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Can We Get Along?

By Francisco Javier Cimadevilla

December 5, 2002
Copyright © 2002 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Puerto Rico is at a crossroads. And unless we decide, together, which road to take we will never move forward. And we will be left behind.

That is the fundamental, philosophical issue behind thousands of everyday disputes, recriminations, lawsuits, permit rejections, administrative appeals, legal challenges, public protests, political mudslinging, land squatting, and yes, even civil disobedience going on throughout Puerto Rico; they are bogging down not just the island’s construction industry but our whole economic development process as well.

Every day, we read in the newspapers about this or that construction project being stopped in court for one or another reason--alleged deficiencies in the environmental impact statement, alleged irregularities in the permitting process, alleged violations of established public policy. . .Projects of all sorts have been stopped, sometimes only to be restarted exactly as originally planned after years and millions of dollars have been wasted in legal challenges, construction contract penalties, and costly restart-ups of projects.

Important infrastructure projects needed to improve our quality of life, like the Superaqueduct and Route 66; tourism projects crucial for our economic development like the Condado Trio and the Convention Center; and housing projects of every scale and socioeconomic level needed to satisfy the high demand for housing of an ever-growing population--to mention only a few examples--have all suffered a similar fate.

Some sectors of the press that thrive on conflict and negative news have tended to paint a caricature of the parties and the issues involved. On the one hand, they paint a picture of ugly, greedy, money-hungry developers who don’t care how many trees they chop down in order to build their projects. The environmentalists, on the other, are seen as valiant, sensible defenders of the environment, whose only motivation is the collective well-being of our society.

These caricatures of both the parties and the issues bear no resemblance to reality.

That’s why our front-page story today makes an important contribution to the debate. In an exclusive CARIBBEAN BUSINESS roundtable, top representatives of the different sectors, including developers, contractors, architects, environmentalists, and community leaders spoke their minds on these complex issues. We bring you their own words. You will be surprised by the consensus among them.

First, the duality between development and environmental protection is largely a myth. In fact, the whole construct of environmental laws and regulations is being used, and often abused for purposes that have little to do with environmental protection. Community activists, for example, often ride behind the environmental bandwagon, not to challenge a project’s permitting process or to protect the environment but to protest against years of social injustice from government inaction over their legitimate pleas for adequate infrastructure facilities, educational and economic opportunities, and a decent and safe place in which to live. Others use the environmental laws to challenge projects for political or economic reasons.

Second, most construction industry professionals are as sensitive to the environment as any sensible person. In fact, to many that is the meaning of what they do: to satisfy the physical needs of a growing population in a way that is respectful of the environment and sustainable over time. "No developer wakes up in the morning wanting to cut a tree down," an environmental leader told us.

Third, the lack of a clear set of rules in the permitting process and doubts about the reliability of permits validly issued has created a climate of uncertainly among developers, investors, and financial institutions that must be addressed urgently. The construction industry is concerned about how long it takes to get the necessary permits but is even more concerned about whether they can rely on them once they are issued.

Finally, we have to find common ground, together. As a leading community activist reminded us "we must learn to share Puerto Rico, not compete for it." Our future economic development is at stake.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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