SAN JUAN — With miles of beautiful beaches and the only tropical rainforest on U.S. territory, Puerto Rico is often touted as a paradise for vacationers. But for the people who live there, rampant development and the worsening effects of climate change have bred a sense of ecological anxiety that drives many to fight for the environment.
“Sadly, the government isn’t taking charge of protecting our public land and all the other resources we have as blessings, being born on this island,” environmental activist Wilmar Vázquez told Latino Rebels. “I feel like it’s my responsibility to protect these spaces for future generations, for my kids, because I feel like nobody else is going to do it.”
Vazquez, a surfer and swimmer, has become a prominent environmental activist since leading a beach protest in late January 2022 in San Juan’s Ocean Park, after a couple attempted to stop beachgoers from setting up a beach volleyball court. She helped with a similar protest in mid-February of that year in Dorado, after the Dorado Beach Hotel attempted to privatize a beach, in spite of a Puerto Rican law stating that all beaches on the island —except the one in front of the Caribe Hilton— are public. (The hotel received special privileges in 1998 due to an exchange between the government and the hotel, which allowed it to privatize the beach.)
Like many Puerto Ricans, Vazquez grew up going to the beach frequently. Now she worries that her young son and to-be-born child will not have the same access thanks to unbridled development along the coastline that not only privatizes beaches but degrades them. She believes Puerto Rico’s natural resources must be protected for her children and future generations to enjoy.
Over the last few years, she has been one of the many voices demanding environmental justice in Puerto Rico.
As the world attempts to move toward systems that promote climate justice, activists say that the protection of natural resources must be paramount. In Puerto Rico, where the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DRNA) and the Permit Management Offices (OGPe) have shown a pattern of disregard for nature, the duty of protecting the environment has fallen on citizens who do not want to see their islands destroyed.
Eco-Anxiety, Driver of Climate Action
Feelings of ecological anxiety, or “eco-anxiety,” have been rising among the public as the impacts of climate change affect people’s daily lives. While not yet considered a mental disorder in the same way that generalized anxiety disorder is, many psychologists have begun seriously studying its effects.
Eco-anxiety is a “set of symptoms and signs where the cardinal symptom is anxiety when the ecosystem around them or the territory where they reside has started dramatically transforming as a consequence of climate change,” according to Dr. Eduardo Sandoval Obando, associate investigator of the National Agency of Investigation and Development in Chile.
For some, eco-anxiety produces an intense sense of dread and can even be potentially paralyzing if left untreated. The fear that “everything is lost and nothing can be done” can keep people from having a positive impact in the battle against the effects of climate change. For others, it serves as the motivating force that pushes them to protect the environment even through the lingering fear in the back of their minds.
Additionally, when someone suffers from eco-anxiety, they tend to focus on ecological events that have still not happened but could theoretically happen in the future, Dr. Rodolfo Sapianis, investigator at the Center for Climate and Resilience Research, explained to Latino Rebels.
Fifty-nine percent of young people feel very or extremely worried about the effects of climate change, according to a 2021 study done across 10 countries by Bath University and Avaaz. More than 45 percent said feelings about the climate affected their daily lives, and 75 percent believe the “future is frightening.”
As multiple psychologists told Latino Rebels, the effects of eco-anxiety do not affect everyone equally. Those most vulnerable to eco-anxiety tend to be people who have experienced multiple ecological transformations and the people most exposed to the effects of climate change, explained Dr. Sandoval Obando, who is also an academic at the Autonomous University of Chile.
Ridden with such feelings, multiple activists said that an immediate sense of eco-anxiety surrounding the destruction of beaches and their privatization has motivated them to put their lives on pause and support various campaigns to protect beaches and the rest of the archipelago’s natural resources.
The looming threat of disaster hangs constantly above the heads of many Puerto Ricans, particularly in the form of devastating hurricanes and catastrophic flooding. Hurricane María, a high-end Category 4 Storm, ripped through Puerto Rico in September 2017, killing thousands and destroying much of the infrastructure. The archipelago has still not recovered, and the destruction only gets worse with every new hurricane that passes, like Fiona, a Category 1 storm that caused catastrophic flooding in September 2022.
María left Puerto Rico with a “new coast,“ according to a recent study from the Institute of Investigation and Coastal Planification of Puerto Rico that analyzed Puerto Rico’s coastline post-María. About 61 miles of the Puerto Rican coast shifted inland as a result of the hurricane.
The persistent threat of hurricanes and their effects has bred a fear that the next hurricane season will bring an even bigger one. The Caribbean is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, as a warmer world could result in as much as a five times increase in extreme hurricane rainfall events across the Caribbean, according to a study by the University of Bristol.
Additionally, many Puerto Ricans are faced with more immediate environmental destruction brought on by an unchecked coastal development market that bulldozes natural resources to build short-term rentals. One such place is Cueva Las Golondrinas in Aguadilla, where the Aguadilla Pier Corporation, which wants to build an aviation fuel depot where the ancient Muelle de Azucar is located, has caught flak from activists demanding these illegal structures be demolished. Activists also seek the stoppage of the construction of 86 proposed villas that The Cliff Corporation has proposed to construct.
Both companies have been owned by wealthy developer Carlos Román Gonzalez since 2018.
Despite violating regulations, such corporations continue to receive government funding. According to documents from the Department of Economic and Commercial Development, Aguadilla Pier Corporation received $3 million in government incentives and The Cliff Corporation received contributory credits in accordance with Act 60, a law meant to encourage foreign investment. Despite building two illegal structures on Cueva Las Golondrinas, Aguadilla Pier Corporation’s incentive contract is valid up till 2025. Meanwhile, the contract for The Cliff’s contributory credits was signed just three months after it was admonished by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for violating the Clean Water Act.
Activists set up Campamento Pelicano (Camp Pelican) in early January 2023 to demand the protection of Aguadilla’s natural resources. Multiple activists have since told Latino Rebels that an immediate sense of eco-anxiety surrounding the destruction of Cueva Las Golondrinas and their beaches being taken from them has motivated them to put their lives on pause and join Campamento Pelicano.
Activism Is the Effect
While the effects of eco-anxiety are likely affecting thousands of Puerto Ricans and will affect more in the future, Dr. Sandoval Obando emphasized that eco-anxiety not only has negative effects but also “favors proactive responses by people.” He specifically pointed toward government programs meant to deal with the effect sof climate change and climate activism.
“Once you’re in this (climate activism), you’ll never regret it because you’ll find family, people who will be with you for your entire life,” activist Iona Fournier told Latino Rebels in January while sitting opposite a makeshift barricade that activists had erected in front of the gates leading to the construction on Cueva Las Golondrinas.
Fournier explained that she did not feel a sense of community until she showed up to protest against the illegal construction at the Sol y Playa Condominiums in 2021. Since then, she’s been entrenched in the battle to protect Puerto Rico’s natural resources.
“When you connect with people heart to heart, it will literally calm your nervous system,” Dr. Jaris Delgado, a psychologist, told Latino Rebels at Campamento Pelicano.
One of the most important things that have allowed her and other residents of the camp to continue is the sense of community they have fostered, which helps calm down some of their eco-anxiety. Dr. Delgado has been a part of Campamento Pelicano since its foundation and has been a crucial member of the operation. She tries to stay at the camp most days of the week and helps organize the camp’s events.
“In Puerto Rico we’ve had a problem with self-efficacy, like we often feel like we’re not enough to self-govern or self-sustain ourselves nutritionally,” Dr. Delgado said, adding that the camps gave Puerto Ricans like her a renewed sense that they were capable of doing things themselves where the government would not act.
The government seems to be oscillating in its approach to protecting the natural environment. Gov. Pedro Pierluisi recently vetoed a measure that would’ve allowed citizens to perform some of the duties of the frequently inefficient DRNA, including citing environmental law violations against companies and individuals even if they are not the ones directly affected by them. Yet, in 2021, his first year as governor, Pierluisi fast-tracked coastal construction permits by 29 percent more than in 2020.
For many at these camps, eco-anxiety was part of what moved them toward climate activism, and the anxiety has subsided because of their activism. These camps have been part of a wave of protests that have dotted the northwest of Puerto Rico where natural resources are currently threatened by development.
“Everybody can —and we have to— do things to take care of the environment,” Dr. Sapiains told Latino Rebels.
This story was published with the support of the Caribbean Climate Justice Journalism Fellowship, which is a joint venture of Climate Tracker and Open Society Foundations.
Carlos Edill Berríos Polanco is the Caribbean correspondent for Latino Rebels, based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Twitter: @Vaquero2XL