Flooding and runoff in the streets of low-income communities.
Sediments creating a muddy shoreline.
Fertilizers, plastics and chemicals entering the turquoise waters of the Caribbean.
This is the fate of the coast of Rincón, a small town on the west side of Puerto Rico, if a proposed mega-hotel and casino is built just a few steps away from the Tres Palmas Marine Reserve.
And this hotel isn’t the first example of an especially insidious type of development that has come to Puerto Rico since Hurricane María: disaster capitalism. Corporate profiteers have entered the island with promises of restoration.
From 2017 to the present, new projects are popping up across the island that put the bottom line over the needs of locals.
This particular hotel development threatens the Tres Palmas Marine Reserve, which was established in 2004 in a grassroots effort by community members and non-profits who wanted to protect the natural resources in their backyard. And the reserve has done its job.
“Tres Palmas is home to some of the healthiest Elkhorn coral in the entire Caribbean,” said Dr. Chelsea Harms-Tuohy, an independent marine scientist at IslaMar Research Expeditions. “The Elkhorn grows in thickets which in turn creates a natural barrier that breaks up swell energy and prevents erosion of the coastline along Tres Palmas.”
Tres Palmas is an incredibly diverse ecosystem, and one of the last remaining healthy coral populations of endangered Elkhorn. It provides shelter and food sources for the reserve’s many large parrotfish, snapper, lobsters and other colorful marine life. And this coral is one of the six species of endangered corals found in the reserve.
But it’s all at risk if this hotel gets built.
This development is being sold by the local government as a positive move to revive the local economy. But that boost will take a big toll on local natural resources and sustainability efforts.
Fertilizers used to maintain the resort’s lawn could run downstream and create harmful algae blooms. And while algae is an important food source for marine life, the nutrients from fertilizer could superficially boost its growth and overload the marine ecosystem. Algae could rapidly overgrow and suffocate healthy coral like the Elkhorn.
The development also represents a threat to water sources for the 15,000 residents of Rincón. Construction in delicate wetlands areas is especially concerning, given that Puerto Rico had one of the most severe droughts seen since 2015 just a month ago. With the climate crisis thickening, these events are anticipated to be longer and more frequent.
In addition, the hotel development threatens the health of residents by potentially increasing traffic, noise and crime related to the gambling industry. The increasing number of tourists with sunscreen is especially harmful for the delicate ecosystem. In Puerto Rico, there is no current regulations for sunscreens with toxins that harm marine ecosystems.
Thankfully, this development doesn’t have to be a foregone conclusion. The community will not give up without a fight to save what they call the “Road to Happiness.”
Salva Rincón and Amigos de Tres Palmas, both community grassroots organizations, are currently organizing a strategy to prevent the development to go any further. They are heavily interested in protecting the Tres Palmas Marine Reserve. They want to prevent the preserve and the surrounding community from being added to the victims of the disaster capitalism industry that is taking over Puerto Rico post-María.
Myrelis Diaz Martinez is an environmental health student and activist in the Arizona area. Twitter: @myrediaz.