Decolonization Is Critical for Puerto Rico to Achieve Representation in Climate Negotiations

October 4, 2023 | 1:00 pm
G. Edward Johnson/CC by 4.0
Juan Declet-Barreto
Senior Social Scientist for Climate Vulnerability

A few days ago, Puerto Rico commemorated 155 years of the Grito de Lares, the uprising of 1868 by Puerto Ricans in defense of their right to self-determination and decolonization.

On September 23 of that year, rebels assembled in the mountain town of Lares to declare via a grito (literally, “shout”) their opposition to nearly 400 years of the Spanish colonial regime. Though the insurrection was rapidly quashed by Spanish forces, the Grito de Lares was the first organized uprising against Spain’s absolute rule in Puerto Rico and it represents the birth of the Puerto Rican decolonization and self-determination movement that echoes through to this day.

“Lo mismo da ser colonia española que colonia yanqui.”

“It makes no difference to be a Spanish colony than to be a yankee [United States] colony” -Ramón Emeterio Betances

In 1898, the anti-colonialist aspirations of Puerto Ricans were dealt a severe blow when Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States by Spain (in addition to its remaining Pacific colonies—Guam and the Philippines) as reparations following the Spanish-American War.  

In 1899, Congress’ first public policy act in Puerto Rico was to devaluate the Puerto Rican peso (put in circulation during the final century of Spanish rule) by setting the exchange rate to 60 cents of a US dollar. This resulted in erasing a big chunk of the wealth accumulated in the island and reduced the price that US sugar companies paid for land in Puerto Rico, facilitating both land transfers and predatory loans.

Since then, Puerto Rico’s governors were appointed by the US president until 1948 when Congress approved a constitution for the island and Puerto Ricans were first allowed to vote for a governor. 

Elsewhere, I documented how these and subsequent US public policy actions set the stage for Puerto Rico’s contemporary social vulnerabilities that have come full circle in disastrous social, economic, and climatic consequences for the archipelago after Hurricane María in 2017.

The common denominators that have hampered Puerto Rico’s capacity to face these issues are the colonial status as a US territory, and the associated lack of self-determination, self-governance, and sovereignty. These conditions increase Puerto Rico’s dependence and reduce our self-sufficiency and resilience to climate change-driven natural disasters.

Contrary to general knowledge in the United States, Puerto Ricans have never had a serious, democratic, or inclusive self-determination process, and are constantly excluded from the major decisions that shape our society and livelihoods.

Lack of self-determination for Puerto Ricans

Since 1898, congressional legislation (e.g., the Foraker Act, the Jones-Shafroth Act, the Jones Act, the Federal Relations Act, the PROMESA law) and judicial decisions (e.g., SCOTUS’ Puerto Rico v. Sánchez Valle), together with the recent disastrous, expensive, and unaccountable privatization of electricity generation, transmission, and distribution, prove beyond any doubt that the authority to decide on issues that affect Puerto Rico lies, not on the people of Puerto Rico, but with US Congress.

The social, economic, and juridical reality of Puerto Rico as a US colony is an obstacle to a prosperous, self-sufficient and resilient Puerto Rico.

As the climate crisis worsens globally and disproportionately affects small island developing states such Puerto Rico, the colonial reality prevents awareness and discussion of Puerto Rico’s vulnerability to climate change in the context of the United Nations’ climate change negotiations, the Conference of Parties (COP).

As a Caribbean island nation, Puerto Rico faces specific vulnerabilities and climate exposures distinct from those of the rest of the United States, but our representatives are prevented from holding decision-making power to address climate change vulnerability, adaptation, and resilience in the regional contexts of the Caribbean and Latin America.

Puerto Rican diaspora advocates for equitable climate solutions

Puerto Rico-serving organizations based in the US are actively advocating for Puerto Rico to have a seat at the table of climate negotiations. The Puerto Rican Alliance (PRÁ) is one such organization.

PRÁ is a national advocacy organization building bridges between Puerto Rico and its diaspora, connecting policy and decision-makers with the needs on the ground in Puerto Rico, and advocating for decolonization and self-sufficiency.

I recently had a chance to talk with the founder of PRÁ, Edil Sepúlveda Carlo. Edil is both a climate scientist and environmental attorney working to advance decolonization for Puerto Rico and achieve environmental justice for Puerto Ricans. Edil provided answers for a few questions, which I have edited for clarity.

How are Puerto Rico’s climate change and other environmental vulnerabilities distinct from those of the rest of the US?

Due to its location in the Caribbean, Puerto Rico is in the path of Atlantic storms, and of course Hurricanes Irma and María in 2017 were the latest ones that, combined, caused record flooding, landslides, death, and widespread economic damages (estimated at $60 billion and $90 billion, respectively).

The risk of landslides is also high. In 1985, an extreme precipitation event led to a landslide that destroyed a residential area in the south, killing about 130 people, and Hurricane María contributed to more than 70,000 documented landslides following record-setting rainfall in the mountainous regions of Puerto Rico.

The archipelago is also at risk of earthquakes and tsunamis due to its proximity to the Puerto Rico Trench, the deepest part of the Atlantic Ocean in the boundary between the Caribbean and North American plates.

After nearly a century of little activity, in early 2020 a swarm of strong earthquakes shook mostly the south and southwest regions of Puerto Rico, temporarily displacing 8,000 people, and severely damaging nearly 800 homes.

In addition to its physical geography, Puerto Ricans are more vulnerable than other places in the US because of the island’s stagnant economy, the fact that 41% live under the poverty line, and the massive public debt mostly owed to municipal bond holders in the 50 states (and that some say was contracted illegally and are demanding an audit). The debt, though recently restructured from $63 billion to $28.6 billion, continues to prompt austerity cuts in social and other public services mandated by the fiscal oversight board appointed through the PROMESA law.

And even though the Queremos Sol coalition demonstrated the viability of a distributed renewables grid, recently the federal and Puerto Rico governments instead rammed through the privatization of both electricity distribution and generation, and handed them over to two private corporations that—regardless of the renewable energy goals mandated by a recent 2019 law—are hell-bent on perpetuating our dependence on expensive and dirty fossil fuel imports to fire the archipelago’s outdated and climate-vulnerable power plants.

So it really is no surprise that Puerto Rico is among the three countries that were most impacted by climate change between 1999 and 2018, according to Germanwatch.

This is very ironic because for most of our modern history, the relationship between the US and Puerto Rico was sold to Puerto Ricans as being “lo mejor de dos mundos”, that is, the best of possible arrangements between two worlds: living in a tropical paradise in association with the most powerful country on the planet, in a dollarized economy, with access to US goods, services, and federal aid, and with the most coveted of all political rights in the planet—the ability to legally enter and leave the US at will.

But the likelihood of thriving in Puerto Rico is increasingly out of reach for many Puerto Ricans. Tax incentive laws created by the Puerto Rican legislature (Acts 20 and 22, now repackaged under Act 60) are driving a large-scale displacement of Puerto Ricans due to increased real estate prices and speculation by both Puerto Rican and foreign real estate developers.

Electricity bill hikes keeping coming—seven so far by grid operator LUMA, a US-Canadian consortium—since it took over the grid in 2021. This is adding to the social, economic, and climate burdens that a large part of the population is experiencing.

Moreover, the public policy of local pro-statehood and pro-colonial administrations has been a complete dependence on the federal dole, which reduces self-sufficiency and self-reliance, which in turn reduces our resiliency and increases our vulnerability to future climate disasters. Notwithstanding the massive amount of federal disaster aid coming from FEMA and other federal government agencies after Hurricanes Irma, Maria, Fiona, the 2020 earthquakes and the COVID-19 pandemic, the levels of poverty in Puerto Rico have increased in the last couple of years (and more acutely, poverty among children), at the same time as we see increasing inequality, displacement, and gentrification throughout Puerto Rico.

What is the representation of Puerto Rico like at COP?

Puerto Rico, like all subnational actors, is not a party to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, so it cannot be an official participant in negotiations. But subnational actors can be delegates at COP.

Some Puerto Ricans that work for international non-governmental organizations attend as part of their work, but not in any official capacity representing the island.

Puerto Rico is currently part of the 18 Associate Members of the United Nations’ Regional Commissions which are not UN Member States and thus are not included in the list of Small Island Developing States (SIDS). Both SIDS and Associate Members are island nations with little responsibility for climate change but that are particularly vulnerable to its impacts.

In contrast, powerful non-state actors such as fossil fuel interests have an outsized and growing influence and presence at COPs, blocking the path to climate justice. At COP27, fossil fuel lobbyists outnumbered the delegations of the countries most impacted by climate—a list that tellingly included Puerto Rico.

What needs to happen in order for Puerto Rico to have adequate representation at COP events?

Puerto Rico needs its own delegation at future COPs even if it does not participate in official events. Subnational delegations representing cities and regions are already commonplace at the COP, and are advocating for multi-level cooperation, as well as direct technical assistance and funding to address the climate impacts they face.

A Puerto Rican delegation should include non-governmental organizations from Puerto Rico and the diaspora, as well as community and civic leader, academics, and local decision-makers. This delegation should attend every COP and participate in or create its own side events, and establish and nurture contacts with organizations with an ongoing COP presence such as national and international non-governmental organizations.

In addition, Puerto Rican advocates should engage with the vibrant network of international solidarity among labor, Indigenous, environmental justice, and climate justice grassroots non-governmental organizations that attend the COP.

Over time, these engagements will create awareness of the specific hurdles that Puerto Rico faces to create climate resilience. Our hope at PRÁ is that this can lead to making the voice of Puerto Rican climate and resilience advocates heard in international climate decision-making spaces.

The path to climate and clean energy resilience for Puerto Rico goes through self-determination and decolonization—that is what PRÁ and the Puerto Rican diaspora are working towards.

We hope to start attending COP events this year through partnerships with national organizations and regional non-governmental organizations from Latin America, organize side events, and engage with non-governmental organizations and decision makers from around the world. That way we can start educating about and advocating for eliminating Puerto Rico’s political and colonial hurdles that hamper our climate response, and look for solutions that increase our self-reliance, sovereignty and resilience.