I Went to Puerto Rico on Vacation and
All I Got Was Wonderful Hospitality from
the Sierra Club's Newest Chapter
by John Byrne Barry
I didn’t go to Puerto Rico to write a story about the Sierra Club’s newest chapter. I went there on vacation with my girlfriend Nanette as part of her 50th birthday celebration. But I had recently met “Pachi” Pérez, the new chapter chair, at the chapter leader training in Marin County in March, and I’ve known Camilla Fiebelman, a field representative based in San Juan, the island’s capital, since she was a college intern in the San Francisco headquarters.
I hoped to attend an excom meeting, or go on a chapter-sponsored outing, but the timing didn’t work out. What happened turned out to be far better: Pachi invited us and a bunch of the chapter leaders to dinner at his house, and we had a wonderful time. The dinner was three-quarters social and one-quarter Sierra Club-related (and partly in Spanish), so I didn’t play reporter as much as grateful guest. That said, I captured enough telling “snapshots” to weave together a modestly accurate story of La Isla del Encanto (the Island of Enchantment) and the Club’s newest chapter. So think of this as a slide show of paragraphs. (And some photos tossed in for spice.)
Dense San Juan: After a packed red-eye from Oakland to New York City, and a morning flight to San Juan, we waited for an hour in the stifling humidity for a bus into town. Turns out that even though buses go to and from the airport, passengers with luggage aren’t actually allowed on them. The bus driver took us anyway, but ten days later, when we tried to take the bus back to the airport, no drivers would let us on and we had to take a cab. Our hotel was in Condado, a dense neighborhood a few blocks from the Atlantic Ocean, full of blocky 10- and 20- and 30-story apartments and condos. Cranes were everywhere, though there was little evidence of planning or zoning.
Walled City: Charming Old San Juan, with its narrow cobblestone streets (well, the one above is paved) and colorful buildings, is flanked by two large forts built by the Spanish in the 16th century — El Morro and San Cristóbal — and surrounded on three sides by the old city walls. On the video we watched in the visitor center, the narrator refers to Sir Francis Drake, who attacked Puerto Rico in 1595, as a “pirate.”
Green Roofs: Paola Ferrá, a communications consultant and chapter communications director, picked us up in her air-conditioned SUV and drove us to Pachi’s house, in a gated subdivision in Guaynabo, south of San Juan. (The metro area is home to a third of the island’s 4 million people.) When asked if she could turn down the air conditioner, she told us that “puertorriqueños” (pwerto ree KAYN yose) like it hot outside, but when they come inside, they want it to be like an igloo.” She explained with enthusiasm her plans to build a “green roofs” movement on the island. She learned about green roofs at a conference, but part of her reason for embracing it is that she lives in a condo and looks down on a lot of barren rooftops just begging for some lush gardens.
Second-Year Growth: Francisco Pérez, a.k.a. Pachi, chapter chair, invited chapter leaders to his house for dinner. Pachi, an environmental consultant who works out of his home and devotes about 20 hours a week to the Club, said he wants the chapter to grow to 1,000 members in its second year. (When the Sierra Club Board of Directors inaugurated the new chapter at its February 2005 meeting in San Juan, there were 190 members.) While he barbecued chicken in his backyard, we listened to the “coqui” (an amphibian similar to tree frogs) making their high-pitched “ko-’kee” calls.
A Sierra Club Presence in Every Town: Outings chair Eduardo González, a infectiously enthusiastic bear of a man, told us at dinner that he wants a Sierra Club presence in every town on the island, like the Masons, of which he is also a member. Eduardo, a photographer and landscaper, said the chapter outings were attracting up to 50 people. One recent outing was “Poetry under the Stars.” Eduardo was thrilled to be part of the Sierra Club and excited to be building the organization on the island. He and the others have long been inspired and concerned about the natural world, but forming a Sierra Club chapter gives them access to a national organization and new-found clout. Puerto Rico has as much need for environmental protection as anywhere in the U.S. mainland, and even has decent environmental laws, but enforcement is lacking.
Founding Member: We also met Samarys Seguinot-Medina, who went to Washington, D.C., in March 2002 for a Public Lands Summit when she was a member of the Sierra Student Coalition at Metropolitan University in San Juan. A few months after that came the first Sierra Club meeting in Puerto Rico, with a focus on protecting the Northeast Ecological Corridor, one of the island’s many ecologically important natural areas, which is threatened by two huge hotel and housing developments proposed by Marriott and Four Seasons.
Rainy Rainforest: The morning after Pachi’s barbecue, Mabel Rodríguez, a magazine editor and translator, and volunteer editor of the Puerto Rico Chapter newsletter, Sierrico, gave us a personal tour of El Yunque (el joon-kay), the only tropical rainforests in the U.S. National Forest System. It rained, of course — that’s what happens in rainforests — and we got soaked, but it was hot and we dried out quickly. El Yunque is protected, but just to the north is the corridor the Club is working to protect from development. She drove us back to San Juan first through flooded roadways in the rural part of the island, then on traffic-clogged streets once we get closer to the city. Like most of the mainland United States, Puerto Rico is dominated by the car, she says. The island has more roads per square mile than any U.S. state and a spotty public transportation system.
|Long Carrots? No, these are the roots of the Sierra Palm in El Yunque, part of Caribbean National Forest
Grassroots Energy: Back in my office in San Francisco, I reread an e-mail from Camilla Feibelman, the Club’s field rep in Puerto Rico. (She wasn’t able to make it to the dinner at Pachi’s – she was organizing a coalition meeting in the coastal town of Fajardo.) She attached a note from a recent editorial in the English language newspaper, noting that environmental activists on the island “seem to be better grounded, organized, and successful lately in Puerto Rico. And just in time.”
Something is definitely happening, she said in her note. “Today 50 people showed up to our walking tour of the trees of Old San Juan. Yesterday at the chapter’s day-long planning retreat, one member jumped to her feet and shouted, ‘We’ve got to play to win! We’ve got to hit them hard!’ The campaign seems to be on fire and the phone rings non-stop. I’ve never felt like this before. This is what grassroots feels like. Maybe it’s just that there are 4 million people in one small place so energy comes easy. I don’t know what, but it’s exciting.”
Turtles on Parade: In April, the Club co-sponsored the first Festival del Tinglar (Festival of the Leatherback Turtle) in Luquillo, adjacent to the Northeast Ecological Corridor, and attracted more than 700 people despite torrential rains. Children dressed as sea turtles participated in a costume contest and a local representative who’s sponsored a bill protecting the corridor led the parade.
Puerto Rico’s economy, dominated by sugar cane for centuries, today is based mostly on manufacturing, notably the pharmaceutical industry, and tourism, with an estimated 5 million visitors in 2004. “We hope that the annual festival will be a key part of our economic proposal for the towns adjacent to the corridor,” said Camilla. “Eco-tourism can bring people and money in ways that fancy hotels and gated communities can’t.”
Visit the Puerto Rico Chapter Web site (it’s in Spanish) to find out more, and help protect the Northeast Ecological Corridor.
photos by John Byrne Barry, Pablito Bayman, and Camilla Fiebelman
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