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The Associated Press
Massol Honored With Goldman Environmental Prize
April 22, 2002
ADJUNTAS, Puerto Rico (AP) -- Beyond narrow roads winding through the mountains of Puerto Rico's Cordillera Central lies a tropical paradise lush with giant ferns, philodendrons and pockets of orchids.
Less than a decade ago, this nearly became an eyesore of mile-wide craters dug in a search for copper, silver and gold. But Alexis Massol, a 58-year-old civil engineer, led a community struggle against the government and the mining industry to stop the area becoming an open-pit mining zone.
Massol's 15-year effort to preserve the forests around his native Adjuntas is being honored Monday with a Goldman Environmental Prize -- sometimes called the ``Nobel of environmentalists'' presented each year to eight people.
``This achievement makes me proud to be Puerto Rican. We have assumed responsibility for our community,'' Massol said in a telephone interview from a San Francisco hotel where the $125,000 awards are being presented.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the government of this U.S. Caribbean territory granted mining permits for 37,000 acres of Puerto Rico's central mountain range.
Experts say the mining would have affected a third of the island. Aside from a major loss of forests, toxins likely would have polluted the Vivi and Pellejas rivers that supply drinking water to the more than 1 million residents of northern Puerto Rico.
Massol reacted in 1980 by creating Casa Pueblo.
``As a community, we united to break dependency on the government and determine our own mechanisms to deal with problems,'' Massol said.
But many feared opposing the government. To attract more supporters, Casa Pueblo -- or ``the People's House'' -- evolved into a cultural center. Massol led his group to neighborhoods, small-town plazas and schools, and held concerts.
In 1986 and 1993, Casa Pueblo beat back two attempts to mine the mountain area.
Finally, in 1995, Gov. Pedro Rossello signed a law banning open-pit mining.
Massol sought more protection, and the following year the governor designated the area as Puerto Rico forest land and handed control to Casa Pueblo. It was dubbed ``The People's Forest.''
``It was a 15-year struggle,'' said Massol. ``We took a project of death and turned it into a project of life.''
There is no tradition of private trust of public lands here, said Ariel Lugo, director of the International Institute of Tropical Forestry in Puerto Rico. The People's Forest became the island's sole community-run reserve.
Protected public lands cover 5 percent of Puerto Rico, an oval-shaped island 100 miles long and 35 miles wide.
Despite a huge increase in population density, Puerto Rico's forests have grown 40 percent since the 1950s, Lugo said. A major factor is the shift from agriculture -- mainly sugar and coffee -- to an industrialized economy with islanders moving to urban areas in search of jobs.
Now Massol wants the United Nations to designate the People's Forest a Biosphere Reserve, an international recognition of globally significant ecosystems which would ensure even greater protection.
He realizes his goals are ambitious: ``A friend asked me if I lived on another galaxy, but I seek all these things humbly.''