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Environmental Battle Looms In Puerto Rico

16 April 2005
Copyright © 2005
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. All rights reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) -- A tranquil beach fringed with nothing but tropical forests, cattle ranches and turquoise seas is at the center of a looming battle between environmentalists and developers who plan two resorts along one of Puerto Rico's least disturbed stretches of coastline.

Investors in the Marriott and Four Seasons resort projects chose the undeveloped swath near the eastern town of Fajardo for its striking beauty, a site seemingly so untouched that a film crew recently used the spot to re-enact Christopher Columbus' landfall in the Americas.

Mountains covered in lush rain forests rise in the distance, and pelicans dive for fish along a beach frequented by fishermen and surfers but not many others. It is also a prime nesting spot for endangered leatherback sea turtles.

''It's a unique place in Puerto Rico that we have to protect,'' environmental activist Luis Jorge Rivera-Herrera said. The 33-year-old is helping lead a campaign against the resorts and has been joined by groups including the Sierra Club, Environmental Defense, Surfrider Foundation and the National Wildlife Federation.

The developers, who are awaiting government approval, say they have painstakingly planned the hotels, condominiums and golf courses to be in harmony with nature on this U.S. territory in the Caribbean.

''It's designed precisely to minimize the impact,'' said Carlos Fernandez Lugo, a lawyer for investors in the Four Seasons Resort San Miguel, a $579 million project.

The resort is to have 250 rooms and be built along with up to 1,025 homes -- and will include its own environmental research center, Fernandez said.

''We do really try to be sensitive to the environment and the surroundings,'' said Elizabeth Pizzinato, a spokeswoman for Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, based in Toronto.

Conservationists have argued that any type of resort would harm a spot known to locals as ''La Selva,'' or the forest, after the thick stands of coastal trees, brush and coconut palms flush against a tropical beach.

The Sierra Club and its members last month helped send thousands of faxes to government offices and the hotels' corporate headquarters, Rivera-Herrera said. Opponents also are trying to block the projects in the courts and before Puerto Rico's planning and environmental quality boards.

The latter approved an environmental impact study in November for the $160 million Marriott. After the ruling, investor Efrain Kier accused ''psuedoenvironmentalists'' of trying to derail the project without sound scientific reasons.

''They simply oppose everything,'' Kier said. ''They have various projects in Puerto Rico paralyzed right now because they oppose everything.''

Some critics say they fear the hotels' lights would interfere with sea turtle nesting on the beaches, as the animals use moonlight to guide themselves back to the sea. But Kier said the lights won't reach the shore and that turtles will be well-protected.

Backers say thousands of jobs would be generated by the resorts, helping lift an economically depressed area on the U.S. territory.

Rivera-Herrera said opponents will keep up legal challenges and lobbying to protect the 3,200-acre site. If necessary, he said, they are prepared to camp out on the land in acts of civil disobedience.

Miguel Davila, a 52-year-old fishmonger who has angled off these beaches for years, said he regrets the development that has covered much of Puerto Rico's coasts. Building hotels at this spot would spoil its natural beauty, he said. ''What are we going to tell our children if we lose it?''


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