Before winning the Goldman Environmental Prize in April, we spoke to Luis Jorge Rivera Herrera to discover what it took to protect the 30-mile Northeast Ecological Corridor in Puerto Rico from two proposed mega-resorts. Rivera Herrera’s almost 20 year-long campaign is a testament to the power of perseverance in the face of government corruption, and efforts to discredit his work.
Were you born and raised in Puerto Rico? Do you have a personal connection to the Northeast Ecological Corridor that made you want to protect it?
I’ve lived my entire life in Puerto Rico. I was born and raised in Rio Alto; a municipality next to San Juan. My interest in the environment came from growing up on a farm which, for the past four generations belonged to my father’s family. When I was very young I would visit to help tend to the land every weekend. I was 8 years old when, in 1980, the Commonwealth Government bought the land in order to build a sanitary treatment plant. When I saw the bulldozers breaking down the trees it had such a strong effect on me that I became committed to working to protect the environment. From the age of 8 that was the goal in my life. I got my bachelors’ degree in environmental science and my masters’ degree in environmental planning. In 1999 I took a summer job with the San Juan Bay Estuary Program and it was there that I learned about two proposed residential tourist projects in the Northeast Ecological Corridor. I had been there before as a surfer!
“When I saw the bulldozers breaking down the trees…I became committed to protecting the environment.”
When did the threats from the resort developers begin? How did you challenge them?
The threats regarding the two proposed resorts started in 1998 for the Dos Mares resort and 1999 for the San Miguel Four Seasons resort. Together with other volunteers (a group which later became the Coalition for the Northeast Ecological Corridor), we participated in the first public hearings about the future of the corridor. In 2003 we filed our first lawsuit challenging the companies proposing the development. Not much happened until a local Sierra Club chapter was established in 2005 and we started working with community groups, environmental organizations and fisherman groups to turn things around. That year, we caught the public’s attention by filing a bill with the Commonwealth House of Representatives to designate the corridor as a nature reserve. Unfortunately, the bill was delayed by a senator who was later accused of bribery. It was later found that he moved bills forward according to the bribes he received, and is now in jail. The scandal caused a public outcry in support of the corridor.
What happened to the bill that would designate the corridor as a nature reserve?
The bill was not approved by the Commonwealth government, primarily due to this senator’s delay tactics. However thanks to public support, the then-governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá approved an executive order that saved the bill, finally designating the corridor as a nature reserve in April 2008.
Then elections were held in November and a new governor, Luis Fortuño, came to office. A few weeks before elections were held, we asked candidates to state whether they were going to commit to protecting the area as a nature reserve. The only candidate who didn’t commit to anything was Fortuño. So when he came into office in 2009 we were expecting the worst! That materialized in October 2009 when he repealed the executive order that was signed by the previous governor. This order established land use on the island and stated that at least some of the land on the corridor would be dedicated as a nature reserve. Fortuño’s administration however ‘cookie cut’ the areas which were slated for development out of the order, so that these projects could go ahead.
Why do you think Governor Fortuño supported the resort developers, over the designation of the corridor?
The developers for the Dos Mares resort were known for being one of the biggest public funders of his campaign. Although other developers were giving much more money to Fortuño, they did the same thing for the opposing party! So they were playing both fields to assure that they would have influence on whichever candidate was elected.
How did you feel about all the work you put in since the 1990s, for Governor Fortuño to just take it all back? How did you find the will to keep going?
Since we were running with few resources, both human and economic, we didn’t have time to feel down…we had to pick up things immediately and keep working! There was no other way to do it. It’s when something angers me that makes me more focused.
“It’s when something angers me that makes me more focused.”
The resort developers went as far as publishing attack ads in newspapers against you and the campaign. How did this affect your work?
It’s funny because it backfired on them! The day they published that ad on all the newspapers I began to receive a lot of phone calls from people expressing their support. People who had never before sympathized with the protection of the corridor. Just after that I was even recognized as an outstanding alumni by the University of Puerto Rico natural sciences faculty, where I received my bachelors’ degree. What saddened me though was the affect it had on my parents, who worried about me. But they knew I had to be involved in the struggle.
“I had to be involved in the struggle.”
Tourism is very important to Puerto Rico. How did you build support for the corridor among that sector on the island?
We met with the Puerto Rico hotel and tourism association, who were in favor of the two resorts in the area. We asked them if they were concerned about the impact to the other resorts that were providing that service in the northeastern region of the island. The existing hotels in the area were not doing well, and the tourism industry had been saying for years that the island needed to diversify its tourism offerings. The San Miguel and Dos Mares resorts were proposing the same tourism activities the island already had! But by having the corridor protected as a nature reserve, the area could provide new tourism activities. Instead of going to the casinos or playing golf, during the leatherback turtle nesting season for example, they could watch the turtles in their natural surroundings.
Looking to the future, is sustainable tourism in the corridor a possibility or will tourism always pose a threat to the land?
I see more and more Puerto Ricans engaging with and enjoying the outdoors. Once they have their first contact with nature, they begin to value their environment. That then turns them into activists for its protection. The corridor could be an example of how ecotourism can be in Puerto Rico, and other Caribbean islands, if managed properly. Here we have a 30-mile stretch of land with so much diversity; on one end a coastal dry forest and at the other, a rainforest! As a tourist you can be less than one hour and a half from visiting those two extremes. To see such diversity in the US mainland you have to drive hundreds, if not thousands of miles!
What are your current plans for the management of this land?
We, the Coalition for the Northeast Ecological Corridor signed an agreement with the Puerto Rico Department of Ecological and Environmental Resources in April 2015 for co-management of the corridor. We are focused on purchasing the remaining public lands in the corridor. We also want to help promote the development of micro-enterprise in Luquillo and Fajardo (two towns with high unemployment located in the corridor). For example, we are proposing for the visitor center to be located not in the corridor itself, but in downtown Luquillo. This way, we have a win-win situation; visitors of the corridor will use services in the downtown area, which will support local businesses and the protected area will not be built on.
What can the public do to help ensure the corridor is protected?
We’d like to bring attention to the corridor, especially among people of Puerto Rican descent that live in the US mainland, as they have a strong affinity to the island. This is not just due to the culture, but also their connection to Puerto Rico’s mountains and coastal areas. We would like to have these people engaged and together we can raise the funds needed by the government to purchase not only the land in the corridor, but other areas that need to be protected. We have a deadline for the remaining land to be purchased by the government. If the land isn’t bought by 2020, it will be on the open market for sale and clear the way once again for development.
Luis Jorge has a simple vision for his island: he wants the Northeast Ecological Corridor to be returned to public hands, for all to enjoy. You can help him by donating through the Sierra Club Puerto Rico chapter to help the Puerto Rican government purchase the remaining privately owned land in the corridor.
Update: Great news! Luis Jorge will receive special recognition at the National Puerto Rican Pride Day this weekend, alongside other honorees like Puerto Rican star Rosario Dawson.