COLUMN: Puerto Rican protesters, environmental activists are inspiring

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Kyara Morales-Rodriguez, Columnist

After a long battle to keep Puerto Rican beaches accessible for all, environmental activists in Puerto Rico have celebrated a victory against developers, corporate interests, and the rich people buying million-dollar houses on Puerto Rican beaches. 

As a proud Puerto Rican who cares about the environment and hates millionaires, I was happy to see all the hard work and protests lead to a happy ending. 

After more than a year of protesting and occupying the beach, on Monday, July 4, environmental activists destroyed parts of the illegal construction built on Los Almendros beach in Rincón, Puerto Rico. 

By law, all Puerto Rican beaches are open to the public, but in practice, it has not exactly been the case. 

For years, tourists have been buying expensive houses near Puerto Rican beaches, trying to keep the locals out and claiming that the land is theirs and that people cannot trespass on it. The Puerto Rican people have been kept out of their own beaches because rich people think they can decide what parts of a beach people are allowed on. 

For Puerto Ricans, the beaches are so incredibly important, seeing as they are some of the few public places they can enjoy without paying anything and they are a part of the natural resources that are supposed to belong to everyone

And yet, the land is being illegally privatized in order to please tourists and millionaires who see Puerto Rico as their playground. 

This issue had only been exacerbated by developers attempting to build directly on the beach, an issue that affects both the people and wildlife of Puerto Rico, as was the case in Los Almendros beach. A swimming pool was built in front of the Playa y Sol luxury condominiums, destroying the egg-laying habitat of an endangered species of sea turtles, hawksbill sea turtles. 

In July 2021, the beach became the scene of protests for environmental protection and police clashed with activists, leading to the excessive police force and unjustified arrests of protesters. 

Protesters started taking matters into their own hands, destroying parts of the construction fence on their own, leading the board of condo owners to pause construction. 

The heightened media attention from these protests led to information about the condo being exposed, including that the permits were fast-tracked without the proper environmental impact studies. 

Protests continued, and in February, a judge ordered the condominium to destroy the construction and restore the beach within 120 days, deciding that the pool was a threat to natural resources and that the permits were illegal. 

This was a win for the protesters, but 120 days came and went but the concrete fence was still there. The condo owners made no moves to remove the construction, so protesters made plans to remove it themselves on the Fourth of July.

The government responded by yet again sending police to the area and some protesters were arrested, but protesters still planned to destroy the construction fence. The police set up barriers to prevent protesters from entering the construction site, leading many to question why they were protecting the illegal construction rather than forcing the condo owners to tear it down. 

Sometime in the afternoon, officers backed down and removed the barriers, and protesters then began demolishing the fence, moving hundreds of pounds of cement and rebar from the construction zone. 

The Puerto Rican people celebrated this victory, flying Puerto Rican flags and singing the Puerto Rican National Anthem, “La Borinqueña.”

Seeing people have to fight so hard to keep beaches public and accessible is, truthfully, very heartbreaking and disappointing. It is disappointing to see land developers exploit the land for money and to see the government’s willingness to protect them over protecting the Puerto Rican people fighting for their land.  

But it is also so, so inspiring. It is a reminder of the strength people have when they come together to fight for a common goal. It is a reminder of what we can accomplish when we fight against oppressive systems, no matter how much time and hard work it takes. 

This issue is far from over, of course, seeing as this is an issue happening across Puerto Rico. The reason why change was made at Los Almendros beach is due to the hard work of protesters and activists, as well as the heightened media attention from these protests. 

However, it is great to see this win, this pushback against the gentrification and contamination that has been affecting Puerto Rican people, wildlife, and the environment for years. I hope we can see change happen across Puerto Rico, and that the Puerto Rican people will be able to not only protect its beaches but all of Puerto Rico’s natural resources. 

Kyara Morales-Rodriguez is a senior English major. She can be reached at 217-581-2812 or at [email protected]