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Allentown Morning Call (Pa.)
Environmental Movement Growing In Puerto Rico
By Matthew Hay Brown
June 4, 2002
ADJUNTAS, Puerto Rico -- The ground beneath her feet holds precious treasure, deposits of copper, silver and gold valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars. But as she gathers the schoolchildren around her on the rocky terrace high in Puerto Rico 's lush Cordillera Central, Jovanna Garcia speaks of a different kind of wealth.
"Our Indian ancestors believed that all life came from the forest," the young environmentalist tells the fourth-graders. "It's where they got their water, their food, their medicine.
"Taking out the metals would create a giant hole here. But can you drink gold? Can you eat gold? Can you take gold when you're sick?"
"No!" the children shout, gleefully. On this sunny afternoon in the ridge called the Sleeping Giant, they have become the latest converts to the evangelical environmentalism of El Bosque del Pueblo -- The Forest of the People.
On an island where rapid industrialization often has met little resistance, the citizens of Adjuntas are growing a new environmental movement. High in Puerto Rico 's mountainous backbone, on land once targeted for open-pit mining -- and still scarred by the first exploratory excavations -- the keepers of the U.S. commonwealth's first community-managed forest are laying plans for a greener future.
The 800-acre Bosque del Pueblo is their showpiece-in-progress. Proceeds from the sale of shade-grown coffee maintain the ancient Taino ball court and ceremonial ground, the mountainside amphitheater, the butterfly garden and birding trails that have drawn thousands of scientists, students and tourists. Volunteers here envision a university-affiliated research station and expanded international study and work programs. They are pursuing United Nations' designation as a World Biosphere Reserve.
Already their work has won praise as a model for development in the Caribbean. More tangibly, it has inspired a dozen similar projects in communities throughout the island, from coastal reserves to inland mountain retreats, in varying stages of proposal.
"It is a fantastic public example," says Ariel F. Lugo, director of the International Institute of Tropical Forestry at the University of Puerto Rico . "Getting that kind of involvement from the town is fabulous. The fact that they are trying to get some kind of return from the land is also marvelous."
The road to the Bosque narrows as it climbs, winding past the shells of abandoned houses and burned-out cars, until finally it is a tight passage, walled by ferns and palms, philodendrons and orchids. This humid stretch of secondary subtropical moist forest is the source for two major rivers, home to hundreds of plant species and a stopping point for dozens of migratory birds. Julian Chivies and bien-te-veos, with their two- and three-note songs, banter through the mist with the native coquies, the island's beloved tree frogs.
Some feared disaster when mineral deposits were discovered here in the 1970s. The government granted mining permits for 37,000 acres. Opponents said the development, with mile-wide craters destroying forest and toxins polluting the Vivi and Pellejas rivers - - source of drinking water for 1 million residents of northern Puerto Rico -- ultimately would affect a third of the island.
Alexis Massol Gonzalez, a civil engineer born, raised and schooled in Adjuntas, created Casa Pueblo -- the People's House -- to fight the mining. Spreading its message through plays and concerts, music and dance classes and outings in the Bosque, the nonprofit organization grew to hundreds of residents.
Those residents thwarted attempts to begin excavation in 1986 and again in 1993. Finally, in 1995, Gov. Pedro Rossello signed a law banning open-pit mining. But Casa Pueblo won its greatest victory the following year, when Rossello designated one expanse public trust land and ceded control to the organization, a major change for an island run by a traditionally paternalistic government. The Bosque del Pueblo became Puerto Rico 's first community-managed forest.
"It has been a great struggle by many people, to give us a cultural, agricultural, educational, environmental institution that will be protected for the future," Adjuntas Mayor Roberto Vera Manroig says.
Protected public lands cover 5 percent of Puerto Rico . The rest is available for development.
"Development growth has had the advantage," says Lugo, of the tropical forestry institute. "All you have to do is look around. If you talk to the people trying to continue industrialization, they will complain about the rules. The fact is, a small proportion of the projects go through the gauntlet. I would say the environment has not been a major obstacle for the developers."
Even so, during 50 years of industrialization, Puerto Rico 's forests have grown by 40 percent, as islanders moved from farms in the interior to cities along the coasts in search of jobs. The significance of the Bosque is that it places a small corner of that forest under the stewardship of a community organization, ostensibly forever.
"This is participative, democratic, educational," Massol says. "We are trying to break our dependence on the government, on corporations, on el sistema."
The work has inspired similar efforts throughout the island. Casa Pueblo is in contact with groups from Rincon on the western coast to the isle of Vieques off the eastern tip, from Pinones in the North to Maunabo in the South.
Meanwhile, the Bosque is growing. Funded primarily by proceeds from the dark gourmet Isla Madre coffee -- grown in the mountains, labeled at Casa Pueblo and sold throughout the island -- scientists have compiled inventories of the plant, animal and bird life at the Bosque, part of the application for U.N. recognition as a globally significant ecosystem. Massol calls biosphere designation "another door to shut on mineral exploitation."
That effort received a surprise boost last month when Massol was honored with a $125,000 Goldman Environmental Prize.
"The People's Forest has become a model of community involvement and sustainable development for Puerto Rico and the Caribbean," the San Francisco-based Goldman Environmental Foundation said.
Massol, one of eight prize recipients worldwide, says he will put the tax-free, no-strings-attached grant in the bank and use the interest to fund Bosque activities.
While on the mainland to pick up his check, he visited U.S. and U.N. officials in New York and Washington to raise money and enlist support for the biosphere application. He also delivered a report on environmental contamination on Vieques , site of a naval bombing range, to U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-New York, and the White House.
"I'm not an environmentalist, I'm not a pacifist," Massol says. "I'm a human being who respects life, and our natural heritage, to preserve it for the next generation."