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Inter Press Service
Environment-Puerto Rico: Critics Say Calderon Showing True Colors
By Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero
July 12, 2002
SAN JUAN -- Environmentalists are starting to wonder whether Governor Sila Calderon will live up to the "green" views she espoused during her election campaign in 2000.
Then, Calderon promised to put this Caribbean U.S. territory on the road to sustainable development. Previous governor Pedro Rossello was reviled by environmentalists, who accused his administration of riding roughshod over environmental concerns and causing an unsustainable and explosive rate of urban growth.
The new governor's firing of two staff members who were practicing what she preached in her campaign has angered some of her supporters.
"What we are witnessing here is the same style of Rossello, which the people thought they had defeated in the last elections," declared the Coalition Against Environmental Corruption, an umbrella group of activist groups.
"It is evident that this administration is doing the same as the previous one: basing our economy on the construction industry, and so keeping the money flowing by instituting a development policy that will cause the accelerated devastation of our natural resources."
The last straw for the environmentalists was the forced resignations of Felix Aponte and Hermenegildo Ortiz from the Planning Board (Junta de Planificacion), a supervisory body that evaluates construction proposals.
Both were widely seen as decent, responsible professionals. But Ramon Cantero-Frau, the governor's top economic adviser, openly complained they took too long to evaluate much-needed construction projects.
Environmental activists are convinced the government fired them because of pressures from the construction industry. The PR Homebuilders Association has claimed in full-page newspaper ads that Planning Board delays have paralyzed the island's economy and cost 35,000 construction jobs.
"We feel indignation and despair," said activist Juan Rosario, commenting on the firings.
"Indignation, because environmental and community organizations perceived that for the first time something positive was being done, and then the government fires precisely the people who are doing good things. Despair, because we get the impression that big money interests always end up running this country."
According to Rosario, construction permits simply cannot be accelerated in 'fast track' fashion, as Governor Calderon wishes. "Our Environmental Policy Act requires construction projects to go through environmental studies which make it impossible for permit processes to be brief."
"I guess you could accelerate the process by eliminating public hearings and citizen participation, but that would be against the law."
The process would be quicker if developers stopped giving the Planning Board false or incomplete information about their projects, added Rosario.
"In her political programme, the governor spoke of transparency, citizen participation, sustainable development, and a new vision," said Coalition Against Environmental Corruption spokeswoman Wanda Colon. "But the reality is just development, not preceded by the word 'sustainable'."
Sarah Peisch, a consultant with the Center for Environmental Action, called the firings of Aponte and Ortiz "a disgrace for the administration."
Construction has not been paralysed as the industry claims, she says. "You can walk down any street and see construction work going on all over the place."
Even the construction employment figures refute the Homebuilders Association's claims, says Peisch. "Construction jobs are either stable or increasing. The projects that were paralyzed were the bad ones, which didn't deserve permits."
After meeting with leaders from environmental, professional, grassroots and labor organizations, as well as representatives of the scientific and artistic communities, Calderon still insists she will not rehire Aponte and Ortiz. But she offered to set up an environmental advisory board where civil society groups would be represented.
The activists are still debating whether to accept joining the proposed advisory board, or dismiss it as an empty gesture.
Meanwhile, the Homebuilders Association keeps turning out full-page newspaper ads, warning of economic doom for Puerto Rico if the government continues delaying or denying construction permits.