SAN JUAN — On Saturday, hundreds of activists flooded Playa Almendros in Rincón, Puerto Rico to complete the demolition of a wall that was illegally built too close to the beach by a condo developer.
During the early hours, activists who had slept overnight at Campamento Carey —a small encampment established along the paved road that leads to Playa Los Almendros— trickled into the beach carrying mallets and chipping hammers to finish destroying the wall illegally built on public land by the owners of Sol y Playa Condominium complex. A pile driver arrived shortly after and began tearing down parts of the wall.
Police eventually forced the pile driver and its operator out of the construction site, reportedly for demolishing without the necessary permits. Hours later, police arrested three activists who refused to move when the riot line pushed forward.
A similar scene has played out at Los Almendros beach before. For many, it was the start of a wave of environmentalist protests that has washed over Puerto Rico in the past year. The flashpoint began with a picture posted by environmentalist and former gubernatorial candidate Eliezer Molina, showing a Hawksbill sea turtle, known as a carey in Spanish, inside the construction site. Sol y Playa was building a cement wall and a beachfront pool right on top of turtles’ nesting ground.
After many arrests, court visits, and official documents, the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources eventually created a land demarcation that found much of the construction was built inside the maritime-terrestrial boundary, which defines everything within 20 meters from the high tide line as public property and that permanent structures cannot be built within 50 meters of said line. The Puerto Rico Planning Board presented a motion to force the condo developer to demolish the cement structures in February 2022 after declaring the permits issued for the wall were null and void. But after the March 1, 2023, deadline passed without a hammer being lifted by the developer, activists took it upon themselves to tear the wall down.
“Our intention is to demolish the wall and restore the area for the carey and wildlife (that live) in this area,” said lawyer Laura Nazario, president of Campamento Carey, a non-profit organization that stemmed out of the original Campamento Carey meant to help environmentalists with costs associated with protecting Puerto Rico’s beaches.
Activists first began demolishing the wall in July 2022. Nazario, along with other activists, say that they have had to resort to taking on demolition tasks that should have been completed by the Sol y Playa Condominium because the government agencies charged with enforcing environmental protection laws have been asleep at the wheel.
While the protests in Rincón were some of the first to really kick off the wave of environmental demonstrations, similar encampments have been established throughout the west coast of the island. Some activists claim new camps could potentially pop up soon in other towns as more Puerto Ricans see this as a viable and effective form of protest.
“We wish we could sleep in our homes in tranquility and not have to sleep in a tent, but the government does not do it (protect the environment),” said Nazario, whose partner was shot by a security guard while protesting environmental destruction in the nearby town of Aguadilla.
With their pile driver confiscated by police, activists were forced to continue their demolition of the wall by hand, pounding and hammering at the wall from dawn till dusk the entire weekend. While the demolition continued, activists held social events and a workshop to teach the children in attendance about the ecological impact of development projects like the condos and the importance of preserving natural habitats.
The Sol y Playa Condominium developers —whose residents include Walter Pierluisi, Gov. Pedro Pierluisi’s cousin, and lawyer Rita Vélez, who pushed an activist off the cement wall last year, causing the man to hit his head last year— has not yet responded to the Planification Board’s request. Leonor Porrata Doria, the lawyer representing the developer, said she quit being the legal counsel for Sol y Playa on February 28.
The Planification Board is seeking to fine the condo developer $10,000 —which many activists think is not nearly enough— for failing to abide by the court order to destroy the wall. The board also demands that the condo developer restore the affected area to its “natural state.”
Carlos Edill Berríos Polanco is the Caribbean correspondent for Latino Rebels, based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Twitter: @Vaquero2XL