Condo Developers Are Endangering Puerto Rico’s Natural Resources

The island doesn’t need high-rise residencies; it needs a sustainable future

An wide shot of Puerto Rico’s protected forests as clouds billow overhead and the sea sprawls out in the distance.

A few weeks back, as I scrolled through my Instagram feed, I stumbled across an image of a woman in tears. That woman was Bianca Graulau, an acclaimed Puerto Rican reporter celebrated for her coverage of important issues across the island.

Graulau has tackled topics like the paper extinction of the native Taíno peoples and the island’s loss of food sovereignty, yet her latest topic hit particularly close to home. In the video, Graulau finds out the land behind her house — the land on which horses graze and her dogs hunt iguanas — was purchased by an American developer to build luxury condos.

Preservation isn’t just about beach cleanups and replanting mangroves. It’s also about holding those in power accountable.

To non-natives, this might not seem like much to cry about. It might seem like luxury condos would be just the thing to lift Puerto Rico out of a decadeslong economic slump by creating jobs for locals and providing more opportunities for tourists to come and enjoy the island. But these projects come at the expense of the preservation of natural resources and usually leave local Puerto Ricans getting the short end of the stick. This would be the case with the land behind Graulau’s house.

Her land is protected land. As such, its sale to a luxury developer is very much illegal.

The state of protected lands in Puerto Rico

In 2015, the Puerto Rico Land Use Plan provided a comprehensive set of regulations to organize land use throughout the island and prevent conflicts. A year later, the Puerto Rican Planning Board spearheaded the designation of 10 agricultural and natural reserves around the island. Agricultural reserves are specific areas throughout Puerto Rico that have shown high agricultural value and are set aside to be used in farming. The land behind Graulau’s house is one such area and is technically a part of the Costa Norte Reserva Agricola, which adds an extra layer of protection on top of the Land Use Plan. According to Puerto Rican law, agricultural reserves should be preserved in perpetuity, “without the possibility of changes every few years after revisions and changes of opinion and interest.”

That last part was prescient, as just a few years after designating the 10 new reserves, the planning board attempted to annul seven of them. The Puerto Rican Supreme Court ordered the designations reinstated, according to Pedro Cardona Roig, former vice president of the planning board. However, as Cordona Roig explains, the planning board found a way around this ruling by ensuring that none of the information about the reserves was made available to the public.

A call for transparency

In the weeks since her discovery, Graulau has worked tirelessly to bring attention to the illegality of the planning board’s actions. She teamed up with Cordona Roig, and together, they hosted a live feed that detailed how protected lands are sold throughout the island, not just in Graulau’s backyard in Camuy. She’s partnered with Fideicomiso, an agricultural community land trust that aims to advance food sovereignty in Puerto Rico by promoting sustainable agriculture.

Graulau’s Instagram stories have been filled with bilingual updates, calling to action both Puerto Ricans on the island and in the diaspora. This effort resulted in the planning board’s release of information about the reserves. Shortly thereafter, Gov. Pedro Pierluisi announced that the natural and agricultural reserves would be restored more than a year after the Supreme Court had ordered this very action in 2019.

The importance of community and the will of the people

I recently wrote an article about the Reserva Natural Comunitaria Mabodamaca and the importance of community preservation efforts. The site, which was abandoned as a landfill in the aftermath of sand extraction for construction, is now maintained and cared for by locals.

In this same vein, the work Graulau does is a reminder that preservation isn’t just about beach cleanups and replanting mangroves. It’s also about holding those in power accountable, calling them out when they cater to foreign interests over the interests of the people. Puerto Ricans don’t need luxury condos or apartments. We need to stop importing 85% of our food. Designated agricultural reserves provide a path to decrease that number and build a sustainable future.

But if we don’t act to protect these vital resources, they’ll be replaced by fiberglass communities that cater to the ultra-rich. Yes, the protections for the reserves from 2016 have been reinstated, but there are other places of ecological value all over the island that are threatened by urban development.

It’s not an easy battle. Many developers have millions of dollars to broker with and millions more to gain from these lands. But Graulau, Cordona Roig, and others have brought attention to these often illicit deals. By educating the people and shining a light on deception, we can even the playing field.

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

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