rico’s economy, especially in the wake of the heavy damage from Hurricane Maria in 2017. But it comes at a cost: the destruction of mangroves, wetlands and other coastal areas. Puerto Rico is no stranger to resorting to construction, but now extensive small-scale projects to meet rental demand on platforms such as Airbnb are adding to concerns about coastal civilization and tourism.
As scholars studying anthropology and coastal communities, we believe it is important to understand what Puerto Rico is missing out on in its pursuit of an ever-growing tourism business. For the rural coastal communities where we conduct our research, habitat is linked to the cultural identity and economic well-being of residents.
For the past two decades, we have documented how many rural Puerto Rican lives are inextricably linked to coastal forests and wetland habitats. These communities are often poor, neglected by the state and disproportionately affected by pollution and harmful industries. Decisions about the future of the coast are also often made without taking human impacts into account.
Once despised fields are now in demand
Estuary and coastal forests are some of the most biodiverse and productive ecosystems on Earth. Millions of people depend on mangroves and coastal wetlands for livelihood.
Around the world, these regions are under stress from climate change, tourism and luxury residential development. But these areas were not always considered so prized.
In Puerto Rico and elsewhere in the Americas, historically wetlands were viewed as undesirable and even dangerous places to live and work. They were often inhabited by the poor and dispossessed, especially Afro-descendants and indigenous communities, who engaged in live fishing, forage making, coconut harvesting, lumbering, and charcoal making.
However, in the early 20th century, tropical beaches began to attract the attention of the global leisure class. In 1919, the Vanderbilt Hotel opened in San Juan, followed by the sprawling Caribe Hilton resort in 1949—the first Hilton hotel outside the continental US, built in partnership with the Puerto Rican government. Several more hotels followed, along with a casino and golf course.
Today, Puerto Rico’s rural coastal communities compete for space and resources against tourism development, civilization, urbanization, industry and conservation. Often these uses are not compatible with the local lifestyle.
For example, people in communities near mangrove forests such as Las Marias in southern Puerto Rico are no longer allowed to harvest small amounts of mangrove lumber for the construction of traditional fishing boats. Also, they see wealthy residents and developers destroying entire tracts of mangrove forest with impunity. Some coastal communities are starting to push back.
beaches are for people
In March 2022, Eliezer Molina, an environmental activist, engineer and 2020 gubernatorial candidate, posted an exposé on YouTube about illegal cutting and filling of a mangrove shoreline in the Las Marias neighborhood in Jobos Bay, Salinas. As Puerto Rico’s second largest estuary and only Federal Estuarine Reserve, the bay is an important and vulnerable habitat for birds, turtles and manatees, and a nursery for many types of fish.
Wealthy Puerto Ricans secretly developed this waterfront site for weekend homes. Residents of Las Marias had been alerting local authorities about the destruction of the mangroves for more than a decade, to no avail. Federal officials and Puerto Rico’s Department of Justice are now criminally investigating the illegal construction.
The case caused widespread public outcry about similar instances around the archipelago. Puerto Ricans are condemning local government agencies online and in person for what they describe as incompetence, corruption and a lack of monitoring and oversight.
A hot-button issue is the privatization and destruction of the zona maritimo terrestre, or terrestrial marine area. This area is legally defined as “the coastal location of Puerto Rico bounded by the ups and downs of the sea”—that is, between low and high tides or up to the highest point of the surf zone. It includes beaches, mangroves and other coastal wetlands, and is publicly owned.
Activists are urging government Pedro Pierlusi to declare a sweeping moratorium on all coastal construction, a demand the governor calls “excessive”. A popular protest slogan, “Las Plas Son del Pueblo!” (“The beaches belong to the people”), aptly summarizing the popular sentiment.
Coastal development generates a lot of money in Puerto Rico, but what is gained by preserving these areas for use by local communities? In research we conducted in 2010-2013 and 2016-2021, we found that coastal resources offer many benefits for local residents that cannot be easily replaced.
Our results show that about one-third of households in these communities depend on coastal goods for at least part of their income, while more than two-thirds depend on them as food sources. Local harvesters supply foods such as land crabs to the family-owned seafood restaurant, which helps attract economic activity to the coast.
We also found that residents rely more on local coastal foods during times of severe economic stress such as recessions and natural disasters. For example, after Hurricanes Irma and Maria, many residents in the southern cities of Salinas and Santa Isabel harvested unusually abundant land crabs, when other foods were difficult to find. Some even saw this abundance as divine compensation for the pain of the storm that struck them.
The local economies in these communities primarily carry out small-scale, community-based transactions that include gift-giving, barter, and sales. Their social and economic impacts often go unnoticed and are underestimated in official economic accounts, so they are not reflected in decisions about coastal development. But as our work shows, coastal ecosystems are ecologically, economically and socially productive places.
In 2010, we asked people living along Puerto Rico’s southern coast: “What would your community look like without access to mangroves and its bounties?” The owner of a family restaurant replied: “The answer is simple. Without access to coastal resources, this community would be dead and miserable. ,