How Puerto Rican Communities Restored Paradise to Its Natural State

Transforming a landfill into an oceanside oasis isn’t easy, but it’s necessary

Against the backdrop of a cloudless blue sky, the sun washes over an enormous dune and the handful of palm trees that stabilize it.
Photos courtesy of the author

As you drive down Puerto Rico’s Route 466, the Spanish-style houses and roadside panaderías start to peel away. The road buckles and plunges toward a white-capped Atlantic. Seaside cliffs rise, and trees stretch gnarled limbs into a semi-canopy.

Driving farther still, you reach the remnants of a dune sea tracing the asphalt. Beyond the sandy, mangrove-dotted hills, the sound of the ocean rises as it hammers the shore. This is the Mabodamaca Community Natural Reserve in Isabela, Puerto Rico. Named after the Taíno cacique, the reserve is a beautiful and wild place, where brown pelicans float gracefully offshore, sharing space with surfers who descend from beyond the cliff.

On any given Saturday, you’ll see a few cars nestled up to the edge of the mangroves, their owners periodically emerging from the water. But on this pristine morning, the designated parking area is almost full. And it’s not because some rare swell has brought about epic conditions or a surf competition.

Since 2006, members of the surrounding communities have come together with the guidance and support of local organizations to reforest and preserve the area. Today, as the pandemic rages on, almost 50 volunteers have teamed up with the nonprofit organization Conservación Costera (CoCoPR) to plant new vegetation and remove litter. It’s the latest event in an ongoing effort to preserve one of the area’s most important features: las dunas.

Isabela boasts the largest concentration of dunes on the island. A stroll along the coast reveals sandy beaches that stretch for miles, undulating beneath cliffs and flecked with coastal vegetation. But more than providing a picturesque social media backdrop, the dunes are a vital part of maintaining a balanced ecosystem. Dunes can be classified as either active or stable. While active dunes are still in the formation process and composed of loose sand, stable dunes have been reinforced by coastal plants such as uva de playa (sea grape) and bejuco de playa (beach morning glory). These stable dunes act as a vital shore break, keeping the turbid waters of Puerto Rico’s northwest coast at bay.

Yet, this critical element of the ecosystem is also one of the most threatened. As a part of Operation Bootstrap, the U.S government’s plan to overhaul the Puerto Rican economy in the 1950s, massive amounts of sand were extracted from the island’s beaches to be used in construction. Deprived of their natural shore breaks, areas across the island became prone to coastal flooding, even decades later. Worse still, this practice continues clandestinely today in Puerto Rico and across the Caribbean — thieves coming at night, when patrols are limited, to extract what they can. The issue is further exacerbated by severe storms that sweep through the island and erode active dunes, as well as by recreational activities, like ATVing, that destroy the stabilizing plant cover.

Strolling through any one of the shaded, serpentine paths that crisscross the undergrowth and taking in the jagged beach rock that forms the coast, it’s hard for anyone to imagine that this place is maintained solely by local hands. But that’s exactly the case.

When it comes to these environmental issues, Mabodamaca is not an outlier. The members of CoCoPR and their volunteers know this well.

At any CoCoPR event, the group’s co-founders are always among the easiest to find. Bernice Baker is already waving as I make my way across the tightly packed sand at one of the reserve’s entrances. Clad in hiking boots, multicolored shorts, and a CoCoPR shirt, Baker is all smiles as she gives me a breakdown of the many workstations. Some volunteers comb the areas between the dunes and the thickets of Caribbean pine with trash pickers, removing any litter they find. Others work closer to the shore, waves crashing behind them as they pack nascent saplings into the sand to stabilize active dunes. Others wield hammers and electric jigsaws as they convert wooden pallets into makeshift fencing that will protect the fledgling plants from vehicles and passersby as they grow.

Co-founder of CoCoPR, Hector Varela digs a shovel into the sand, preparing to plant a sea grape sapling.
Hector Varela prepares a site for a sea grape sapling.

Volunteers trickle back and forth between stations, carrying pieces of wood to the reforestation zone and passing off the limited number of tools. The vibe is laid-back and familial; laughter and rhythmic Spanish breaks the monolithic calm that usually characterizes the reserve. Right in the thick of it, protected from the sun beneath a khaki bucket hat and a long-sleeved shirt, is CoCoPR and Baker’s other half, Hector Varela.

Since 2019, CoCoPR has been a vehicle for Baker and Varela’s goals. One of the most important aspects of their work is the message it sends to the community and the world abroad.

Rising from loose champagne sand, the rounded leaves of a juvenile sea grape contrast the spiny palms in the distance.
A newly planted sea grape sapling, known locally by its Spanish name, uva de playa.

“Self-management,” Baker calls it. “We need to focus our [efforts] on how we, our family members, and our friends can solve our own problems. The conservation of our resources is everything. We live in an archipelago with an incredible diversity of ecosystems and biodiversity. The way to create balance between our natural resources and the [effort] to conserve them is through education. Over time, I’ve learned that when we educate and seed love [for a place] within the people, those same people become its best conservationists.”

Strolling through any one of the shaded, serpentine paths that crisscross the undergrowth and taking in the jagged beach rock that forms the coast, it’s hard for anyone to imagine that this place is maintained solely by local hands. But that’s exactly the case: Though the area is called a reserve, it is not protected or maintained by any government agency. It’s hard to imagine that this area was in a state of near-total abandonment a little more than a decade ago.

Perched in an active dune, a yellow sign warns agains the extraction of sand from the area.
A sign warning against the extraction of sand from the area. The process of illegal extraction is one that continues today throughout the Caribbean.

Before 2006, the space the reserve occupies was predominantly an illegal landfill and dumping site. The dunes had been completely excavated in previous years, trash abounded, and cars were set aflame and abandoned. But despite this state of disrepair, the area maintained a high ecological value.

The Mabodamaca Reserve is an active nesting site for leatherback sea turtles. These vulnerable creatures are the largest species of marine turtles in existence today. Known by the Spanish name tinglar in Puerto Rico, leatherbacks can grow to be as big as a car. While it’s common during breeding season to come across wide snaking tracks leading from the shore and back or to catch a glimpse of a gray giant sinking below the waves, Mabodamaca is home to other species as well. From brown pelicans and little blue herons to green iguanas and crested anoles, the reserve’s peaceful dunes represent the centerpiece of a vibrant ecosystem.

It is this vibrance that imparts a sense of wonder to the reserve. This sense of wonder — this connection to nature — ultimately led the community to transform the area from a landfill into an oasis.

A Vida Marina truck unloads supplies for a group of workers as they work to reinforce the dunes with beach vegetation
A truck from UPR Aguadilla’s Vida Marina supplies workers in the process of reinforcing the dunes with beach vegetation.

CoCoPR is only the latest in a long line of community organizations to take action. Organizations like the University of Puerto Rico at Aguadilla’s Vida Marina have also had a hand in preserving the area. Even global companies like Corona have gotten involved: In 2019, ahead of the 36th edition of the Corona Pro surf competition, the beer maker partnered with local organizations to restore the dunes and reforest Middles Beach, part of the reserve that’s famous for its beach and reef breaks.

A weathered boardwalk provides pedestrian entry over the dunes, keeping them safe from harm. To its right, a sign details the purpose and participants in the dune restoration project.
Wooden boardwalks, built by UPR Aguadilla in coordination with Corona and Save the Beach, provide access to the beach while protecting the dunes.

Partnering with brands and coming together for the community is on full display in the latest reforestation effort. CoCoPR has partnered with the team at Power Cookies, a local brand of vegan treats, to provide snacks for all volunteers. Raul Hernandez and Hector Santamaria, two surfers who made the jump into entrepreneurship, understand intrinsically the importance of places like this and the impact the community can have when everyone comes together. “Cleaning up [the reserve] makes you feel sad at first,” Hernandez says. “But once you see the difference [you’ve made] afterwards, it makes you feel so happy. We have to teach people, and most importantly kids, why they need to respect Mother Nature.”

The current state of the Mabodamaca Reserve is proof that the smallest efforts, over time, can yield great things. But the fight is far from over. Even now, CoCoPR and others continue to call on the government to officially designate the site as a reserve. As they busy themselves with protecting the spaces that protect us, they are sowing the seeds of self-management throughout the island. Their efforts ensure that the resources that make Puerto Rico unique remain in the most capable hands: our own.

To learn more about how you can help environmental efforts in Puerto Rico, visit CoCoPR’s page on Facebook.

Miguel is based out of Puerto Rico. When not on an adventure you can find him typing away.

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