Puerto Rican Scientists and the Communities They Serve: “Resistance is Resilience”

September 10, 2018 | 3:39 pm
Photo: Juan Declet-Barreto
Juan Declet-Barreto
Senior Social Scientist for Climate Vulnerability

We are coming up on the one-year anniversary of the devastation caused by Hurricane María in Puerto Rico. As part of the Puerto Rican diaspora in the United States and like thousands more of my compatriots abroad, I spent a frustrating, depressing, and maddening year viewing the fiscal and climatic catastrophe unfold from afar, and collaborating with others in the diaspora and other sectors of American society to send emergency aid, advocate for immediate federal action, and making myself useful any way I could for Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.

So it was especially rewarding for me to return last week to Puerto Rico for the first time since the hurricane. In my homeland, I was able to witness not only the incredible resilience of our people, but also their refusal to sit idly by and wallow in the misery left behind by María. Here’s what I saw.

As I drove through the north and northeastern towns of San Juan, Naguabo, and my beloved Luquillo, I talked to people who told me stories of how, in the absence of a coherent or timely federal and local government response, neighbors banded together to care and feed each other, to remove debris from roadways, and to make treacherous trips to the nearby El Yunque rainforest to open up municipal water supply valves.

I was particularly impressed by the Coalición Pro Corredor Ecológico del Noreste, a local coalition of residents and scientists protecting coastal beaches and wetlands that serve as egg-laying grounds for the beautiful and endangered tinglar (leatherback turtle). The corredor provides several valuable ecological services, as it is an effective barrier against storm surge and coastal erosion, and its wetlands, beaches, coral reefs, bioluminiscent lagoon, and forests evidence its great biodiversity. As Cristóbal Jiménez, the president of the coalition, told me, they considered not holding the annual Festival del Tinglar in 2018 due to the devastation caused the year before, thinking at first that people would be too overwhelmed to attend. But as soon as they started planning for it, the community turned out in record numbers to hold their festival and continue the defense of local flora and fauna and the valuable ecological and cultural services the corredor provides.

This, to me, is testament to the potential for communities to build resilience by banding together.

The coalition’s story is a great example of scientist-community collaborations built on decades of experience. And it’s a great example of the type of partnerships to advocate for a climate-resilient future that have developed in the post-María period.

In my time on the island, I was able to get a broader look at how scientist-community partnerships are organizing to construct and demand a climate-resilient and equitable reconstruction of the island’s infrastructure. UCS joined the leadership of Ciencia Puerto Rico (CienciaPR) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science – Caribbean Division (AAAS-CD) in a conference titled “Ciencia en Acción: Política Pública Puertorriqueña Apoyada por Evidencia” (Science in Action: Puerto Rican Public Policy Supported by Evidence). CienciaPR and AAAS-CD are scientific societies front and center in making scientists’ voices heard in decision-making around public policy in Puerto Rico, and the event was the kick-off for the Puerto Rico Science Policy Action Network (PR-SPAN).

While the UCS Science Network and I were invited to add our own experiences in science policy advocacy, I was humbled to learn more of the long-standing and deep commitment of boricua* experts to elevating their communities’ needs, but also saddened at how most of their expert recommendations have been sidelined or otherwise ignored for decades.

For example, renewable energy experts from the National Institute for Island Energy and Sustainability (INESI, in Spanish) have long been strong proponents of developing local energy sources like solar and wind to facilitate the transition from expensive, global warming-producing, and climate-vulnerable fossil fuel-burning electric infrastructure.

Dr. Elvira Cuevas, a terrestrial ecosystems ecologist at the University of Puerto Rico, reminded the audience of the urgency of taking action, and that building climate resilience is both our obligation and right: “If we want a Puerto Rico that is truly resilient, we cannot leave it in the hands of the universities and [other] organizations. Each and every one of us is responsible for demanding our rights.”

Marine scientist Dr. Aurelio Mercado from the University of Puerto Rico told us of the long history of the Puerto Rican government ignoring scientists’ warnings about climate change and dismissing the need for hurricane preparedness: Dr. Cruz recalled how science was sidelined in the decades leading up to Hurricanes Hugo (1989), and Irma and María (2017), dismissing the need to prepare for what local government officials—decades before Hugo—called “hypothetical hurricanes” of categories 3, 4, or 5. We are at risk of repeating that history as scientists warn that the San Juan international airport could be underwater by the next decade or so – warnings that so far remain unheeded.

But perhaps it was Dr. Braulio Quintero, urban ecologist and co-founder of the scientific non-profit ISER Caribe, who best described the Puerto Rican population’s response to the government’s so-called recovery plan: “Resilience requires resistance; resistance is resilience”. Dr. Quintero is referring to the community- and science-driven mobilization of large swaths of Puerto Rican society against the anti-democratic impositions of fossil-fuel interests and the fiscal control board appointed by President Obama through the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Stability Act of 2016 (PROMESA).

PROMESA’s fiscal austerity measures, together with the Trump and Rosselló administrations’ commitment to fossil fuel interests will keep Puerto Rico on the path of fiscal and climatic vulnerability that catastrophically hit rock-bottom after María.

So it’s not hard to see two divergent visions for the future: the first one, largely imposed on the Puerto Rican population by the Trump and Rosselló administrations, and without taking into account the climatic, fiscal, social, and economic challenges facing Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, insists on continuing the reliance on climate-changing fossil fuels for electricity production and fails to start planning for climate impacts like increased temperatures, sea level rise, and more frequent and destructive hurricanes. The second one, actively proposed and sought by Puerto Rican civil society, grassroots organizations and collectives, and scientific societies and advocates, demands a diversified and decabornized power sector, and a climate-resilient and equitable recovery that prioritizes the needs of the Puerto Rican population.

In light of the crossroads that Puerto Rico finds itself in, I go back to the question I have asked before: Are Puerto Ricans willing to allow a repeat of the errors of the past that put us on the path to fiscal and climate ruin, or will Puerto Rican society actively demand and work together towards developing an energy, housing, and economic infrastructure that responds to our present and future needs under a changing climate?

For Puerto Rican scientists and the communities they serve, the answer is clear: they are using community-driven science to demonstrate impacts and propose resilient solutions for the benefit of all, not just a few narrow—ahem, ahem, fossil-fuel—interests. UCS is proud to stand together with Puerto Rico and all climate-vulnerable communities to turn resistance into resilience.


*Boricua is the ancestral demonym for Puerto Ricans, from Borikén or Borinquen, given by the Taíno native peoples to the island later baptized “Puerto Rico” by the Spanish colonizers.