Reflections on Learning Tour to Puerto Rico

By Joshua Cohen, Senior Program Manager, Member Services, EGA

In November, EGA continued its journey of meeting in places that matter by bringing funders to San Juan and Vieques as part of a co-hosted learning tour focused on equity and environmental sustainability in Puerto Rico. Collaborating with the Neighborhood Funders Group (NFG), the trip highlighted community-based strategies for resilience focused on social, economic and environmental justice. Throughout the two day tour of the main island, we heard from activists and community members from three distinct areas, all spearheading innovative solutions to address local challenges. With a population of 3.6 million, inequity is a significant social issue in P.R.; the poverty rate is 45.4% (using the U.S. Federal definition) and the official unemployment rate is 13.5%. Despite these staggering numbers, P.R. is a gap area for funding due to its geographic and political status (territory vs. state); national funders tend to overlook them as non-U.S. whereas international funders consider them domestic. This status – as neither here nor there – has left them often ignored and without much philanthropic support. I found this small island to be ripe with opportunity. The Open Society Foundation has listed them as a priority place and on December 3rd the Rockefeller Foundation announced that San Juan was included in their next round of resilient cities.

Our learning tour represented diverse foundations (with roughly 40 funders who were split 50% local and 50% non-local, many from the New York area) focused on a variety of issue areas (e.g. equity, health, climate, etc.). A few funders remarked that they hadn’t met many of the attendees before, evidence that our collaboration with NFG could really lead to future cross-cutting funding strategies among often separate and distinct funding areas.

We began the tour in an art deco room in the historic Banco Popular building in Old San Juan overlooking the harbor, with a view of a vibrant port industry. This building, completed in 1939, was the first high rise in the region with an elevator. After an enlightening and sobering panel discussion on demographics, inequity and the changing economy of the island, we departed for nearby Caguas to visit the first public housing project on the island and hear from José Gautier Benítez and Las Gladiolas community members about battles over displacement and subsequent efforts around housing reform.

These efforts have led to successful outcomes that include a microbusiness incubator called EcoRecursos Comunitarios and a recycling business called EcoReciclaje, Inc., employing local residents. Other organizations we heard from included Las Gladiolas Vive and the Liga de Cooperativas de Puerto Rico. It was inspiring to witness the energy and dedication of many strong women community leaders along this tour, and to see such diverse funders – some focused on equity and civic participation, others on environmental justice – really engage with the content and local activists.

We then boarded the bus for Casa Pueblo in the central mountain village of Adjuntas. This family-run community center grew out of the local environmental movement in the 1960s in response to proposed copper mining. Today, Casa Pueblo continues to rail against local development around a gas pipeline that would have crossed the region, while offering several local programs. They help preserve nearby Bosque del Pueblo (People’s Forest), a model forest that is community-managed, while running education programs for local youth focused on music, arts, science and the environment. Shade-grown coffee is roasted on a recently-acquired roaster and a small shop sells the coffee, along with local goods and books on native flora and fauna and Puerto Rican cuisine, to support the center’s work. We were excited to discover that the founding director, Alexis Massol-Gonzalez, was a 2002 Goldman Prize recipient.

The next day the tour visited the Caño Martín Peña, a canal in the heart of San Juan surrounded by homes, many lacking basic sanitation infrastructure and subject to regular flooding, ill health (read this recent health impact study) and transportation challenges. The eight neighborhoods (known as the G-8) along this San Juan Bay Estuary system have rallied in recent years through the ENLACE Project to develop an innovative community land trust to address the lack of land titling through collective ownership. The U.S. EPA, Region 2, has been active in supporting these impressive efforts, along with a few philanthropic foundations who participated on this tour, though much is still needed to support these local initiatives.

I then headed to Vieques, an island-municipality about eight miles to the east of the P.R. mainland, to attend a Vieques Sustainability Task Force meeting. With a current population of around 14,000, it has a challenging past as a former U.S. Navy bombing and testing ground. When the Navy withdrew in 2003, much of the island was designated as a National Wildlife Refuge. From sea turtle nesting grounds (including Hawksbills, Leatherbacks, and Green Sea Turtles) to Puerto Mosquito, one of the brightest bioluminescent bays in the world (which recently experienced a blackout due to an usual dry period), to migratory birds, Vieques is critically important as a conservation frontier in the region.

At the task force meeting, community members came to express their concerns and participate in working groups focused on such areas as community-based development and natural resource management, public safety and health, private sector opportunities, Superfund clean-up efforts and sustainable infrastructure. I learned that in 2000, 72.2% of those on Vieques lived below the Federal Poverty Standards (much higher than the already high 45.4% for P.R. as a whole), and that the island has a higher cost of living than the mainland, as well as a greater dependency on welfare; improvement in these areas has been slower than many would like to see. There is currently no organized agriculture on Vieques and potable water comes via pipeline under the sea, making local residents heavily reliant on outside infrastructure and support. It was a heated conversation and was very emotional for many in the room.

Through community efforts, support from the U.S. EPA and from the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico (Stuart Delery, the recently appointed Department of Justice Co-Chair of the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico was in attendance), island infrastructure challenges and local voices are being heard. At the meeting they announced funding for a solar hot water heater installation program for 100 homes on the island, coordinated by Energy Affairs in P.R. Clean up continues through the Superfund Program with unexploded munitions and contamination of part of the island. Tourism continues to be a significant revenue generator for the island, but problems with ferry service pose challenges to this each year; this same travel challenge prevents island residents from getting to affordable health care in Fajardo on the main land. Though the task force was focused initially on environmental outcomes (e.g. Navy clean-up), the community has expressed a clear need to address access to health (e.g. the island has high cancer rates). As the island is becoming a significant tourist destination (many celebrities own homes here), I found there to be a divide between local residents and visitors in access to basic services. There is a clear need for philanthropic support around environmental health programs.

To dive deeper on environmental issues, we organized an evening tour of the Puerto Mosquito bio-bay, followed by a day-long tour of Vieques. We began at the Vieques Conservation and Historical Trust (VCHT), a local organization focused on preserving the local flora and fauna (they maintain a small aquarium and run the MANTA Youth Education Program) as well as cultural assets (they also host a mini-museum of historic artifacts). In addition to seeing the incredible natural beauty of the island’s mangrove lagoons and beaches, we visited the shell of an old school (acquired to develop into an environmental education center with boarding for visiting scientists), 62 million year old rocks (beside which the oldest human skeleton was found in the Caribbean) and a 300-400 year-old Ceiba tree.

Being somewhat familiar with P.R. through visiting friends who live in San Juan, my experience was mostly focused on the biodiversity and natural beauty of the region. On this tour, however, I was really able to witness on the ground activism in action and met many community leaders fighting for equity and community resilience on this enchanted island. I see great opportunity, and need, to support these considerable efforts in community resilience, civic participation and environmental justice and education.