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WOW News

Dreaming Of Vieques: An Era After The Ousting Of The Navy

By Joanisabel Gonzalez-Velazquez

August 1, 2003
Copyright © 2003 WOW News. All rights reserved. 

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a four-part series on the proposal by experts, environmentalists, and island municipality residents for the cleanup and development of Vieques.

Job opportunities, better medical facilities, renewable energy, and tourism initiatives would be the new panorama of Vieques if the government adopts as public policy a master plan developed by more than 40 experts in Puerto Rico.

"Vieques Guidelines for Sustainable Development"–a three-year effort headed by planner Jose Rivera Santana and University of Puerto Rico Prof. Lilliana Cotto–presents 35 recommendations to reconstruct Vieques, revamp its economy, and contribute to people’s health and quality of life at a total cost of $350 million.

Rivera Santana said the guidelines–prepared by the Technical & Professional Support Group (TPSG) as requested by the Comite Pro Rescate y Desarrollo de Vieques (CPRDV) in 1999–are the result of Viequenses’ expectations.

"They want development, improvements, but they don’t want to lose what they have," said Rivera Santana.

He added that Vieques’ low incidence of crime, small population, and relaxed lifestyle are the island’s best attributes to promote itself as a cultural and research center, and a great place for mid-economic activity related to manufacturing, agriculture, and tourism.

The plan, which is the first effort of this kind in Puerto Rico, is so innovative and complete that Vieques Commissioner Juan R. Fernandez is lobbying to convince the government to adopt it as public policy.

"They (referring to other government officials) will have to convince me there is something better than this plan," added Fernandez, who also contributed to its preparation.

Recently, Gov. Sila Calderon appointed fishermen Carlos Ventura and Vieques Women’s Alliance Zaida Torres Rodriguez members of the Vieques Transition Commission.

Vieques people requested more representation in the committee which will envision the island’s future, something that Calderon accomplished almost 45 days after the transfer of the eastern part of the island to the Fish & Wildlife Service.

Published reports, on the other hand, revealed that the Planning Board is working on an infrastructure plan for the island. The plan does not take into consideration the TPSG proposals, what may represent a conflict between them and the government, according to Planner Felix Aponte.

But the people of Vieques are opposed to the development of large scale hotels, which according to their judgment would affect their lifestyle, endanger the already damaged natural resources and not be affordable for the people.

In the area of tourism, the TPSG presents 12 different locations for sightseeing and nature tourism activities, including a bioluminescent bay, Isabel II lighthouse, archaeological sites, bird watching activities, sea-turtle nesting habitats, and diving in coral reefs,.

According to the plan, Vieques’ people may develop the "bed & breakfast" (B&B) concept on their properties for tourists to stay in. B&Bs (a very popular concept in Europe) will comply with established standards of quality and tourism services, be promoted in advertising campaigns, and people will be trained in hospitality aspects, and will learn English.

TPSG’s plan emphasizes the conservation of the resources, and the restoration of historical sites in order to promote tourism effectively.

In addition, the plan identifies business opportunities for banking institutions, construction companies and manufacturers.

Rivera Santana explained that Vieques is an ideal location for certain manufacturing operations; the group estimates manufacturing could generate 950 new jobs in Isla Nena.

Manufacturing could be combined with agriculture to produce honey, fruit juices, and the native beverage "bili."

Proposed agricultural activities include hydroponic growing of lettuce and cilantro, and traditional plantations of bananas, plantains, beans, papaya, avocados, and ornamental plants.

The fishing industry, which produces 100,000 pounds annually and employs 120 fishermen on the island, is expected to grow after the ousting of the U.S. Navy from Vieques’ waters. According to Rivera Santana, the door for marine research initiatives and management other sea products like shrimp and lobsters is now open.

It is estimated that infrastructure and housing construction, will generate 7,000 direct and indirect jobs. Housing construction–a high-demand project–is recommended at Isabel II, Monte Carmelo, and Villa Borinquen, with a total investment of $50 million.

However, most of the projects proposed for Isla Nena’s development are subject to the cleanup of two thirds of the island used by the Navy for ammunition storage, landfill, equipment and vehicle maintenance, treated domestic wastewater treatment, barracks, and firing ranges for over six decades.

Environmental hazards caused by the Navy haven’t been fully documented, but the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) and the local government is looking forward to ensure the cleanup of the polluted sites.

In fact, the EPA is currently working with the Navy on a work plan for cleanup through the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).

On June 15, the Commonwealth also asked that Vieques and Culebra (a Navy training facility during the 1970’s) be listed in the National Priority List (NPL) through the "silver bullet" mechanism.

But aside from the "silver bullet" request to the EPA, and almost three months after the transference of the firing range to the Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), nothing is known about the work conducted by the Vieques Transition Committee headed by Chief of Staff Cesar Miranda which, according to La Fortaleza’s press office, meets approximately twice a month.

Another proposal made by the TPSG is the development of a research center for renewable energy. Vieques and Puerto Rico will have the opportunity to study wind, solar and ocean-thermal technologies with the goal of decreasing the country’s dependence on petroleum to generate energy.

Wind energy could be developed at the highest areas of the former Camp Garcia, according to University of Puerto Rico (UPR) Planning School director Felix Aponte.

He revealed that a few decades ago, the Navy conducted studies of ocean-thermal technology, capable of being generated where ocean waters register constant temperatures throughout the year at determined depths.

According to the former member of the Planning Board, studies revealed that Vieques and Punta Tuna in Maunabo are possibly the best places in the world, besides Hawaii, to develop the technology.

"If we develop this kind of technology in Vieques, the first thing that will happen is that the residents’ and business’ electricity bills will decrease nearly 50% since no charge will be made for petroleum consumption," Aponte said.

The planner added this technology may generate energy for the whole island of Vieques and perhaps for the eastern part of Puerto Rico. It also may result in the construction of an ice plant, which could generate enough ice for local tourism activities, the island’s fishing industry, and customers in Isla Grande, and perhaps, St. Thomas.

Finally, the plan envisions an integral health system based on preventive medicine principles; a unit for monitoring respiratory and dermatological conditions suffered by children; the establishment of a Family Health Center, including pre-natal care, and ob-gyn services; and treatment facilities for cancer patients and research about cancer, the leading cause of death in the municipality.

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