Although Mangroves play a key role in mitigating the effects of climate change, they make up less than 1% of tropical rainforests worldwide. This is especially true in the islands of Puerto Rico where although there are only 97 mangrove forest sites, these trees are responsible for protecting shores from storm surges during hurricanes and absorbing carbon within their soil before it can enter the atmosphere. As the rate of climate change intensifies, hurricanes hitting the island carry more rain, have more energy, and escalate faster, making mangroves essential to alleviating the symptoms of climate change within Puerto Rico. According to local community leader Jacqueline Vázquez, “mangroves are like the person who stands there enduring all that may come…[they are] like a wall, saving us”. Nevertheless, within Puerto Rico, illegal construction continues to grow in ecological reserves meant to protect these vital forests.
Within the Jobos Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, which is meant to protect nearly 2,900 acres of mangrove forests, concrete homes, fences, pools, and docks were illegally built. However, in the wake of Hurricane Maria in September 2017, these mangroves came under threat when governmental agencies issued permits authorizing the re-building of recreational areas within the preserve. In February 2022, a Judge reversed governmentally issued permits allowing the Sun and Beach condominium to rebuild their pool, jacuzzi, and other recreational areas. The court noted that roughly 2% of the land authorized to be rebuilt is supposed to be protected against urban development, and nearly 12% is located in a coastal area with a high risk for flooding. The court further noted that “the proposed construction [would] privatize an asset in the maritime-terrestrial public domain”. Other areas across Puerto Rico are in danger of this same environmental destruction.
In Salinas, Puerto Rico’s lax oversight, decreasing budgets, and illegal government-issued permits have also resulted in a spike in construction within supposedly protected areas and regions, many of which are prone to flooding and/or landslides. Within Puerto Rico’s second-largest estuary alone, nearly 3,600 mangrove trees have been cut down. With more than half the population of 3.2 million living in coastal areas and almost half of Puerto Rico’s housing being “illegally constructed” this problem will only continue to spread.
Although a growing number of Puerto Rican legislators are in favor of a territory-wide investigation into illegal construction, many like Governor Pedro Pierluisi (NPP, D) labeled the proposal as “excessive”. If this problem remains unchecked across the islands, the effects of erosion, hurricanes, and other climate change-related symptoms will persist and worsen. According to Representative Jesús Manuel Ortiz (PDP, D) during an April 27 public hearing on the issue, “this is one of the biggest environmental crimes I’ve seen…It’s outrageous. A crime is being committed right in front of everyone”.