‘The beaches belong to the people’: Inside Puerto Rico’s anti-gentrification protests | American News
VSClimate activists in Rincón, Puerto Rico celebrated the 4th of July by demolishing part of a construction on the beach that has been a symbol of resistance against coastal development on the island.
Dressed in bathing suits and clutching their maces tightly, hundreds of people flocked to Los Almendros beach in early July to dismantle a structure that would have been an infinity pool just meters from the coast. Protests against the structure, which a condominium began building last year, continue to grow and activists are still expressing concern about the effect the construction will have on the area.
The protests in Rincón are part of a larger battle by environmental activists against coastal development and the privatization of public beaches in Puerto Rico. After Hurricane María hit the island in 2017, communities faced increased erosion and more infrastructure along the coast. The proliferation of housing estates and hotels in places heavily frequented by tourists, such as Rincón, has also presented a challenge for locals trying to access the beach.
In the case of the protests around the condo’s beachfront pool, the law is on the side of the citizens: A lower court in Puerto Rico ruled in favor of demolishing the structure earlier this year, but the Condominium owners have repeatedly appealed the court’s decision. The move has led to a resurgence of protests in Los Almendros and the rebirth of Camp Carey, named after a hawksbill turtle.
For Alaihia Lloret, a tent on Los Almendros beach has become her second home as she protests against coastal development. Lloret, 19, started camping on Los Almendros beach with dozens of others last year after construction began on a condominium. When a turtle nested in the area, protests erupted, forcing the condo to halt reconstruction of the infinity pool last summer, which was destroyed by the hurricane in 2017.
“It feels personal to me because I’ve been coming to this beach all my life,” said Lloret, a student at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez. “Once I saw what was happening, I knew I had to take it upon myself to protest.”
The call to protect the island’s beaches has created a movement to organize “party protests” in areas threatened by overdevelopment, anchored by the slogan “Las playas son del pueblo” or “The beaches belong to the people”. . By law, every beach in Puerto Rico must have public access.
“Construction on the coast not only puts marine and land areas and the public realm at risk, but you also risk the lives of people in the properties,” said Wilmar Vázquez, a member of the group In Defense of Our Beaches, which organizes the party protests. “Hurricane María was an eye opener and a step towards change.”
Vázquez’s group staged a series of protests earlier this year against coastal construction and privatization. Hundreds of people gathered in the affluent Ocean Park area in January after a viral video showed a couple asking sunbathers to leave the area, suggesting they could only enjoy the beach if they bought a million dollar property nearby. Another protest erupted in February on Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton reserve.
But Rincón epitomizes all the other problems Puerto Ricans face as the island experiments with a new round of austerity measures under its debt restructuring deal. A tax incentive designed to attract outside money has led to exorbitant rental prices in coastal towns, displacing families who have lived in these areas for generations. As wealthier investors arrive on the island, demand for luxury properties continues to soar.
Soaring gentrification is fueling protests in Rincón, and residents of Camp Carey said they are looking for new ways to impede new construction on the beach.
“We are counting on the Supreme Court to protect the right to private property”, Leonor Porrata Doria, legal adviser to the board of directors of the condominium. Porrata added that the protesters do not “represent the people” of Puerto Rico. “Imagine people knocking down a fence in a private house and starting camping in the backyard.”
Puerto Rico’s Department of Natural and Environmental Resources announced last week that it would begin a demarcation process to determine the marine-terrestrial area, considered public, on Los Almendros Beach. The process is long overdue as erosion and the climate crisis have radically altered the initial demarcation granted in 1996, when building permits were granted, and many experts question the legality of the original construction .
“The demarcations are valid for five years,” said Pedro Cardona Roig, architect and former member of Puerto Rico’s Planning Council. “If no hurricane or extraordinary tidal wave occurs, the demarcation remains valid.” But this is not the case with Puerto Rico.
Despite the agency’s efforts, camp members raised funds to hire their own surveyors and other scientists to perform the same process amid distrust of the government.
“Condominiums can seek all the help they want, but the science is indisputable,” said Eliezer Molina, activist and former independent candidate for governor. “People are learning that there are new paths we can take, and it will continue to happen.”