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Working papers

The building blocks of coastal conservation in Puerto Rico: development, education, policies and sustainability

Manuel Valdés Pizzini
University of Puerto Rico Sea Grant College Program

Presented at the Future Search Workshop on Sustainable Development, Bremen, Germany. June 2002.

The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, in the Caribbean Sea, is fraught with an array of critical problems that impose major hurdles to the conservation of coastal and marine environments.  Sea Grant presents a holistic and interdisciplinary approach to conservation based on research, marine extension and education. Through an aggressive program of projects, activities and information transfer our program is committed to contribute to the transition from “development” to sustainability, in perhaps the most difficult and hostile milieu.  Through education and changes in policies, Sea Grant aims to contribute to the goal of sustainable development, the antipode of a pervasive form of development that literally eats the beach sand, and the heart of the limestone formations of the coast, the building blocks of the Island.                   

The “building blocks” of Puerto Rico
This Spanish-speaking Commonwealth is a territory of the United States since 1898, and thus share jurisdiction with that country in the area of coastal and maritime resources (Ratter 1995).  Commonwealth authorities have been more flexible than Federal (U.S.) authorities in the stewardship of the coastal resources to accommodate development activities that often threaten critical habitats and ecosystems.  A traditional agricultural enclave (sugar cane, tobacco, and coffee) throughout its colonial history, Puerto Rico started an aggressive process of modernization and industrialization in the 1940s.  The result: increased levels of urbanization and sub-urbanization, and the dominance of the manufacturing sector of the economy (spurred by tax incentives provided by Section 936 of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service.)  Coastal environs suffered the impact of the modernization process through: a natural increase in population, return migration from the United States in the 1970's, the suburban expansion in the 1960's and the growth of the construction sector, investment on heavy industries, ports and refineries (1960-1970), and the operation of pharmaceuticals and electronics plants (1980-1990).   This unplanned growth has been disastrous for critical habitats, causing loss of important agricultural lands in the fertile coastal plains, loss of mangrove forests, transformation of estuaries, destruction of wetlands, contamination of underground aquifers, erosion and sedimentation of watersheds, water reservoirs, and coastal habitats such as sea grass beds and coral reefs.  

Although the coastal zone has always been a space for leisure, and a place for the legal and illegal housing occupation of the middle and upper classes, displacing the local poor, this process gained force in the mid 1980's and in the 1990's. A dramatic increase in the output of the construction sector, higher disposable income (legal and illegal), tax incentives for second homes, and the availability of mortgages at low interests in the 1990's, accounted for a furious development of coastal areas, as the new zone for a middle and upper class suburban expansion.  Changes in zoning, shifts in land uses (from agriculture to development), construction of condominiums and upper-class, gated communities are the new signs of a coastal landscape traditionally occupied by marginal communities, the poor and the seasonally unemployed (Valdés Pizzini 2001.)

In the 1990s the government of the Commonwealth was in the hands of pro-statehood political party.  To accelerate the process of becoming a state of the Union, this party lobbied for the elimination of the Section 936, and instituted a neo-liberal economic policy that underscored the privatization of the government assets (including protected lands) and utilities, and served the private sector in the development of industries and economic enterprises.  The construction sector was favored by means of a policy of tourism and infrastructure development subsidized by the sale of the Puerto Rico Telephone Company.  Construction of hotels, mega-resorts, roads, harbors, construction and maintenance of water pipes, reservoirs, and other facilities until 2004 (the last year of Section 936) was planned to dilute the economic effects, if any, of the loss of manufacturing firms. Thus, construction had carte blanche in development through a “fast-track” system of permits and the waiver of Environmental Impact Statements.  Suburban housing (built out of cement blocks and concrete) grew during the nineties, becoming the activity with the largest growth within the construction sector.

The government expected the majority of manufacturing firms to remain in the island due to the overall benefits, investments, and potential benefits under the new economic policies for job (employment) credits, and increased municipal and utilities incentives. However, prior to the elections (2000, in which the government changed) industries started their exodus into the global and cheaper labor markets. Low paying firms in the garment sector and food processing (tuna canneries) left the island, leaving a large number of poor workers unemployed.  Construction remains one of the key economic activities that reflect some growth, and as such is favored by the government in terms of incentives and permits.      
The University of Puerto Rico Sea Grant Alternative (
Sea Grant is a member of a network of programs throughout the United States, which is a partnership between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA,, through National Sea Grant College Program (, and the coastal universities. Our mission is the conservation and sustainable development of coastal and marine ecosystems, through a three-pronged approach based on: marine extension, education and research. Our program features a flexible and interdisciplinary solution to the critical problems facing the coastal zone.  Our staff has a variety of professional backgrounds and experience: communications, recreation and management, chemical oceanography, water quality, fisheries biology, anthropology, and education, among others.  

Although housed at the state university, Sea Grant is not considered a government agency, and thus it is perceived as an open and impartial body.  Non-advocacy in technology and information transfer is the mantra of our program. However, in tackling the complex situation of the Puerto Rican case, an aggressive stance based on an educated advocacy of sustainable options is needed.  Our program is not detached from the government agencies.  On the contrary, we have a mandate to form partnerships and collaborative arrangements with local and federal agencies, to increase the potential for conservation.   

Educating the public
Changing public perceptions, knowledge and practices is one of the most dramatic challenges that we face.  Through the services at our information center, training programs for teachers, visits to students and teachers at local schools, capacity building activities for undergraduate students and community-based non-governmental organizations (NGO), face-to-face relations with the constituents are at the core of all our endeavors.

We also reach the public through the Internet, two marine bulletins (Boletín Marino, and Sea Grant in the Caribbean, published four times a year) and a number of one-pagers, brochures, booklets and books on marine related issues. Our staff participates in radio programs, maintain the press informed on current and critical issues (through press releases, interviews, and advice), and co-sponsors an environmental television program at the Commonwealth Television Station.  

Our capacity building activities and publications (Navarro 1999) aimed at community-based NGOs is resulting in the increased participation of communities in the conservation and stewardship of local resources, beaches and watersheds throughout the Island, including the inland municipalities. Volunteer groups are currently working in water monitoring projects in eight municipalities (Navarro 2002).  The results from the monitoring activities are used for leverage in dealing with the government agencies responsible for the quality of the beaches. Our water quality efforts have also moved local agencies to provide accurate and real-time information to the public.      

Changing policies
One of the most significant contributions made by our Program is the role we play in changing policy for the conservation of marine and coastal resources.  Through our partnerships with government agencies, continuous assistance to legislators, participation in the board of government agencies and programs, we have been able to contribute with a “grain of sand” to the process of developing sustainable policies.  The following are areas in which the program is currently involved, and the impact to policy:

The development of the Puerto Rico Coastal Non-Point Source (NPS) Pollution Control Plan approved and signed by EPA and NOAA officials in October 2000.

House and Senate projects are consulted with staff.  Sea Grant provided advice to legislators on: current fisheries law and regulations, laws and management plans for the ornamental fish trade, beach adoption bill, the coastal zone law and regulations, contamination and discharge of residual waters in the beaches, Blue Flag Beaches Program, and the construction of the Mayagüez aquarium.  

The Government Commission for the Conservation of Coral Reefs sets the policy on research, education and conservation of coral reefs.  Our staff participates in the Commission, and contributes to the development and implementation of guidelines for coral reefs conservation.

Preparation and dissemination of the policy paper “Under Investment and Lack of Interest: The Predicament of Beach Management in Puerto Rico” (Chaparro 1998). Press coverage of this resulted in a national discussion on beach safety, and management options at the DNER, the Senate and the House of Representatives. The discussion generated four House projects on: marine safety and marine recreation practices; the creation of an interagency board for the integrated management of Puerto Rico's beaches, and two water quality legislative projects.  The conclusions of the Chaparro report were incorporated in its totality in the governor official publication Puerto Rico and the Sea 1999: an Action Program for Marine Affairs, published by the DNER.   

The Beach and Coast Stability Program, in collaboration with UNESCO, assists thirteen island countries/territories in the Caribbean in developing the capability to better manage their beach resources.  This regional effort included projects on coastal change planning, beach erosion management, beach services management, environmental education, co-management of beach resources, publications, manuals, policy change (on local setbacks for construction, and protection of both beaches and property) and capacity building for local communities, NGOs and resource managers (Cambers 1998).   

Sea Grant research and outreach initiative on Marine Fisheries Reserves (MFR) provided the government with the critical information for the support of marine reserves.  

The Utopia of Sustainability
Sustainability is a utopia and an ill-defined concept in Puerto Rico. The government is expected to have a resource management policy based on sustainable development, but in reality the process has been slow. Last year the government co-sponsored with the Environmental Protection Agency a conference on Smart Growth a re-conceptualization of sustainability that EPA promotes to reduce the impact of urban sprawl, and redesign communities and subdivisions (see This trend in planning is becoming popular in the United States, where there is a movement against suburban growth. This summer (2002) the local Environmental Quality Board is sponsoring a rather hasty conference on sustainable development, which is still a good sign.    

             An expert opinion study sponsored by our program indicates that in real terms, sustainable development is not in the “radar screen” of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and that appropriate steps towards sustainability are not being taken (Irizarry 2001).  Sustainable development remains either a utopia, a hollow concept used by experts and environmental NGOs, or a distant possibility (in the next 50 or 100 years). Our government, consumption patterns, current political status and lack of education were identified as major hurdles for sustainability (Irizarry 2001).  

Programs like ours remain committed to sustainable development by promoting co-management, opening the discussion on the topic, recommending an Independent Commission for the design and implementation of sustainable practices. Educating the public and changing policies (through a number of tactics and strategies) remains as our best bet for the conservation of coastal and marine resources.  However, it remains a difficult challenge in an island with a continental mentality, and a discourse that primes employment and development, rather than sustainability.

Cambers, Gillian. 1998. Coping with Beach Erosion. Coastal Mangement Sourcebook. UNESCO, Paris and the University of Puerto Rico UPR Sea Grant College Program.  

Chaparro, Ruperto.  1998. Desinversión y desinterés: la situación en el manejo de playas.  Planteamientos sobre política pública Programa de Colegio Sea Grant de la Universidad de Puerto Rico.  Publication Number UPRSG-G-74.

Guilbe, Carlos J. 1998.  El manejo de las cuencas hidrológicas en Puerto Rico: la autonomía municipal frente a la crisis del agua potable en el Área Metropolitana de San Juan.  Ambiente y Desarrollo en el Caribe (ADEC) Boletín Electrónico (, Centro de Investigaciones Sociales, Universidad de Puerto Rico, Recinto de Río Piedras.

Hunter, John M. and Sonia I. Arbona.  1995.  Paradise lost: an introduction to the geography of water pollution in Puerto Rico.  Social Science and Medicine.  40(10): 1331-1355.

Irizarry, Tania.  2001. Puerto Rico: ¿En via hacia un desarrollo sustentable? Informe Final del Seminario en Investigación.  Departamento de Ciencias Sociales, Recinto Universitario de Mayagüez.

Navarro, Ana, and Eduardo Navarro. 2001.  Guía ambiental para Puerto Rico.  The University of Puerto Rico Sea Grant College Program, University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez. Publication Number UPRSG-G-75.

Navarro, Ana. 2002. Testing water quality in Puerto Rico=s beaches: A volunteer experience. Paper presented at the National Water Quality Conference, Madison Wisconsin, May 19-23, 2002.

Ratter, Beatte M. W. 1991.  Administrative contradictions in complex resource management experiences from Puerto Rico.  Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the IGU -Commission on Marine geography: “The Ocean Change: Management Patterns and the Environment. La Rábida, Spain.

Valdés Pizzini, Manuel. 2001. Historical contentions and future trends in the coastal zone: the environmental movement in Puerto Rico. The University of Puerto Rico Sea Grant College Program at Mayagüez. Publication Number UPRSGCP-R-80.