Green islands in Isla Verde (I)
The history of the coast of San Juan, Puerto Rico, is one of uncontrolled and irresponsible construction projects and privatization of access through illegal physical barriers, including so-called wave breakers which are more like beach breakers. From El Condado, moving east, through Ocean Park, past Punta Las Marías and into Isla Verde, there is an almost uninterrupted line of hotels and condos, some of them of twenty stories high, which block the view to the sea. The rest of the coast is occupied mostly by elite walled-off suburbs. Property prices in the area rise and rise, and the city blocks near the coastline are filled with businesses that cater to privileged social strata. There is no word for “gentrification” in Spanish.
But this place also has another history, one of non-conformity, rebellion and resistance, of popular struggle for environmental protection and for the public’s right to go to the beach, and sometimes this lucha even scores a few victories from time to time. In Isla Verde, a gorgeous beach that starts in the Punta Las Marías peninsula on its western end and marks the coastal border between the San Juan and Carolina municipalities, there are projects of diverse scales and varying socio-economic and politico-ideological profiles which are one big “but” to the big money interests that want to enclose what’s left of the public beach and pour concrete on it.
On Sunday, May 15 2016 these green islands in Isla Verde had a program of educational activities for the public with the purpose of generating support for the campaign against the GMO crops that Monsanto and other biotech seed corporations are planting in Puerto Rico (1). The next day is the start of a bicycle caravan, “Pedaling for Agroecology”, which will traverse from east to west across the southern municipalities where the GMO crops are concentrated, where poor rural communities are affected by the Roundup and other toxic agrochemicals (known in Spanish as agrotóxicos) used there (2). The cyclists will end their run on Saturday May 21, International Day of Actions Against Monsanto, in the city of Ponce, where there will be a march for life, food sovereignty and ecology, and against agrotóxicos, GMO’s and Monsanto.
The three projects that open their doors this Sunday are just a couple of blocks from each other. The first one we visit is the Bucare Urban Garden (BUG) (3), located in an uninhabited house in the corner of Bucare and Laurel. Susan Fairbank, resident of Punta Las Marías, has been BUG’s main driving force since she founded it in 2009. She gives us a tour of the house as she tells us the story. The house is overrun by tropical vegetation on every side and corner: banana, lemongrass, sugar cane, pineapple, carrots, basil, amaranth, oregano, salad vegetables like arugula, bok choi, spinach, tomato and kale, trees of moringa, noni, avocado, papaya, eggplant, acerola and jobo, and medicinal herbs such as insulin, poleo and tuna. Cosmos and zinnia flowers, with their yellow, orange, red and magenta hues multiply the aesthetic value of this alternative space.
The house is probably from the first half of the XX century, judging from its curved art deco forms and the robustness of its construction- it was built in a time that things were made to last. They don’t make them like this anymore. Today’s suburban houses in Puerto Rico are matchboxes compared to this one. But still, this house is falling apart; it is not safe for inhabitation- no one has lived in it for at least 15 to 20 years. But although it is uninhabited it is not abandoned. On any given day there are children and adults coming in and out, doing all sorts of farming chores, from sowing and weeding to watering plants and making wormy compost. Education permeates everything BUG does, there are workshops for preschoolers from the Head Start across Bucare street, and visitors are given literature about the evils of Monsanto, agrotóxicos and GMO products. In 4 foot by 4 cardboard there are numerous photos of the successes and achievements of this project.
In spite of her name and whitish skin, Fairbank was born and raised in Puerto Rico. She considers herself bicultural with “mancha de plátano” (indelible mark of Puerto Rican-ness) and her Spanish is almost- if not quite- perfect. Her initial interest in undertaking an ecological project in her neighborhood started with her work at the US Green Building Council. But when she saw Puerto Rican statistics on diabetes, childhood obesity and other nutrition-related ailments, Fairbank shifted her ecological focus to include nutrition and agriculture. Eventually, what started out as demonstration project of ecological architecture and design ended up being an agroecological one.
BUG’s existence depends wholly on the goodwill of the house’s owner, who lives next door, in Laurel street. It has been for sale for years, but no buyer has shown up. The owner’s siblings do not like the presence of gardeners in the house and wish they simply left, says Fairbank. The owner assures that if he finally gets to sell it he will give BUG a few months to pack up and leave, and thus give ample time to move the garden to some other- hopefully nearby- location. Sure, Fairbank and friends could stay if they pony up the $1 million that the house is selling for. That’s one million dollars for a structure that is so deteriorated that the buyer will certainly have to demolish it.
That an unremarkable suburban house with no particular charm sells for that much money says much about the class dynamics and gentrification in this neighborhood. Across Laurel, Bucare street heads northward and ends a couple of blocks later just in front of the sea. But the sea cannot be seen from BUG because the residents cut off the street with a concrete wall. You cannot enter those blocks of Punta Las Marías, not even to visit the beach, except through a gate with security guards through which only residents can pass. The beach has been effectively privatized. In any case, there really is no beach to speak of anymore- just look up “Punta Las Marías, Puerto Rico” on Google Maps and see it for yourself. Property owners, hellbent on having luxury homes in front of the ocean, have kept building closer and closer to the shore, which has in turn been receding because of unsustainable erosion caused by the beachside houses themselves.
Facing the other way, toward the south, the BUG has a direct view of the Luis Llorens Torres residential complex, a public housing project that conjures in the minds of most Puerto Ricans images of crime, drugs and social disintegration. Such proximity between extremes of wealth and poverty, with BUG right in the middle, turn Puerto Rico’s social contradictions into an inescapable fact.
- Carmelo Ruiz is a Puerto Rican author, journalist and environmental educator. He is a research associate of the Institute for Social Ecology, a senior fellow of the Environmental Leadership Program, and director of the Latin America Energy and Environment Monitor (http://monitorenergiayambiente.blogspot.com/search/label/English). His bilingual journalistic blog, started in 2004, is updated daily (http://carmeloruiz.blogspot.com/search/label/eng). In 2015 he started a side project called The World According to Carmelo (http://carmeloruiz.tumblr.com/tagged/eng ). His Twitter account is @carmeloruiz.
1 http://www.nadasantosobremonsanto.com In Facebook: Nada Santo Sobre Monsanto.
2 In Facebook: Pedaleando por la agroecología
3 In Facebook: Bucare Urban Garden (B.U.G.)
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