*This post is part of our new series on Black Ecologies edited by Justin Hosbey, Leah Kaplan, & J.T. Roane.
For the last two decades, our research has focused on the lives of rural and coastal Puerto Rican families in the predominantly Black/Afro descended southeastern part of the archipelago’s large island. Both together and separately, we have studied and witnessed the lived experiences of race, gender, fishing and coastal foraging, migration and return, procuring livelihoods, environmental justice activism, engaging with and resisting capitalism’s market forces in Puerto Rico’s southeast. In doing so, we have learned that rural Black Puerto Rican residents and the ecosystems where they live share common trajectories and plights in the way they are seen and treated by the elites and neoliberal establishment in the archipelago and beyond. The presence of said neoliberal establishment is concretized in the form of multinational corporations, such as the coal-power plant Applied Energy Systems, whose noxious effects on the human, non-human inhabitants and ecosystem are often hidden to the naked eye but lethally toxic and life-threatening.
The following is a vignette by Hilda, from her ethnographic fieldwork on July 4th 2018:
“I was standing alone on a damaged pier in the Las Mareas Port watching the Sophie Oldendorff, a container ship sailing under Portugal’s flag but owned by a German company, unload its cargo, coal from Colombia, into a chute and pipeline system that transports it several hundred feet from the ship to the grounds of Applied Energy Systems coal-power plant. A light breeze was blowing, and the typically unrelenting rays of the southern coastal sun hung high above my head. Looking down between the pier’s broken planks, I spot several needlefish in the water beneath me. I took photographs and short videos of the ship, the fish, and this quintessentially Caribbean seaside landscape with a small point and shoot camera aware that the company’s security cameras placed strategically throughout the entirety of the complex, were also recording me. I imagined that someone was looking at me through a monitor located in the plant’s security control center wondering, “what is that woman doing out here, in this lonely wreck of a port?” I was anxious because I know how unsafe empty, out of the way places can be for a woman by herself in Puerto Rico.”
“I got in the car and drove the lonely dirt road towards the beach hoping the car didn’t get stuck in the sand. This Caribbean Sea lagoon looks like a wilderness, an untamed rural beach bordered by wetlands and mangrove forests. It is a place known and frequented mainly by locals. Though I am no longer considered a local but rather a member of the diaspora, I remember this place vividly from a childhood spent bathing in its water and foraging for land crabs with my family. I parked the car and walked the rest of the way to the shore. Several stray dogs lift their heads lazily to regard me from their sandy beds. As I neared the water’s edge and saw groups of families grilling, listening to music, and children playing in the sand and bathing in the bay’s calm waters. In the distance, but right in front of us, I see it: a pile, large enough to drive on, of coal-ash. I pull out my camera and take more photos. I hear when a man nearby, looking in my direction, asks another, ‘que estará buscando?’(‘what might she be looking for?’). And, I wonder, whether they see it too or if in their view, the coal-ash mountain has become part of the background in this otherwise idyllic tropical coastal landscape? As I stand on ‘my ethnographic ground’ looking northward from the seaside the view of the verdant central mountain range is encumbered by the AES plant and the toxic waste piled there.”
An Extractive Resource Periphery becomes a Black-Puerto Rican Ecology
After Spanish conquest, the fertile soils and easy access to a calm Caribbean Sea in the southeast coastal plain proved desirable for the development of proto-industrial sugar cane plantations. The southeast region of PR is characterized by both intense heat and desertic- arid conditions to the west, dense forests and steep mountainside to the north, and ocean side ravines to the east. Enslaved Africans, and later, mixed-race indentured laborers, toiled in these plantations and populated what would, with the passing of time, become a predominantly Black cultural zone. The region’s wetlands, mangroves, and dense-rural steep mountainsides, considered “uninhabitable” by European settlers at the time, became Black communities where residents lived unencumbered by whites. Historically these undesirable “black places” became home to fugitive and freed blacks seeking to make lives away from the harsh constraints of plantation life. In so doing, they sought closeness to “natural” or “wild” spaces/places because a sense of freedom could be found in the density of the steep mountain side or in facing the expansive view of the sea from the shore or from the mangrove lagoon, bordered by a tangle of trees, opening up to a blue sky above. Left to fend for themselves, these “out of the way” places protected residents from the relentless force of Puerto Rico’s brand of anti-black racism. During the 20th century many of these environments became objects of capitalist desire and development, first for industry and later for outdoor leisure, exposing local residents to land grabs, exclusion from coastal access, and other forms of dispossession.
Though enslavement on the island was officially abolished in 1873, plantation agriculture, with its staggering racial and wealth inequalities, continued there until the last half of the 20th century. At this time the sugar mills began to shutter one by one, leaving thousands of men, sugar cane workers, unemployed, sinking many of their families into extreme poverty. In 1973, the Lafayette Sugar Mill in Arroyo closed its doors, followed, in 1974, by the Central Cortada in Santa Isabel. The Central Aguirre Sugar Mill, largest of all sugar mills in the southeast, limped along citing economic losses until it, too, closed in 1990. The closing of the sugar mills in this region was a catastrophic economic blow from which many families never recovered, and this particularly affected the thousands of cane cutters, many of whom were Afro-descendant, who could not find employment in other sectors of the economy. But sugar mills were a source of pollution and habitat destruction too: there was the burning of wood to boil the sugar cane, and in many cases the charcoal used was made from local mangroves. Spent sugarcane fiber, called bagazo, choked streams and small waterways. Later on, as the mills modernized there were oil spills of various sizes. Particularly important in local environmental history were the molasses spills that caused massive fish and shellfish mortality in the bays.
Geographic and spatial segregation gave way to the creation and reproduction of black-Puerto Rican cultural traditions, ways of life, and local ecological knowledge. Many of these were based on more than three hundred years of reliance on fishing and coastal resource foraging. The histories of hemispheric American maroons and their communities have long captured the academic imagination, but accounts about their counter-hegemonic practices often overlook how their cultural values that developed in these rural-coastal refuges still persist and are practiced today among many of their descendants. These include the cultivation of subsistence agricultural plots, fishing and foraging, using plant and herbs for medicinal purposes, maintaining familial and community networks of sharing, exchange, reciprocity and mutual aid as defense strategy and as alternative livelihoods from wage-labor peonage and debt, the stewardship of non-human animals as well as the local environment, while still eating and drinking from it, and rejection of metropolitan ways of life, politics and values, all systems which were built and passed down intergenerationally. These “maroon” cultural values are not a relic of the past but are still practiced today in coastal and mountain rural communities throughout Puerto Rico. In the southeast, a rural coast, many inhabitants do not aspire to what they perceived as capitalist and hurried ways of lives of the San Juan metropolis for instance and instead hold definitions of success in life and well-being based on community solidarity and livelihood independence.
Living in an Industrial Waste Periphery
The archipelago’s mid-twentieth century modernization project sited many of the heavy, large, and contaminating industrial projects in “hinterland” regions far away from San Juan’s metropolis. Across the region, Afro-descendant residents endure high rates of air, water, and land contamination. Without ever consulting or taking into account the people who live from fishing, from mangroves forests, and from growing food in subsistence plots and gardens, in the twentieth-century these low income coastal communities became home to oil refineries (Guayanilla-Peñuelas, Yabucoa, Guayama), energy generating plants (Salinas, Guayama, Peñuelas, Guayanilla), pharmaceutical manufacturers (Guayama, Salinas), and today, there are over 10,000 acres devoted to the development and testing of genetically modified organisms (GMO) seeds and agrochemicals (Guayama, Salinas, Santa Isabel, Juana Diaz). The region’s transition from extractive agriculture to a waste periphery occurred while the mainly Black rural-coastal campesinos who live there continued to forage in the mangroves, fish, garden, and build robust mutual aid networks that sustained them through enslavement, brutal agricultural labor, and continued dispossession. These ways of life, which began during enslavement, have persisted, even in the face of episodic migrations to the PR capital or even the continental US.
The mostly Black coastal residents have been left with a conflicted relationship with agricultural and industrial development, both historical and present. On one hand, these activities have provided much of the income available in the region. On the other hand, they represent sites of violence and oppression, both historical and ongoing. Even at their best, they have proven to be unreliable employers, as they are prone to massive layoffs due to downsizing, factory closing, and relocation of operations in search of tax breaks and cheap labor. When employed, locals tend to be employed at the lowest levels of salary and job security. Entire communities have been relocated to make space for coastal industries, which has impacted the ability of communities to access the coast for fishing. They have also polluted local waters and damaged local habitats. Respiratory health problems are common and at least some of the incidence is attributable to industrial emissions from the power plants sited there. Since the late 1960s, residents have organized to protest against environmental injustice and seek redress. Through continuing to practice their cultural lifeways, such as foraging, fishing, tending gardens, and recreating on these rural coasts, residents continue to resist their displacement, as well as encroachment from coastal gentrifiers.