As the Environment Dies, So Do We

Lara Santana / 16 Years / Puerto Rico

The Island of Puerto Rico is located in the center of the Caribbean. This location allows and to have access to beautiful bodies of water, a tropical climate, and stunning beaches. Over the years however, the quality of the water bodies within Puerto Rico has been decreasing. This issue was reflected not only in the flora and fauna of the island, but also in its public; particularly low-income communities. The situation climaxed during the aftermath of the category 5 hurricane, María. Its name still feared within the public, and its effects still present and unforgettable.
The hurricane shed the light to the high level of poverty that still exists today. Prior to this event, the Puerto Rican populace, I included, believed that we were a first world country, but the aftermath revealed the large percentage of impoverished people within the island. El Caño Martín Peña, a community located in the periphery of the banking area of San Juan, has benefited from this type of attention that the general public of, both Puerto Rico and international communities gave in the recovery efforts after María. However, the environmental plights that the community faces are not limited to natural disasters; the amount of contaminated water affects the health of residents everyday. The government acknowledged this situation earlier on by creating Law 489 (2004), that focused on the internal development of the district and its special projects. With this law came: the Proyecto Enlace, a public corporation aimed at ensuring that the residents are able to participate during this process and are protected from gentrification, and the Fideicomiso de la Tierra del Caño Martín Peña, a nonprofit organization aimed at securing the tenant rights for the residents.
The public recognizes that the main issue with this community, right now, is that a large water channel passes right through it and is supposed to connect and allow the flow of water between the San José Lagoon and the San Juan Bay. Yet this is not possible because the channel is currently clogged up by waste and residue. This traces back to the historical reasons and context on which the community was founded. Influenced by that, the community’s lack of a modern infrastructure and an aqueduct system leads people to also have to deposit all this hazardous waste and used water in the channel, contaminating the environment. Social worker for the people of El Caño under the Proyecto Enlace, Imirse Orrusti, stated, “These people pay for the aqueduct service but they do not have one thus all the waste goes into the channel, which is the same water the community uses for their washing, cleaning, and even for some cooking “”. These unsanitary conditions are what cause the people of the area to have double the health incidents of the whole island, making this not only an environmental issue but also a social
one. Biologist are focused on improving the water quality of the area, but the issue is where would these families go? The fear of the community, according to Ms. Orrusti, is that after the whole water channel is drenched, gentrification will come. This an extremely impoverished community surrounded by communities and banks that aren’t.
There is a few organizations that focus on securing the wellbeing of the environment and the people. Among these is the Estuario de San Juan, which is dedicated to checking and improving the water quality of bodies of water in the metropolitan area. Environmentalist Brenda Torres, Executive Director of the program, says that if the whole channel is drenched the water quality and biodiversity of the region will be restored by 60%. However, she and her team recognize that the drenching of this channel, first requires the residents to be empowered and provided with the means to understand and participate in this process. Their main concern right now is to address the mental and physical health of the residents while they are preparing for the drenching of the channel. “ The water quality is checked either weekly or monthly and analyzed. All our analysis proves that the water quality worsens every time.”, explained Mrs. Torres about how people still continue to use this contaminated water as their waste disposal. Biologist and high school teacher at Saint John’s School, Gian Toyos questions the estimated time this project will take to be completed by saying, “ The problem is that after the families are relocated and the channel is drenched, all this waste needs to go somewhere. They need to find a place that specializes in this type of waste management which will not only increase the cost of the project but also the time it will take.” Improving the water quality of the area requires the approval and funding many different entities, including the Fideicomiso de la Tierra. This nonprofit plays a major role in protecting the public’s right to the land because it is owned by the entire community, not a private entity. “ This land is the people’s thus we have to work closely with the G8 (Organization of community leaders of El Caño) in order to even get this process started.” said Sugeily Torres, worker of the Fideicomiso. Despite the clear benefits of the project, the public remains adamant that this is just bringing them closer to gentrification.
The drenching of this channel, with an estimated cost of 1.2 billion, has not yet commenced. The social development plan is in place. However, the estimate of how long it will take for the whole process to be done varies from person to person. This issue surrounding the water quality of the channel has become a major humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico. The project, although receiving a lot of the attention, requires more monetary funds and government
legislation. Perhaps this will take many years, but the process when finished will help increase the quality of life for the people and the quality of the environment.”

One of many cracks that have formed from the clogged channel. This awfully smelling water
contains waste and residue.
Mrs. Brenda Torres, Executive Director for El Estuario de San Juan, and I, Lara Santana, during interview.
“This is an image of the whole El Caño Martín Peña. It depicts the channel that traverses through the land.”
image by

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