A conflict between access to public space and a push for private development in Puerto Rico is being intensified by climate change, prompting residents and environmentalists to rally for a beachfront area threatened by fierce storms and rising seas.
Angered by one developer’s move to build a cement wall sticking out of the sand on Los Almendros beach, in front of the Sol y Playa condo complex in Rincón, a crowd gathered to tear it down one March morning, writes Yale Climate Connections (YCC).
“In Puerto Rico, all beaches are by law public property, as is any area where waves touch along the coast,” explains the article. So, the crowd—cheering as a bulldozer attempted to tear down the wall—was right when they chanted in Spanish, “Ese muro es ilegal y lo vamos a tumbar” or“This wall is illegal, and we are going to tear it down.”
Police stopped the bulldozer and made some arrests, “but this crowd was not going to give up so easily,” writes YCC. “They had brought sledgehammers.”
Locals had decided to take matters into their own hands after the condo association of Sol y Playa ignored a March 1 deadline to tear down their illegal wall.
Such ocean front skirmishes to protect beloved public beaches are becoming increasingly common for coastal communities in Puerto Rico, as well as in Hawaii and mainland United States, writes YCC. Especially as residents watch their beaches rapidly erode under the pressure of rising seas and fierce storms—hallmarks of the climate crisis.
The situation in Puerto Rico is made worse by lax permitting—“permits are often given without inspection of construction sites,” notes YCC—as well as by “a real estate boom propelledby a law that allows new residents to avoid paying income tax so long as they live on the island for a minimum of six months.”
The law was put in place in the hopes of attracting new investment and jobs to the American protectorate, whose economy was devastated by Hurricane María in 2017—a catastrophe made worse by Washington’s grievously inadequate response.
Beach protector and resident Zair Dalí Torres Medina told YCC the sentiment on Puerto Rico has become “el pueblo salva al pueblo,” or “the community saves itself.”
“It has been a long time since we have trusted the government,” she said.
Passed in 2012, the tax law has left affordable, long-term housing in scarce supply, as waterfront properties are increasingly bought by landlords who rent them out as Airbnbs. Meanwhile, oceanfront lots are selling at a premium as developers exploit the lax permitting process to build at a feverish pace.
And they continue to build, despite the clear and present danger of coastal erosion. Maritza Barreto Orta, director of Puerto Rico’s Institute of Coastal Investigation and Planning, identifies Hurricane María as the event that changed everything, destroying the reefs and mangrove forests that had protected the island’s beaches from the worst impacts of sea level rise and hurricanes.
“The shoreline is moving inwards in many municipalities in Puerto Rico,” said Barreto Orta, a shift that is causing a “cascade effect” where even relatively weak storms now eat away at the beaches that remain.
Research shows that Los Almendros beach is now losing a metre of coastline every year.