Burke says Puerto Rico has good laws protecting the environment, but no compliance or enforcement. "That's where we come in," she says.
Tension between construction and conservation is acute in La Isla del Encanto (the Island of Enchantment). Puerto Rico has a higher population density than all 50 U.S. states-more than 1,000 residents per square mile-as well as one of the highest densities of roads in the world. There's not much room to build, but the powerful developers keep building anyway, and until now, environmentalists have had a tough time keeping them at bay.
Burke, who runs a language school based in Germany, says the seeds for the new chapter were sown three years ago after a group of Puerto Rican students returned from a weekend of lobbying with the Sierra Student Coalition at its annual Public Lands Summit in Washington, D.C.
"Since then, that core group of activists has grown to more than 200 members," she says. "We would hold public meetings or educational events, and maybe 30 or 40 people would show up, and each time, we'd recruit one or two of them for our committee. Slowly but surely, we've formed a strong core of leaders."
Those leaders include Outings Chair Eduardo González, whose ambitious goal is to train and certify outings leaders in as many towns as possible and use outings to inspire people to conserve the island's natural habitat; Legislative Chair Ramon Nieves, former Puerto Rico National Parks Director; and Chapter Vice Chair Francisco ("Pachi") Pérez, who wants to enlist Puerto Ricans to help enforce environmental laws.
"Call the Environmental Quality Board when you see something being done wrong," Pérez urges. "If they don't act, call legislators. Citizens should raise a public hue and cry."
The chapter's top priority is working to rein in unchecked development and protect the island's few wildlands, particularly the Northeast Ecological Corridor, a 3,200-acre coastal area that includes wetlands, forests, coral reefs, mangrove swamps, and a bioluminescent lagoon. The corridor is threatened by two mega-resorts planned by Four Seasons Resorts & Hotels and Marriott International that would include 1,900 new residential and tourist units and three golf courses.
Burke says the hotels are often a cover for the associated subdivisions that the law allows to accompany them. In fact, new hotels are sometimes shuttered a few years after construction after developers have made their money on the subdivisions.
Opponents of the development have filed several lawsuits, including one brought by the National Wildlife Federation asserting that the sea turtle nesting ground will be jeopardized by the Four Seasons project. The leatherback sea turtles, an endangered species that nests along the Northeast Ecological Corridor, are the world's largest turtles. Club activists in Puerto Rico have been urging for the last two years that the corridor be protected as a Commonwealth of Puerto Rico nature reserve, as was once proposed by the local government in 1992.
Luis Jorge Rivera, a Club activist and Northeast Ecological Corridor expert, says chapter leaders are hosting meetings with residents who live close to the area, emphasizing the natural richness of the corridor and explaining the impact the resorts will have on locals' quality of life, particularly how the already limited access to fresh water could be exacerbated.
The chapter outings program has also led trips to the corridor both on foot and by sea kayak.
The chapter has received a boost from volunteers and staff from the Florida Chapter, like Outings Chair Rudy Scheffer, who played an integral role in establishing the Puerto Rico outings program, taking it on as a "section" of the Florida Chapter until the new chapter became official. Scheffer has helped train 30 new outing leaders.
Another major issue facing the densely-populated island is solid waste. Pérez says Puerto Rico produces 9,000 tons of solid waste a day, and that with currently available technology, it could reduce the volume of waste entering landfills to a fraction of the current total.
The new chapter is still small, but establishing it demonstrates a commitment to the long haul, says Pérez. "Most environmental groups here are formed to protect individual places," he says. "They're in a sprint race, using up all their energy in one fight, while developers are in a marathon race."
At the press conference launching the Puerto Rico Chapter, a San Juan Star reporter asked Club leaders, "The game the developers play here is basically to outwait you guys. What are you going to do about that?"
Club Executive Director Carl Pope invited them to try. "The Sierra Club specializes in the long term," he said, "John Muir first drew the boundaries of Sequoia National Park on the back of an envelope in 1916, but Mineral King wasn't finally added to the park until 1981-65 years later."
You can welcome the new chapter by contacting Four Seasons and Marriot and telling them to withdraw their plans to develop the Northeast Ecological Corridor. Go to sierraclub.org/puertoricoaction.
For more on the Puerto Rico Chapter, see puertorico.sierraclub.org.
Photos: Jennifer Hattam; all rights reserved.