Jacqueline Vázquez was sitting on the couch when her phone rang.
She had just returned from a government office where she filed a complaint about illegal construction in an ecological reserve. The reserve is dedicated to one of the island’s largest mangrove forests near her neighborhood in southern Puerto Rico.
“What the hell were you doing in Natural Resources?” a man’s voice bellowed through her phone.
Vázquez took it as a threat, one of several that community leaders like her have received as outraged Puerto Ricans demand answers from their public officials. Lax oversight, dwindling budgets, and permits illegally issued by the government have led to an increase in construction in protected areas and regions, some of them prone to flooding or landslides.
The ongoing probe into homes built illegally in Puerto Rico’s second-largest estuary, where officials say more than 3,600 mangrove trees were cut, has led to public hearings, the launch of a criminal investigation by Puerto Rico’s Justice Department and to scrutiny of similar cases. Environmentalists warn that these cases are leaving the U.S. territory even more vulnerable to climate change amid wetter and more intense hurricane seasons.
“This is one of the biggest environmental crimes I’ve seen,” Rep. Jesús Manuel Ortiz said during an April 27 public hearing on the issue. “It’s outrageous. A crime is being committed right in front of everyone.”
Homes of concrete block complete with fences, swimming pools and even docks have been illegally built inside the Jobos Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. The reserve has protected nearly 2,900 acres of mangrove forest surrounded by waters in varying shades of turquoise. It is home to the critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle and the vulnerable West Indian manatee, among other species.
Activists and some public employees say they are frustrated and feel alone in their fight as they accuse Puerto Rico’s Department of Natural Resources and other agencies of not doing their jobs.
When a legislator during one public hearing asked the director of the reserve who exactly had failed in their duties by allowing the illegal construction, she answered, “The entire system.”
The director, Aixa Pabón, also accused the Department of Natural Resources of being negligent and questioned why Puerto Rico’s Planning Board was absent, saying “ineptitude, negligence, [and] sluggishness” prevail in certain government agencies. Her voice broke at times, and she said she feared personal and professional backlash for testifying: “But the truth sets me free, and God is with me.”
Last month the secretary of the Natural Resources Department resigned. He told a local radio station that some employees investigating the illegal construction were receiving death threats.
Neither the department nor Puerto Rico’s Planning Board, which is responsible for inspecting all authorized permits, responded to requests for comment.
The themes of public land and climate vulnerability are playing out in another high-profile case in the popular surfing town of Rincon in western Puerto Rico. In February, a judge reversed a permit issued by the government that authorized the Sun and Beach condominium to rebuild a pool, jacuzzi and other recreational areas destroyed by Hurricane Maria in September 2017.
“The proposed construction,” the court said, would “privatize an asset in the maritime-terrestrial public domain.”
The judge also noted that 2% of the property in the case is protected land where no urban development should have been permitted, and 12% is located in a coastal area with a high risk for flooding.
The testimony in that case included an employee of the environment division of Puerto Rico’s Permit Management Office who acknowledged that he intervened directly to speed up the now-canceled permit. He also said that a friend and business partner of his was a consultant on the project, but said his action was justified because the permit officer assigned to the case was doing the evaluation incorrectly.
The judge ruled that the land is public after the Planning Board found the government granted the permit in violation of local laws. However, that case is still in court, and residents fear developers will illegally restart reconstruction. Critically endangered sea turtles have nested there in the past.
In both of these cases, the illegal construction came to light after concerned residents launched protests and demanded accountability from government agencies.
“We feel that the fight here is never-ending. It is very, very frustrating,” said Mónica Timothée Vega, a civil attorney. At the request of a friend, she also is fighting another proposed development in a wetland in the northeast coastal town of Luquillo.
That case is pending in court, with Timothée accusing the Permit Management Office of granting nine extensions and three renewals to developers when by law it can only award three extensions and one renewal per case.
Timothée also said one neighbor requested public documents related to the case in January and was only able to obtain them after she and her brother, who is also working on the case, went to court.
“Why does the community need to have attorneys to obtain documents?” she asked. Their frustration heightened, she said, when previously available documents online at the Permit Management Office began to disappear as she and her brother dug into the case.
Pedro Cardona Roig, an architect, planner and former vice president of the Planning Board, said the same thing is happening to him as he investigates on his own what occurred in Salinas, where Jobos Bay is located. He said that of the 16 documents he previously perused online, only a handful remain.
Gabriel Hernández, secretary for the Permit Management Office, told the Associated Press that his agency, with a limited staff, struggles to address a recent surge of fake permits that show names, addresses and even official plot maps illegally changed.
“The number keeps going up every day,” he said, adding that planning employees have now identified more than 100 fake permits. At least eight of them were to connect utilities to illegal homes in Jobos Bay. He stressed that his agency never authorized any permits there.
“People sometimes do whatever they want,” he said.
According to Puerto Rico’s Water and Sewage Authority, at least 60 customers now have connections in Jobos Bay. The island’s Electric Power Authority has referred nearly 50 people to Puerto Rico’s Justice Department over illegal connections.
Hernández at the permit office said he has ordered his employees to use judgment and be careful when reviewing petitions involving a natural reserve or a protected area.
“Some might have slipped through, but it’s not the norm,” he said.
Illegal coastal development is of great concern for activists on an island where more than half the population of 3.2 million lives near the ocean. Mangroves protect the shore from storm surge during hurricanes. Corals do that too, but they have been dying in part due to sediment runoff. A warming planet means that hurricanes carry more rain, have more energy and intensify faster.
“The mangroves are like the person who stands there enduring all that may come,” said Vázquez, the community leader. “It’s like a wall, saving us.”
A growing number of legislators favor an island-wide investigation into illegal construction in protected areas. Activists also are pushing for approval of a complete moratorium on coastal construction, a proposal that Gov. Pedro Pierluisi has called “excessive.” However, he said a moratorium could be applied in areas suffering from erosion or other climate change effects.
The department’s interim secretary announced April 27 it is preparing to file eviction orders against 12 people accused of living illegally in Jobos Bay and requested a court order to demolish the homes. Officials said the occupants would be responsible for paying at least $4 million for environmental damages and accused the group of taking advantage of the pandemic and the aftermath of Hurricane Maria to build and expand structures.
Despite the looming court battle over protection at Jobos Bay, activists and attorneys remain wary. They note that the Natural Resources Ranger Corps has only seven members to oversee the area that includes Jobos Bay instead of the federally recommended 12. When the corps issued $250,000 in fines to those unlawfully occupying the land, the government reduced the fines to $3,000. The rangers themselves also were served with a cease-and-desist letter from the squatters.
“You can imagine how we felt,” Sgt. Ángel Colón told legislators at a public hearing. “It was like a bucket of cold water.”
Vázquez, the community leader of Las Mareas in the town of Salinas, knows the feeling.
The complaint she filed in 2019 is stalled at Puerto Rico’s Department of Natural Resources. Officials say they need more information. The complaint over misuse of land is one of more than 100 filed by people across Puerto Rico awaiting action since 2019.