Grass-Roots Fight To Protect Puerto Rico's Coast Scores Environmental Prize

Apr 18, 2016
Originally published on April 18, 2016 7:39 am

Environmental activist Luis Jorge Rivera Herrera has worked to protect a pristine section of Puerto Rico's coastline. Now he's being honored with the Goldman Environmental Prize.

The area he's fought to protect is called the Northeast Ecological Corridor, a 3,000 acre reserve with forests, lagoons and unspoiled beaches. It's prized by visitors from around the world, including endangered leatherback sea turtles, who swim thousands of miles to get there. The turtles leave deep tracks in the sand from the water to the nesting sites and can leave more than 100 eggs per nest. It's one of the most important nesting areas for leatherback sea turtles in the Caribbean.

"The tracks they look more or less like as if a bulldozer has moved onto the beach," Rivera says. "So it's quite easy to detect where the nests are."

Three years ago, Puerto Rico designated the area south of Luquillo as the Northeast Ecological Corridor. It stretches from the foothills of El Yunque, a tropical rainforest, to mangroves and beaches on the coast. For environmental groups, it was a victory that came after decades of work.

Scientists have documented nearly 900 species of plants and animals in the ecologically diverse area. There's also a lagoon that part of the year is bioluminescent, glowing from a light produced by plankton.

Rivera's career as an environmental activist got started early, as a boy growing up on his family's coconut palm plantation. When he was eight, he saw the land cleared to make way for a sewage treatment plant. Acres of his family's palm trees were cut down and it made a big impression.

"I remember at that specific time a conscious decision that when I was going to be an adult I was to work on something that had to do with protecting the environment," Rivera says.

In 1999, he was working as an environmental scientist for the EPA when he heard about two big resorts planned in the coastal area near where he used to surf in the 80s. He began working with others to challenge the projects. He and his allies made the case that the resorts would damage the ecosystem, limit public access to the beaches and siphon precious water away from neighboring communities. Groups from the nearby towns of Fajardo and Luquillo became important members of the coalition.

Rivera says people in the area didn't buy claims the new projects would be a boon to the local economy because of their past experience with other resorts. "Normally what you see, they want to keep their guests in the hotel as much as possible," he says. "You don't see that economic benefit trickling down to the local communities."

As public support for preserving the area grew, in 2007, Puerto Rico's governor signed an executive order protecting the Northeast Ecological Corridor from development. But it was a short-lived victory. Two years later, a new governor repealed the designation and said the resort projects could go forward. That action sparked a huge public outcry.

It became a campaign issue, and in 2013, the new governor, Alejandro Garcia Padilla, signed a bill preserving the Northeast Ecological Corridor at an annual festival celebrating leatherback turtles in the town of Luquillo. For Rivera and many other individuals and groups, the designation was a major victory. But it came as Puerto Rico was tumbling into a financial and economic crisis that has left the government more than $70 billion in debt and unable to pay its bills.

"The reality of Puerto Rico right now, it's rather difficult," says Carmen Guerrero Perez, head of Puerto Rico's Department of Natural and Environmental Resources. Before taking the job, Guerrero was an activist who worked with Rivera to protect the Northeast Ecological Corridor. Now, she has the difficult task of carrying through with the project at a time when the government is broke.

One of the biggest challenges, she says, is finding money to buy the land. "The whole corridor, it's not under public domain as of yet," she says. "Almost 60 percent of the lands are part of the government. The others still need to be acquired."

Rivera was stunned when he learned he'd been selected for the Goldman prize along with the recognition and $175,000 award it carries. But he says there's still much to do. Environmental groups will continue to push the government to acquire the remaining land in the Northeast Ecological Corridor. And he says they'll closely monitor any nearby development.

There are few roads in the Northeast Ecological Corridor's 3,000 acres, mostly trails. With time and money, the island's government hopes to improve access and services for visitors. But for some, the inaccessibility and remote location is part of the appeal.

On the beach, Wes Englebreth and his family from North Carolina swim after hiking here to get away from people and crowded resorts. "This is a great stretch of beach," Englebreth says. "I hope it stays the same." Largely because of the work of Luis Jorge Rivera, this part of Puerto Rico's coastline will remain much as it was when Columbus landed on the island more than 500 years ago.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And environmental activist in Puerto Rico is being recognized today with a major award, the Goldman Prize. Luis Jorje Rivera Herrera is being honored for his work protecting a pristine section of Puerto Rico's coastline, a place that is also an important nesting site for endangered sea turtles. NPR's Greg Allen visited the area with the activists who saved a unique place from development.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: These sandy beaches on Puerto Rico's northeast coast are prized by visitors from around the world, including some that swim thousands of miles to get here. Environmental scientist Luis Jorge Rivera says leatherback sea turtles are impressive.

LUIS JORGE RIVERA HERRERA: They could be probably about 8 feet in length, from the point of their head to their tail. They are the biggest marine sea turtle in the world.

ALLEN: On a beach in the town of Luquillo, Rivera shows me a leatherback nest. It's one of the first of the season and is marked by stakes, plastic tape and a sign warning visitors it's a protected species. Each nest can hold more than 100 eggs. Rivera says volunteers and employees of Puerto Rico's Department of Natural And Environmental Resources are out every morning looking for tracks leading from the water to nesting sites.

LUIS HERRERA: And the tracks, they look more or less like if a bulldozer had moved into the region. So it's quite easy to detect where the nests are.

ALLEN: Just a block from the beach, Rivera takes me to the office of a group he helped found, the Coalition for the Northeast Ecological Corridor.

ROSALY RAMOS: (Speaking Spanish).

LUIS HERRERA: (Speaking Spanish).

RAMOS: (Speaking Spanish).

ALLEN: Rosaly Ramos is the government biologist in charge of monitoring leatherback nesting here. It's early in the season, she says, but there are more nests than usual.

RAMOS: They have - now have 17 nests.

ALLEN: Yeah? Wow, so it's going to be a good year then, maybe?

RAMOS: Maybe, maybe, maybe.

ALLEN: Who knows?

Three years ago, Puerto Rico designated this area as the Northeast Ecological Corridor. It's more than 3,000 acres, stretching from the foothills of El Yunque, a tropical rainforest, to mangroves and beaches on the coast. For environmental groups, it was a victory that came after decades of work.

(BIRD CHIRPING)

LUIS HERRERA: That's a black-whiskered vireo.

ALLEN: Rivera takes me on a hike through the new reserve. It's an area he known well. He first began coming here in the early '80s as an avid surfer. One thing that makes the area special, Rivera says, is the varied habitats found within a relatively small area.

LUIS HERRERA: We are walking right now through a dry coastal forest. And in about a half-hour drive, you could be on El Yunque rain forest, which is, you know, the opposite in terms of ecological extremes.

ALLEN: With this new reserve, Puerto Rico has created a corridor connecting the El Yunque rain forest to the coast. Scientists have documented nearly 900 species of plants and animals in the ecologically diverse area. There's also a lagoon that part of the year is bioluminescent, glowing from a light produced by plankton. Luis Jorge's career as an environmental activist got started early, as a boy growing up on his family's coconut palm plantation. When he was 8, he saw the land cleared to make way for a sewage treatment plant, and acres of palm trees were cut down.

LUIS HERRERA: That was a very big impression for me. And I remember, at that specific time, a conscious decision that when I was going to be an adult, I was going to work on something that had to do with protecting the environment.

ALLEN: In 1999, Rivera was working as an environmental scientist for the EPA when he heard about two big resorts planned in the coastal area near where he used to surf. He began working with others to challenge the projects, making the case that they'd damage the ecosystem, limit public access to the beaches and siphon precious water away from neighboring communities. Groups from the nearby towns of Fajardo and Luquillo became important members of the coalition. Rivera says people here didn't buy claims the new resorts would be a boon to the local economy because of their past experience with other resorts.

LUIS HERRERA: Normally what you see, they want to keep their guests in the hotel as much as possible.

ALLEN: Right. And the guest's dollars, keep them all in inside hotels.

LUIS HERRERA: That's right. So you don't see that economic benefit trickling down through the local communities.

ALLEN: As public support for preserving the area grew, in 2007, Puerto Rico's governor signed an executive order protecting the Northeast Ecological Corridor from development. It was a short-lived victory. Two years later, a new governor repealed the designation and said the resort projects could go forward. That sparked a huge public outcry. It became a campaign issue. And in 2013, the new governor, Alejandro Garcia Padilla, signed a bill preserving the Northeast Ecological Corridor at an annual festival celebrating leatherback turtles in the town Luquillo.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED DEMONSTRATORS: (Chanting in Spanish).

ALLEN: For Luis Jorge Rivera and many other individuals and groups, the designation was a major victory. But it came as Puerto Rico was tumbling into a financial and economic crisis that has left the government more than $70 billion in debt and unable to pay its bills.

CARMEN GUERRERO PEREZ: The reality of Puerto Rico right now, it's rather difficult.

ALLEN: Carmen Guerrero Perez is the head for Puerto Rico's Department of Natural and Environmental Resources. Before taking the job, she was an activist who worked with Rivera to protect the Northeast Ecological Corridor. Now she has the difficult job of carrying through with the project at a time when the government is broke.

PEREZ: The whole corridor is not under public domain as of yet. Almost 60 percent of the lands are part of the government. The others still need to be acquired.

ALLEN: Back on our hike through the reserve, we're leaving the sandy beach and climbing up an embankment to a forest trail.

LUIS HERRERA: So this...

ALLEN: Are we going to go up there?

LUIS HERRERA: Yeah.

ALLEN: On a steep trail, we quickly ascend to a windswept headland overlooking the beach. There are views of water on all sides, and Puerto Rico's Culebra Island is in the distance.

LUIS HERRERA: Most of the vegetation is shrubby.

ALLEN: Yeah.

LUIS HERRERA: You can see the plants here grow much smaller because on this headland, they are also more exposed to the salt spray and strong wind.

ALLEN: There are few roads in the Northeast Ecological Corridor's 3,000 acres, mostly trails. With time and money, the island's government hopes to improve access and services for visitors. But for some, the inaccessibility and remote location is part of the appeal. On the beach, we run into a family from North Carolina. Wes Englebreth, his wife and kids hiked in for a swim because they wanted a place away from people and crowded resorts.

WES ENGLEBRETH: Yeah, this is a great stretch of beach. I hope it stays the same.

ALLEN: Rivera was stunned when he learned he'd been selected for the Goldman Prize, along with the recognition and $175,000 award it carries. But he says there's still much to do. Environmental groups will continue to push the government to acquire the remaining land in the Northeast Ecological Corridor. And he says they'll closely monitor any nearby development.

LUIS HERRERA: We have to keep vigilant just to protect the chicken that lay the golden eggs, not to eat the chicken.

ALLEN: Greg Allen, NPR News, Luquillo, Puerto Rico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.