In the last couple of years, conflicts related to the environment have caught the attention of newspapers and other media. Until recently, the main voices of these disputes came from sectors of the population that were at a socioeconomic disadvantage. The original nonconformity of deprived communities, however, has extended to all social sectors because of projects and proposals that seriously threaten everyone”s quality of life.
Land, and everything on it, is being subjected to an immense pressure to allow contradictory uses as proponents struggle to impose their individual interests. Existing regulations, which should put order to competition, languish and give in to those with higher power and influence. In the end, it is the clash between two visions on how and in what direction the country should be developed.
Until recently, the notion of “conquest” prevailed when natural resources were thought to be infinite. Exploiting them, therefore, did not take into account their possible exhaustion. Nevertheless, events have made us realize that human activities could result in the destruction of the balance of nature. The alteration of that balance bears very serious social and economic consequences. There are already many cases and examples. The most dramatic one is global warming, which points to an increase in frequency and intensity of hurricanes as well as to the elevation of sea levels.
Today, we can no longer develop projects that make abstraction of the conditions of natural geography; ignore their best use, or deny the necessary protection of its integrity. Doing so means sacrificing the future by ignoring the inevitable manifestations of its effects. Repeating the vision that undermines natural resources is the perfect route to underdevelopment.
Sustainable development, a concept that integrates economic growth, ecosystem protection, and social justice, is used as a framework to advance the design of a more contemporary vision. However, the initiatives geared toward formulating effective policies and regulations, within the framework of sustainable development, are almost always thwarted by the strong resistance of economic sectors who see them as a threat to the conditions that allow them to obtain substantial benefits from their investments. The desire for limitless enrichment and the ambition for immediate profit still prevail. Unfortunately, the interests of those economic sectors are the ones that determine public policies today. They are the ones that lobby for eliminating restrictions on the use and handling of the country”s natural resources. This sector also aspires to intervene at will with our national territory, undermining its natural systems, denying the need for ecological balance and the well-being of future generations of Puerto Ricans.
For example, we see that the government supports “tourist” projects that are, in fact, luxurious residential complexes. Meanwhile, agricultural lands are sold to give way to the monoculture of cement. Public property, particularly the marine-terrestrial area, is taken away from Puerto Ricans as beaches are privatized, in violation of existing laws and traditions. Poor communities are under constant threat of being evicted to allow for the construction of opulence, euphemistically called “development.” Finally, public efforts end up being controlled by the short-term vision of private interests.
Fortunately, we are becoming conscious of the mishandling of our natural infrastructure. Thousands of Puerto Ricans believe that it is impossible to maintain the current pattern of use of our territory without multiplying the conflicts and further risking our natural systems. Simply put, it is not possible to develop the country by destroying it. Therefore, we must change the economic vision into one that recognizes the finite character of our territorial extension, the high population density, and the need for making good use of our resources: natural as well as artificial. This implies re-developing and recycling existing urban areas and saving agricultural lands from the voracious pressure that vast residential constructions represent. Being farther away from urban centers, automobiles are the only means of access to these residences.
Collective transportation must be a priority and the main means of transportation to and from citizens” homes, schools and places of work. Building infrastructure, or its expansion, should seek its optimum use; we cannot add a second floor to the island to accommodate more kilometers of highways or to build more reservoirs or energy plants. Protecting our natural scenery and transforming our cities is crucial so that Puerto Rico, as a destination, may compete in a market where each country participates and where tourist profiles point to higher education of and sensibility to ecological values.
A change of vision, and the installation of an economic development model that acknowledges the attributes and limitations of our natural geography and global changes such as global warming, is urgent. This will require the participation of all those who inhabit the Puerto Rican archipelago. It should promote understanding, as well as transparent and democratic forums necessary to reach a consensus among all. That won`t be easy, because its mean agreeing on topics that will not only include the economy, environment and society, but also politics. But the agenda to formulate that vision has been launched and dealing with it now is imperative.
Author: Proyectos FPH
Published: January 16, 2008.
This post is also available in: Español