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Early one March morning in Rincón, Puerto Rico, a bulldozer equipped with a jackhammer rumbled across Los Almendros beach toward a half-built cement wall sticking out of the sand in front of a condominium complex called Sol y Playa. The words “propiedad del pueblo,” or “property of the people,” had been spray-painted on the wall, as was a turtle, a symbol of a growing movement in Puerto Rico.
A crowd gathered around the bulldozer, cheering and chanting as the machine ripped away sections of the wall: “Ese muro es ilegal y lo vamos a tumbar.” “This wall is illegal, and we are going to tear it down.”
The protesters were correct to say the wall was illegal. Multiple studies of the coastline deemed it in la zona marítimo-terrestre or — in English — the maritime-terrestrial zone. Simply put, that means the wall is in an area where waves are known to reach, particularly during hurricanes and seasonal storms.
In Puerto Rico, all beaches are by law public property, as is any area where waves touch along the coast. The condo association of Sol y Playa was given a deadline of March 1, 2023, to pull the wall down. When they didn’t, residents, environmentalists, and activists decided to take matters into their own hands.
The bulldozer didn’t make too much progress. The police seized it, saying the operator of the bulldozer didn’t have a permit to be there. They also arrested three people on charges of trespassing. Most of the wall was left intact, but this crowd was not going to give up so easily.
They had brought sledgehammers.
A fight exacerbated by climate change
Coastal communities in Puerto Rico, Hawai’i, California, North Carolina, and elsewhere have seen an uptick in conflicts over public access and beach protections as residents debate what to do about erosion from rising seas and stronger storms, both problems fueled by the changing climate. In Puerto Rico, the problem is worsened by lax permitting and oversight — permits are often given without inspection of construction sites. Adding to the pressure is a real estate boom propelled by a law that allows new residents to avoid paying income tax so long as they live on the island for a minimum of six months.
Other high-profile beach access conflicts on the island have occurred along the coastline in Dorado, where public access has been drastically limited by waterfront property owners who hired private security to close public points of access — a violation of Puerto Rican law, which requires public access points every few hundred meters in both urban and rural areas. There are continuing protests in San Juan against construction that would limit access to Escambrón beach.
At a protest over construction at Las Golondrinas caves in Aguadilla, a security guard hired by a private property owner shot a protester in the leg.
Zair Dalí Torres Medina was one of the protesters at the caves in Aguadilla. She said she was moved to tears when she saw the environmental impact of the construction and knew that she needed to be part of the fight against it. “If I don’t do anything about it, what’s going to be left?” she said. “This is all we’ve got.”
Torres Medina left the island after Hurricane Maria, along with over 130,000 others — 4% of Puerto Rico’s population. She returned last year and made a promise that she wouldn’t leave again no matter how many hurricanes come. She said that the sentiment on the island is “el pueblo salva al pueblo,” which translates to “the community saves itself” — because the general sentiment is that nobody else will. “It has been a long time since we have trusted the government,” she said.
Sometimes, all it takes is a turtle to start a movement
The Los Almendros beach conflict began after Hurricane Maria in 2017, when the pool in front of the Sol y Playa condominiums was destroyed, as was much of the beach.
In January 2021, the condo association received the permits needed to rebuild and began construction later that year. Because that construction was occurring right on the beach, near where turtles nest and the general public comes to enjoy the sand, sunshine, and water, the move triggered community concern and anger.
The conflict came to a head when a hawksbill turtle clambered up the beach to nest and got stuck on the construction site for four hours in early July 2021.
A group of concerned residents set up an encampment with tents, flags, and signs in the public parking lot next to the condos and along the beachfront in front of the construction. They named the encampment Campamento Carey after the trapped hawksbill turtle. The objective of the encampment was to stop all construction at the site.
Within three weeks, Puerto Rico’s department of natural resources produced a cease-and-desist order to stop construction, but hours later, the order was amended to allow construction to continue so long as workers blocked nesting turtles from accessing the site. Protests ensued.
Since then, Campamento Carey has become a community-supported and funded movement with the goal of ensuring beaches remain public and easily accessible across the island. It has no singular leader, but “Yo soy Carey” or “I am Carey” has become a widespread motto. Thousands of people have bought merchandise, provided food and water to protesters, and attended protests. Social media has carried their messages across the island and abroad. What was happening at Sol y Playa became a symbol of intrusion on public beach access islandwide.
“This is not unique to Rincón. It’s just here there has been so much scrutiny in it,” said Steve Tamar, a Rincón resident who has been involved in the fight against the Sol y Playa construction since the beginning. Tamar is also a volunteer at the local Surfrider chapter, a nonprofit that focuses on ensuring public access to beaches, protecting coastlines, and monitoring water quality. Tamar said that he and other volunteers have been monitoring water quality at Los Almendros beach for years, and they noticed a huge difference in the beachfront in 2017. “All of a sudden, 50% of the beach is gone after Hurricane Maria,” he said. “This is not a place where you want to authorize construction.”
Hurricane Maria changed everything
Maritza Barreto Orta is the director of Puerto Rico’s Institute of Coastal Investigation and Planning. Barreto has studied the island’s coastline for decades and released a study in 2021 looking at how it has changed since the passing of Maria.
What she found is that though beaches are in a constant state of flux, Maria significantly impacted the coastline and stripped a large number of natural barriers like reefs and mangroves that once protected the beaches from erosion and storms.
“The shoreline is moving inwards in many municipalities in Puerto Rico,” Barreto Orta said. This change has caused a “cascade effect,” meaning that even weaker storms like the ones that occur regularly during the winter months can dramatically reshape the coastline.
And climate change is increasing the risks. Warmer sea surface and atmospheric temperatures fuel hurricanes, making the possibility of another superstorm like Maria more likely, according to a report released by the Puerto Rico Climate Change Council. The report also found an average of 4.4 millimeters of sea level increase every year since 2010 on Magueyes Island, where the University of Puerto Rico has a marine science lab.
Puerto Rico’s changing coastline can be seen with the naked eye. A railroad built around the coastline of the island back in the late 1800s to transport sugar cane is falling into the ocean in certain areas, with much of the damage occurring in the past five years. The combination of more intense and frequent storms, sea level rise, and beach erosion do not bode well for coastal construction on the island, both old and new.
A condo resident who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisal from protesters, bought a condo on the second floor of Sol y Playa in 2005 with the hope of retiring there eventually. Although born and raised in Aguada, a neighboring municipality to Rincón she spent most of her life in the mainland U.S. and decided she wanted a place back on the island where she could hopefully one day retire.
Now she says she is afraid to go to her condo for fear of being harassed by the protesters. “We find ourselves caught between a rock and a hard place,” she said.
She knows that the coastline has changed and remembers when she could walk along the beach all the way from Sol y Playa to the town of Rincón, over two miles away. She can’t do that anymore because where there used to be a beach, there are now houses that have fallen into the water. In other areas, where there was once sand, only rocks, rubble and rebar from damaged homes remain.
She says that the condo owners have been unfairly portrayed as wealthy people with no regard for the environment. “If we were millionaires, we would be in Dorado,” she said, referring to a municipality on the northern coast of Puerto Rico where waterfront homes cost $1-45 million. “Let this be a lesson for other waterfront properties,” she said.
Many Puerto Rican communities have been pushing for ways to address beach erosion. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is studying the areas of affected coastline. But last year, the Army Corps announced that Puerto Rico would have to wait until at least 2029 for a fix, potentially too late to help with another storm like Maria.
Surfrider and CARICOOS, a climate and weather agency, proposed that the Army Corps build a sea wall or artificial reef off the coast of Los Almendros beach to break the force of incoming waves. Those organizations’ research shows that this area of the beach has been losing a meter of coastline every year.
Abigail Pastor Cotler lives not far from Los Almendros beach. She was on the island during Hurricane Maria and got stuck for weeks without cellphone service, electricity, or running water. She had sought shelter in a nearby municipality when Rincón was evacuated for the storm. When she returned home, she was horrified to discover the beach had vanished. Since then, sand has naturally accumulated again, but the beach hasn’t been fully restored to its pre-Maria state.
Not only did the coastline change after Maria, so did the neighborhood. Many of Pastor Cotler’s neighbors sold their waterfront properties after the hurricane because they were no longer able to insure them or have a mortgage.
“The people that are buying them now are not worried about that,” she says, alluding to the fact that many of these homes have been bought upfront and with cash, often by expats. Now many of the houses and pieces of land for sale along the coastline are listed in the millions.
In 2012, Puerto Rico’s government passed a law under which individuals who haven’t lived in Puerto Rico for the past 10 years can move to the island and — so long as they live on the island for six months — not pay any income tax. This law was established to encourage outsiders to invest in the island and provide employment for local residents.
What many say it brought instead was a huge spike in real estate prices around the island. Properties were bought up and turned into AirBnBs, making affordable, long-term housing in coastal communities more difficult to find. Oceanfront land lots were quickly sold and developed, often leading to restrictions on access to the coast.
Despite the 2019 passage of a law called “Puerto Rico’s Law for the Mitigation, Adaptation and Resilience to Climate Change,” which specifically highlights coastal erosion and how to address the effects of flooding, heavy seas, and sea level rise, much of the island’s coastline construction goes seemingly unchecked.
As restrictive access to the coastline has increased, residents and nongovernmental organizations have banded together to preserve access to beaches.
Pedro Roig is an urban planner and architect, as well as the former vice president of the Junta de Planificación, Puerto Rico’s planning board. He said that in the past couple of years, there has been a big shift in the way that Puerto Ricans see their coastline. They have realized that it is something that needs to be protected. “We all own it,” he said.
Roig has been prominent in nearly all the recent fights surrounding coastline access and zoning (he even made an appearance in Bad Bunny’s El Apagón music video, which is essentially a mini-doc about the problems faced by Puerto Rico, including the community’s fight for access to its beaches). His expertise has brought a scientific basis to the fight, making it difficult for governmental agencies to ignore these conflicts.
“There are now many citizens who feel comfortable talking about public property and what is the ‘high water mark,’” he said. “These were terms that only surveyors and other individuals with technical expertise talked about.”
A push for a revision of low and high-water marks
Roig said that taking into consideration climate change and erosion, the shoreline’s location should only be valid for development planning for a period of five years. “The position of this line made in 2017 needs to be revised because in 2023, it is different,” he said.
How low and high water marks have been defined is based on Spanish law originally implemented in Puerto Rico in the 1800s. Besides being antiquated, it is based on a region of the world that is entirely different climate and weather-wise. “The problem has been the interpretation of this law which has allowed for developers to use it to their favor,” says Hector Varela Vélez, community organizer for Puerto Rico’s Surfrider chapter.
Varela Vélez said potential developers claim the high water mark is a lot lower than it actually is, despite the high water mark actually moving higher up the coastline over the years. This practice in combination with the lack of on-site visits from Puerto Rico’s planning board and department of natural resources has meant that many permits given to developers and private owners don’t follow the law.
For concerned citizens and environmental nonprofits, one recourse is to challenge the permits in court, where they’re often declared null and void. Easy access to photos and video footage now makes it feasible for community members to prove where the actual high water mark is, especially during storms.
Another option: create no-go zones for construction
“The government and the private sectors have a responsibility to know the projections and threats that are present on the coast and to avoid construction there,” said Barreto Orta, lead investigator at Puerto Rico’s Institute of Coastal Planning and Investigation (CoRePI-PR) when asked about development along the shoreline. She said weather models show that a heavy swell brought about by a category three, four, or five hurricane — in conjunction with the projected sea level rise — would put many current coastal zones underwater. Barreto Orta recommends that Puerto Rico create a no-go zone for construction near the high water line, much like what the mainland U.S. has done.
The Junta de Planificación (planning board) and the Department of Natural & Environmental Resources (DRNA) did not respond to interview requests.
Better interdepartmental communication to ensure proper permitting
Barreto Orta added that a concerted effort is needed to ensure that all government departments that should be involved in the planning and permitting process are sharing data and communicating clearly with each other. “At times, one agency doesn’t know what the other agency is doing,” she said.
Though Barreto Orta says that she is optimistic that agencies will work together to address coastal risks, many environmental activists and concerned citizens have more faith in the communities of Puerto Rico to protect the archipelago’s coastlines and hold the government accountable.
Residents interviewed for this story often mentioned two words: “autogestión comunitaria,” which translates to “community self-management.”
“When Hurricane Maria passed, we were incalculably affected,” said Hector Varela Vélez, community organizer for Puerto Rico’s Surfrider chapter. “We’ve seen how the communities [of Puerto Rico] have understood even more what community self-management is and how they have created something similar to what they did after the hurricane in order to take back their island.” This time, instead of rebuilding the island, they want to restore and preserve the coastline.
Looking to the future
The wall at Sol y Playa is still standing, although it’s smaller than it was before the bulldozer got to it. The condo association at Sol y Playa is still responsible for taking down the rest of the wall, including a foundation made up of concrete and rebar that needs to be dug up and restored to its natural state.
Recently, Campamento Carey held a competition to see who could knock down parts of the wall using a sledgehammer. Supporters of Campamento Carey are growing increasingly frustrated with the fact that no official move has been made to remove the wall. But a sure bet is that if the authorities don’t enforce the demolition of the wall soon, community members will again take matters into their own hands.