A total of 16% of land in Puerto Rico is classified as a “natural protected area”. Both the central government and private entities manage and co-manage these areas, which yield various ecosystem services whose value is yet to be calculated. Among the services provided by these protected natural areas is the mitigation of the severe effects of natural disasters.
Twenty-two years ago, I visited the Guánica State Forest, a subtropical dry forest in the southwest corner of the Island, also known as El Bosque Seco de Guánica, to evaluate its soil alongside scientific colleagues. Traversing the only International Biosphere Reserve in Puerto Rico, which is home to more than 500 species of plants and more than 100 species of wildlife, was an experience that marked my professional and personal life. The land extends out to around 11,000 acres, stretching from Guánica to Ponce, and along with eight nautical miles and 13 miles of coastline, it captures a unique ecosystem. Its designation as a forest reserve by the United Nations is a symbol of its ecological importance.
But we have not always recognized its value. In the middle of the coast that was once part of the forest, an extensive industrial zone replaced mangroves and dried up the sea lands. This development was representative of the notion of progress at the time, which was focused on petrochemicals. This is why part of our electrical infrastructure is located in the region, such as the Costa Sur power plant.
If the impact of the earthquakes has been as large as it has been thus far, imagine what would the magnitude of their impact be if those industries were operating today. Now, imagine that the forest in Guánica was instead covered in residences and shops; or that the ecosystem of La Parguera had the population density of the San Juan metropolitan region.
These ecosystems have protected the health and safety of the population and its resources, which we see happen after every natural event. The Ciénaga Las Cucharillas Natural Reserve in Cataño, the wetland with the highest land extension in the metropolitan region, served as pluvial and sanitary infrastructure after Hurricane María. The Piñones Forest, which makes up a third of the protected mangrove forests in Puerto Rico, served the same function. If the eagerness to disproportionally urbanize had turned Loíza into an extension of Condado and Isla Verde, the vulnerability of the island and the San Juan Estuary would have multiplied.
Therefore, it is imperative that the benefits these natural protected areas provide are included in the overall equation to achieve Puerto Rico's resilience. It is also necessary to analyze the economic advantage of open, green spaces that are yet to be preserved. Since January 7 of 2020, open spaces such as empty lots, ballparks, and parking lots have served as a refuge for thousands of families seeking security. The value that a scientist puts on these spaces and the public’s appreciation towards them needs to be complemented with public policy analysis and the development of legislative measures that encourage their protection.
The central and municipal governments must embrace the recommendations of local scientists and the call from organizations such as Para la Naturaleza to increase the percentage of protected natural areas to 33%. Using the space that nature occupies as a solution to our current reality as a Caribbean island is an immense opportunity and should be widely recognized.
This column was originally published in Spanish, both in the digital and printed editions of El Nuevo Día, on January 17, 2020.