Climate Crisis and Colonialism in Puerto Rico

Image: Yuisa Rios/picryl

Paul Lippert Figueroa, party leader of the Puerto Rico Independence Party (PIP) in the capital San Juan, comments on the intertwining between Puerto Rico’s struggle for independence and the fight against the climate crisis.

Puerto Rico is a nation in danger of extinction. If the climate crisis doesn’t kill it, 21st century colonialism will. Puerto Rico is currently experiencing the worst excesses of the capitalist climate crisis. One of the big problems is that Puerto Rico is not really a country. When it comes to the economy, it is subject to the US fiscal control board PROMESA (Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability). PROMESA has privatised our electricity utilities, putting 100% of our electric power and 50% of our freshwater resources in the hands of one US company.

Said company refuses to find green energy alternatives and does not comply with the climate standards already in place. At COP26 in Glasgow in November 2021, the US refused to stop using coal power, which poses a major risk to Puerto Rico as toxic coal ash from US electricity companies is dumped in the island’s southern valleys. This is creating a health crisis in many vulnerable areas. The US is creating these climate challenges in parallel with a modern form of settler colonialism. Wealthy Americans are treating Puerto Rico like a tax haven, buying up land in and around vulnerable coastal habitats. At the same time, there is intense lobbying against proposals for coastal and environmental protection. This behaviour completely ignores the fact that for every centimetre the sea rises, Puerto Rico loses a metre of coastline.

The “communist turtles”

All beaches in Puerto Rico are public. So, when a private swimming pool was to be built on a public beach, there were protests. The protests weren’t just about building privately on public land; the site was a nesting habitat for sea turtles, which are threatened with extinction, so it had to be protected from construction. At the same time, the construction was also in breach of environmental rules for coastal building. Afterwards, the environmentalists were mocked and called “communist turtles”.

Since 2015, PIP has been trying to raise awareness about sea turtle habitats, but only now have the authorities got involved. It’s an example of how the climate crisis is linked to the struggle for self-determination. The US, with its colonial mentality, is showing that it is not a reliable partner in the fight against climate change. Rather, it poses a direct threat to our existence. The US should hand over control of the country and its natural resources to the Puerto Ricans themselves. We Puerto Ricans must push for our right to self-determination and independence if we are to survive the climate crisis.

Hurricanes, climate refugees and water shortages

In September 2017, two Category 5 hurricanes hit the Caribbean island. “Irma” and “Maria” blew into Puerto Rico within two weeks – killing nearly 5,000 people. The hurricane’s aftermath saw more than 500,000 internally displaced people on an island of only 9,104 km².

[Editorial note: In mid-September 2022, hurricane “Fiona” reached the southwest coast of Puerto Rico with winds of up to 140 kilometres per hour. The hurricane caused catastrophic flooding and infrastructural damage.]

There is a notion in Puerto Rico that the destruction left by Hurricane Maria is also symbolic – because when people were able to leave their homes after two days, all they saw was bare wood, concrete and vegetation. Similarly, it left behind the raw realities of unfettered capitalism, only exacerbated by the island’s status as an American semi-colony. The government is paralysed by its dependence on the US, and five years on many houses have still not been rebuilt. At the same time, the government also lacks the power to make policy to combat the climate crisis.

In Puerto Rico, we are already seeing coastal ecosystems destroyed, beaches disappear, and entire communities wiped out and forced to relocate due to coastal erosion and rising sea levels. Irregular and excessive rainfall increases the frequency of floods, landslides and droughts. Since 2015, the Puerto Rican government has had to impose water rations on several occasions because there simply isn’t enough. Climate change has not only affected every Puerto Rican but has traumatised us and is an ingrained part of our consciousness.

When Puerto Rico was devastated by two Category 5 hurricanes in 2017, US President Donald Trump went to the island to throw toilet paper into crowds. Puerto Rico needs to formulate its own response to the climate crisis, which is not dependent on the ineptitude of the US government.

The atrocities of colonialism

Perhaps the most devastating example of the intersection of colonialism, capitalism and climate that Puerto Rico is caught between is the current situation in the island municipalities of Vieques and Culebra. Vieques and Culebra are small, inhabited island towns off the mainland coast.

Vieques in particular has felt the effects of American colonialism. The US Navy used the island as a military playground for more than 60 years, including exploding depleted uranium bombs. At times, there were more than 180 bombings a year, and the consequences are horrendous. There were numerous protests against the US Navy’s rampage by residents and PIP leaders, with many of the party’s leaders becoming political prisoners for occupying land on military bases. But when the military abandoned their bases in 2003, they also left behind an extremely fragile ecosystem, and the aftermath of uranium contamination caused by their weapons still looms large in residents’ lives, nearly twenty years after their departure.

Today, the island is a national wildlife refuge, but many sites are closed due to pollution and unexploded ordnance. For the island’s 10,000 or so inhabitants, the consequences are catastrophic. There is a health crisis on the island. Studies from the University of Puerto Rico’s Graduate School of Public Health have shown that residents are eight times more likely to die from cardiovascular disease and seven times more likely to die from diabetes than in the rest of Puerto Rico. Vieques also has the highest cancer rate in all of Puerto Rico. As an explanation for the health crisis on Vieques, independent scientists and researchers have found that there are high levels of toxic heavy metals on the island.

However, the US federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry claims to have found no causal link between toxic substances and increased disease on Vieques. The US government therefore refuses to allocate funds to address the contamination.

Many sick – but no hospitals

The hospital at Vieques was destroyed by Hurricane Maria and has not yet been rebuilt. Federal disaster funds allocated to Vieques have not yet been disbursed. So, when residents of Vieques fall ill and need to go to hospital, they have to take the ferry to the big island for treatment. But the ferry system has been privatised and fares have risen by 700% since Hurricane Maria.

These conditions make it impossible for residents to stay on the island because they are deprived of essential services. This has made the island an opportune place for foreign investment, turning Vieques into a playground for land developers and venture capitalists, who have bought up large tracts of land on Vieques.

It is obviously in the interests of the US government to mitigate the damage they have caused to the island, and it is in the interests of the vulture capitalist and elite classes who wield unimaginable amounts of influence and control over the colonial government to exploit the situation for their own gain. Vieques is a micro-level example of the macro-level colonial political project taking place in Puerto Rico that seeks to make the islands uninhabitable for Puerto Ricans.

PIP’s plan for the climate

For the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), in order to tackle climate change we need to formulate a plan of our own. The PIP has therefore put forward a plan to reduce greenhouse gases by 25% over the next few years. The party also wants to ban gas pipelines, create an environment ministry, and secure a waste law that encourages recycling and composting, which is expected to create 40,000 green jobs. The party also wants to convert 700,000 hectares of land to eco-farming, thus reducing the carbon footprint.

At the same time, an updated coastal protection law will be created, as well as a community consultation process to ensure the citizens of Puerto Rico can get involved in projects that have some kind of environmental impact. Finally, the PIP will also re-nationalise the energy grid to accelerate the transition to green and renewable energy.

These are not just party wishes. Behind us we have grassroots movements that are committed to being proactive in the climate fight. However, despite this support, our lack of sovereignty limits what we can and cannot do to implement our climate plan.

Again, continued dependence on the United States is proving to be a problem for the development of Puerto Rico. Since we are not a sovereign nation, we have no access to the United Nations, so we are completely cut off from international politics and have no opportunity to contribute to global decisions on climate policy. This is really worrying for a small island state facing a global climate crisis.

Paul Lippert Figueroa was one of the speakers at the international climate conference in March 2022, “Planet Emergency — Why Combating Climate Change Demands System Change”, organised by Transform!Danmark.

Puerto Rico´s colonial past still hampers its political autonomy
For 400 years, the tiny Caribbean island nation of Puerto Rico was a Spanish colony. In 1897, Puerto Rico was granted a degree of autonomy, but just a year later the island was conquered and colonised by the United States during the Spanish-American war.
In 1917, Puerto Ricans were granted US citizenship and again limited self-government. Only in 1947 did Puerto Ricans gain the right to elect a governor, and in 1952 the island was given its own constitution. Puerto Rico now has the status of a Freely Associated State. This gives the US control over its economy and foreign policy. Puerto Rico has one representative in the US Congress, but they can only vote in committees, not in the full Congress.
Although Joe Biden is also president of Puerto Rico, he did not receive a single vote from Puerto Ricans. In fact, despite being US citizens, they do not have the right to vote in presidential elections. 

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