The slope is steep: the objectives of conserving 30% of the land in Puerto Rico are in jeopardy

The slope is steep: the objectives of conserving 30% of the land in Puerto Rico are in jeopardy

The conservation of at least 30% of Puerto Rico’s land within the next decade – an objective shared by environmentalist sectors, the United Nations (UN) and the planning tools in force in the country – continues to face a thorny path, nearly seven years after the last natural reserves were declared and in the face of the imminent approval of a Joint Permit Regulations which, according to some experts, would facilitate the development of construction projects in sensitive areas.

“The International Union for Conservation of Nature –which is like the mother of conservation organizations in the world– establishes some criteria. Mainly, it is that there is legal protection, but, in addition, that they have management and execution of the laws and regulations. In conservation, there is a lot of talk about paper farms, which are legally protected, but in reality, no one protects them and they are being violated all the time.“he warned Fernando Lloveras San MiguelPresident of For Naturean organization that 10 years ago launched its Map 33an initiative that promotes the protection of 33% of land by 2033.

In Puerto Rico, soil management is regulated, mainly, by the Land Use Plan (PUT)document approved by the Planning Board, in 2015, and which classifies more than 713,000 acres as rural land specially protected for its ecological value, or just over 31% of the territory. This percentage aligns with the guidelines established by the UN, which proposes the protection of 30% of the global surface in or before 2030.

Although it is a document with the force of law, The guidelines stipulated in the PUT are insufficient to guarantee the conservation of natural areas, stressed Lloveras San Miguel. The lawyer also recalled that, by 2013, only 8% of Puerto Rican territory was considered protected, a proportion that doubled in four years.

“Apart from the efforts that we and some other NGOs (non-governmental organizations) have made, the great step forward, which it took us from 8% to 17% where we are nowis due to the efforts of the Citizens of the Karst, which took on the mission of protecting a large amount, nearly 100,000 acres, under the law of the karst. After the law, the government did not pass the regulations to implement it and (Karst Citizens) sued the Department of Natural Resources and won the case. There, the conservation of that space was legally consolidated,” Lloveras San Miguel emphasized.

According to the most updated data –2018– collected by the International Institute of Tropical Forestryattached to Federal Department of AgricultureIn Puerto Rico there are 146 protected spacesamong them, marine and terrestrial areas, the karst area and conservation easements, which, together, add up to 16.4% of the territory.

clash of visions

For the former president of the Planning Board Luis Garcia Pelattiachieving the objective requires adopt a rhythm of protection that, to date, “has not happened”.

“We have spent almost seven years of different public administrations without a declaration of a nature reserve. Several (reservation declarations) were left on track, but the wetlands of Puerto Rico are still pending, which do not fully have protection,” said Garcia Pelatti, who led the Planning Board when the PUT was given way in 2015.

The current president of the organization, Julio Lassus Ruizcommented that, “contrary to previously”, the evaluation of any declaration of nature reserve by the Planning Board requires taking into account the “‘subject matter expert’, which in this case is the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DRNA)”.

“There were times where the Board declared natural reserves and was not even certain that, in fact, (the lands) had a high ecological value, but they are there and are protected.”. On the other hand, at least in terms of this Board, whenever we have a request for natural or agricultural reserves – in the case of the Agriculture department–, we will be evaluating it,” said Lassus Ruiz, specifying that, at present, the organization does not have requests of that type before its consideration.

Panoramic view of the Cabezas de San Juan Natural Reserve, in Fajardo. (Archive)

The secretary of the DRNA, Anais Rodriguez Vegaassured, for his part, that he views favorably the objectives outlined by organizations such as Para la Naturaleza, but stated that The agency does not have fiscal resources to directly acquire properties with high ecological value and guarantee conservation.

“That fund was eliminated by the Fiscal Oversight Board. Currently, the DRNA is acquiring land of high ecological value in two ways. There are projects that require mitigation, either by other government agencies, such as the DTOP (Department of Transportation and Public Works). We have identified farms of high ecological value, and it is recommended that these farms be the first to be acquired so that they pass into the hands of the DNER. This has been the case of Las Cabachuelas (Morovis), which “The DTOP is making the acquisitions to pass them on to the DRNA.”said Rodriguez Vega, adding that the second mechanism involves obtaining federal funds.

Planner Garcia Pelatti commented, meanwhile, that betting on the declaration of government lands as protected areas would be one of the most agile and economical ways to increase the percentage of conservation.

We have spent almost seven years of different public administrations without a declaration of a nature reserve

Luis Garcia Pelatti, former president of the Planning Board

Rafael Gonzalez Ramoslegal director of the DRNA, added that, under the Auxiliary Forest Programproperty tax credits are granted to property owners who agree not to develop properties of high ecological value.

“They are given exemptions from the CRIM (Municipal Revenue Collection Center) mainly, and it helps us, perhaps not to acquire a piece of land at once, but, at least, for people to preserve certain pieces in their natural state,” said the lawyer, while Rodriguez Vega specified that The certification of spaces as auxiliary forests must be renewed annually.

Controversial regulations

While Garcia Pelatti alluded to wetlands as the most vulnerable areas, Lloveras San Miguel referred to the coasts, due to the erosion and the impact they have already suffered from the construction of roads and structures, as well as river corridors.

The runners “allow, in moments of climate changethat migration of species. By having the coasts impacted by roads and structures, we have made a wall between the coast and the mountains. These riparian corridors are fundamental,” said the leader of Para la Naturaleza.

However, both experts raised flags regarding the effects that could be caused by both the approval of the new Joint Regulation and the territorial planning plans (POT)which are the documents that must govern development at the municipal level.

On the one hand, they argued that, Among the 14 municipalities with current POT, uses are observed that are inconsistent with the PUT, which is the highest-ranking guide.. Likewise, they pointed out that the draft of the Joint Regulation, by consolidating qualification districts, would allow violations of the land uses permitted in the PUT.

“You cannot, when the PUT said that this is ecological, or ecological-agricultural, establish a district (in the Joint Regulation) that is not in line with that. (…) If the PUT tells you that Lake Guayo, in Castaner (Lares), you must protect it partly for agriculture and partly for the water element, you have to create a district for that,” said Garcia Pelatti.

The slope is steep: the objectives of conserving 30% of the land in Puerto Rico are in jeopardy
The San Patricio State Forest is located in San Juan. (Teresa Canino Rivera)

Lassus Ruiz replied that, through the Joint Regulation – which is expected to be promulgated before the end of the year –, the “mandate” of the Law 19 of 2017. The statute “sought to make equivalences of the permitted uses regarding the POT,” said the official.

According to the municipalities that have been preparing their POT in collaboration with the Planning Board, “errors” contained in the classifications included in the 2015 PUT have been identified, although Lassus Ruiz classified them as minimal. The errors, which, according to the president, are around 1.5% of the soil map, would serve, in turn, for the review of the PUT, which the Planning Board must carry out every 10 years.

“Contrary to the experience of the PUT, in the POT the vision of the municipalities is taken into account, and they are clearer about the activity that exists in the municipality. No one knows the factual reality of the municipality better than the municipality itself,” Lassus Ruiz stressed.

Garcia Pelatti insisted, however, that The consequence of deviating from existing planning instruments would be to “erode” currently protected lands. and distance the country from the goals set through conservation efforts.

“If today we start protecting 2% each year, the goal will be achieved. And I think that 2% is possible, but you have to do it and have the will,” summarized the planner.

Reporter Leysa Caro Gonzalez collaborated on this story.

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