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Green Warriors Honored for Fighting Bad Tourism

Part One of Two

Good tourism should help protect a place, not destroy it. This week two men in two countries won the same international conservation award for successfully combating two types of flawed tourism.

A Puerto Rican, Luis Jorge Rivera Herrera, 43, won the Goldman Environmental Prize for saving one of his island’s last bits of pristine, ecologically valuable coastline from resort development—a rare accomplishment in any country.

A Tanzanian, Edward Loure, 44, won for protecting Maasai land-use rights against incursions by agribusiness, hunting concessions, and, of all things, ecolodges. Read about him in Part Two.

The annual Goldman Prize awards grassroots activists who have at great effort achieved victories for environmental responsibility and justice. I report on these two in separate posts.

First, the Puerto Rico Story

In almost any country, fighting a plan for a sun-and-sand megaresort is difficult to impossible. Here’s the usual pattern: 1) Developer proposes resort plan to government (greasing the skids as needed); 2) government leaders approve plan, assuring locals that new resort will boost economy and create many jobs; 3) locals cheer and support plan, while any conservation issues are disregarded as insignificant.

That’s what almost happened to Puerto Rico’s Northeast Ecological Corridor, a pristine 3,000-acre mix of public and private tracts along seven miles of shoreline, much of it beaches. The Corridor’s unusually varied habitats—mangroves, lowland rain forest, wetlands, coral zones, and semiarid areas—shelter almost 900 species of plants and animals, including one of the world’s few nesting grounds for the endangered leatherback turtle, largest of all sea turtles.

The place would have turned into a sprawl of resorts, villas, and golf courses, were it not for Luis Jorge Rivera Herrera and his allies.

Luis Jorge Rivera led the battle against more of this generic Puerto Rican resort development. Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize.
Luis Jorge Rivera led the battle against more of this generic Puerto Rican resort development. Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize.

Despite long-standing proposals for a designated nature reserve, the pro-growth administration ruling the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in 1996 approved a plan that zoned most of the area for resort development. In 1998, developers proposed a Four Seasons Resort with 1,450 units, plus two golf courses, and a Marriott resort with 3,450 rooms and villas, plus two more golf courses.

An environmental scientist working for a government program at the time, Rivera Herrera began the battle against the proposals with an advantage: Locals in the neighboring towns of Loquillo and Fajardo, he told me, were already skeptical.

Not only had Puerto Rico seen such resorts go bankrupt before, but many of them customarily discouraged their guests from leaving the property to explore and spend money locally. Sentiment was growing that the island needed to diversify tourism. Two more generic resorts wouldn’t do it.

Having grown up in the area himself, Rivera Herrera was able to rally the communities along with further support from colleagues, academia, and conservationists. They began a long campaign to thwart the developers. “That’s when we began to receive the first pressures to stop working on the Corridor,” he says.

Goldman awardee Luis Jorge Rivera Herrera works on ecotourism plans for the Northeast Ecological Corridor. Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize.
Goldman awardee Luis Jorge Rivera Herrera works on ecotourism plans for the Northeast Ecological Corridor. Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize.

In the face of bureaucratic and political resistance, the campaign went on for years. In 2005 a new Puerto Rican chapter of the Sierra Club helped create the formal Coalition for the Northeast Ecological Corridor (Corredor Ecologico del Noreste).

A Political Cliff-Hanger

The subsequent sequence of events reveals the thin political margin between success and failure:

2007—Public support moves Puerto Rico Governor Governor Aníbal Vilá to issue an executive order to protect the Corridor as a nature reserve.
2009—Newly elected governor Luis Fortuño rescinds the designation—swayed, opponents argue, by developer contributions to his campaign.
2012—After public outcry and a renewed preservation campaign, the legislature finally passes a bill to make the Corridor a protected Commonwealth Nature Reserve.
2013—Governor Alejandro García Padilla signs the bill into law.

Success! But there’s a catch.

The remaining private parcels in the corridor, some 800 acres, must be purchased before 2020 in order to be included in the Reserve. The Puerto Rican government was supposed to help buy the land, but the island’s fiscal crisis now makes that unlikely.

What’s more, Rivera Herrera thinks another political bomb is waiting to explode.

He points out that there’s something fishy about the price of the parcels. In 2000 those lands were appraised at $1,000 an acre, he says. By 2009, after the housing collapse, the same parcels were valued at $70,000 to $80,000 an acre. “They’re still appraised as if the resorts were going to be built!” Right now, the Commonwealth can’t afford it, even with matching funds from the Federal government. A fair appraisal for 2016, he thinks, would be $15,000 to $20,000.

Ecotourism, not Mass Tourism

Regardless of how the political drama unfolds, Rivera Herrera is now interim director of the Corridor and he has ecotourism plans: Trails, camping, surfing, kayaking, turtle-watching—leatherback nesting season is March to July—and bird-watching. More than a hundred species live in the Corridor. The Puerto Rican woodpecker, Adelaide’s warbler, and Puerto Rican vireo are among 17 endemic to the island.

This type of tourism should help the adjacent communities economically. It could support a few small in-town boutique hotels or nearby ecolodges. “Luquillo plaza is in walking distance to the Corridor,” he says. “You can see six life zones within 13 miles.” The sixth zone, El Yunque rain forest, is a short drive inland. On a continent, such zones would likely be hundreds of miles apart.

Tourism appropriate to the place: Kayakers explore the Northeast Ecological Corridor. Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize.
Tourism appropriate to the place: Kayakers explore the Northeast Ecological Corridor. Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize.

The visitors are already coming. “I went there a month ago and saw a family from North Carolina.” They had looked up the Corridor on the Internet and decided to visit, camping out for the night.

Summing up his success, Rivera Herrera told me, “I have been blessed with all the opportunity and resources I have been able to tap all these years.” That, and an iron will.

The question is whether coastal conservation activists in other lands will also be so blessed. Around the world, warm-weather shorelines with nice beaches are the landscapes most at risk from sprawling mass-tourism development.

Divine intervention to save their flora and fauna may not be mandatory, but it sometimes seems like it.

I report on Edward Loure’s accomplishments in Tanzania in my next post. See also Elizabeth Becker’s DSC post about a third Goldman winner, Ouch Leng of Cambodia, and his battle to save the rain forest that defines the character of Cambodia.