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Fighting for Environmental Justice on the Caño Martín Peña

By Mónica Rivera-Rosado
March 15, 2017

Caño Martín Peña was once a navigable waterway through the center of San Juan. Today, obstructed by refuse and debris, and fouled with raw sewage, it has become a heath and environmental hazard to San Juan. This is the scenic side of the Caño, near the Martín Peña Bridge on Highway No. 25 (Avenida Ponce de León). Photo by Moebiusuibeom-en (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

My native country, Puerto Rico, has been making headlines all year, mainly about the $70 billion government debt, the rising number of Zika cases, and the journey and victory of our first Olympic gold medalist. Missing from the news are the island’s environmental and social issues.  The tragedy striking the Caño Martín Peña and communities that border it is worthy of front-page coverage.

Caño is a Spanish word for ‘channel.’ Once navigable and popular for swimming and fishing, the Caño Martín Peña (CMP) is a 3.7-mile long channel located in the heart of San Juan (the island’s capital) that provides a tidal connection between the San José lagoon and the San Juan Bay Estuary. According to the 2015 Feasibility Report of the CMP Ecosystem Restoration Project, the San Juan Bay Estuary, the largest system of its kind in Puerto Rico, is home to 33% of the island’s mangroves, 125 species of fish, and 160 species of birds. In 1992, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated it as an Estuary of National Importance, due to its natural as well as tourist and commercial resources.

Today, the CMP’s tidal connection is lost, blocked by decades of waste, debris, and sediment. It is terribly polluted, a combination of the discharge of raw sewage from the margin communities and the illegal dumping of garbage. Approximately 27,000 residents of these communities are deeply and directly affected by this pollution, as the lack of adequate sewer systems and storm water management produces floods every time it rains. The fight against social and environmental injustice and the threat of gentrification in the CMP is the subject of an amazing story about the power of citizen participation and community organizing.

The short documentary Agua Mala (Bad Water), prepared by students at the University of the Sacred Heart, details the history of the CMP and the origin of the tragedy. Beginning in the 1920s, thousands of peasants, escaping economic hardship brought on by the stock market crash and two devastating hurricanes, migrated from the campo (rural areas) to the capital, San Juan. The city was already densely populated and land prices were high, so the peasants settled around the caño, using garbage and debris to fill the wetlands and build their new homes. This went on for decades.

Currently, the caño is home to 8 communities, including a large portion of Dominican immigrants. The most worrying issue threatening the communities is the lack of basic infrastructure to manage sewage and provide safe drinking water. The CMP Website reports that 70% of residents experience flooding in their homes, streets, or schools. Exposure to untreated sewage (filled with vermin) has increased the rate of gastrointestinal, respiratory, and skin conditions in the caño, making it higher than anywhere else in Puerto Rico. The pollution in the CMP impacts the environment as well: with high salinity levels and little to no oxygen, the water in the caño can barely sustain marine life and threatens the surrounding mangrove forests and the area’s biodiversity.

“And for the first time, we residents were actors of our own future.”

These words are painted on a wall somewhere in one of Puerto Rico’s poorest communities, settled along the banks of the CMP.  In response to the social and ecological issues, the residents of the CMP formed the G-8, a group of leaders from each of the 8 communities surrounding the caño. A movement started by the Puerto Rico Highway and Transportation Authority began talks between the government and the community to plan the dredging of the caño and the overall improvement of the community. Soon, a restoration plan was in the works. In 2004, the Puerto Rico government passed a law that created the ENLACE Corporation, an independent government entity charged with overseeing the implementation of the dredging plan and ensuring the permanence and development of the 8 CMP communities.

The 2004 law also created the Community Land Trust (CLT), which holds over 200 acres of public land, now property of the residents. The Building and Social Housing Foundation indicates the purpose of this trust is to ensure safe and affordable housing as well as the fair and reasonable resettling of residents during the dredging project. The CLT is also a weapon against gentrification, as it guarantees that CMP residents can enjoy the caño and keep their land after it is restored. PBS News Hour reports that ENLACE will work jointly with the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers to implement the Ecosystem Restoration Project, which will dredge the channel, build a sewer system, and relocate families during the cleanup.

An article published in May by Caribbean Business reports that Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, approved the feasibility report and environmental impact statement for the Caño Martín Peña Ecosystem Restoration Project, which will move forward into the preconstruction, engineering, and design phase. However, in an interview with PBS News Hour, ENLACE director Lyvia Rodríguez says the project will most likely be delayed, another consequence of the financial crisis crippling the island.

A story that began at the beginning of the last century is now being written by the members of the community, who, through organization and perseverance, have effectively become actors of their own future.

For more information, view the video below and visit the CMP Website