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In this blog, Dr. Torres-Valcárcel and Dr. Hernández-Delgado discuss how Puerto Rico’s recent bankruptcy, hurricanes, earthquakes, and socioeconomic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic have provided a unique opportunity to comprehensively incorporate these issues into the formulation of a new economic model that prioritizes sustainable economic growth, climate change, natural disaster risks, and public health issues: the blue economy.

Puerto Rico’s beautiful beaches, rainforests, natural landscapes, and cultural resources are well-known tourist attractions and critical drivers of the island’s economic recovery. However, after the island’s government defaulted on a $70-billion-dollar debt in 2016, Puerto Rico’s economic crisis reached historic levels.

To make matters worse, just a year later catastrophic Hurricanes Irma and María added 90 billion dollars in economic losses. Soon after, a string of earthquakes along southwestern Puerto Rico began in December 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic emerged in March 2020, and Hurricane Fiona recently struck in September of 2022.

Although hurricanes are nothing new in the Caribbean, the threat of more intense storms is already a climate change concern, particularly for small island development states (SIDS). SIDS experience increased vulnerability resulting from socio-economic inequalities, colonial legacies, neo-colonial politics, and environmental injustice. Given that context, Puerto Rico desperately needs a new economic model that promotes growth, participation, equity, inclusion and is self-sustained and less dependent on outside disaster and crisis assistance programs.

A major challenge in changing Puerto Rico’s economic model is the limited land resources for a scale economy. For the past century, the island’s economic model has resembled a continental development pattern without having similar land resources. However, a huge resource surrounding the island can provide the basis for a new economic model: the sea.

Previous mistakes from local land development policies such as overlooking ecological, environmental, and socio-economic vulnerabilities must be avoided to take advantage of ocean resources through a participatory and fair blue economy. The blue economy is about getting economic benefits from marine resources sustainably, while promoting equitable, inclusive participation by long-standing local communities.

Although it sounds simple, balancing multiple needs and interests such as food production, maritime transportation, tourism, and coastal ecosystem restoration, in addition to improving biodiversity, ecosystem integrity, and promoting climate change adaptation, is a big challenge. Scientific research and integrating science-based decision-making into socio-economic processes is critical to achieving this delicate balance and enabling the effective implementation of environmentally-friendly initiatives.

Puerto Rico is perfectly suited to champion an ocean-based economy. The island has a strong core of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) professionals, a collective of economy professionals, and experienced not-for-profit organizations (NGOs) which could drive the future participatory blue economy.

For example, NGO Sociedad Ambiente Marino or the Marine Environment Society (SAM) has over 21 years of service with a distinguished pioneering record of coral reef ecological restoration projects and scientific research, fostering community-based hands on and learn-by-doing initiatives, and training the next generation of marine scientists in Puerto Rico.

Unfortunately, this unique opportunity is threatened by government inaction to protect shorelines, which are public domain in the island, meaning that any form of privatization of the maritime terrestrial zone is illegal. Lack of trust in authorities causes Puerto Ricans to rightfully act and energetically protest creating an atmosphere of skepticism and polarization within conservationists and underserved communities.

Illegal development at a federal coastal reserve.

This sort of tension can hamper the swift development of a participatory and fair blue economy and begs the question: A blue economy for who? The many Puerto Ricans desperately trying to save our island OR outsiders looking to capitalize on recovery programs and transferred funds?

A lack of inclusion in a sustainable blue economy will result in a severely eroded ability for the island to recover from economic collapse, and the displacement of Puerto Ricans. Any new economic strategies to help Puerto Rico prosper must respect local values, hire experienced local enterprises, listen to and empower local communities, and recruit locally proven NGOs.

To learn more about COSUAM, follow them on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. You can also connect with Angel and Edwin on LinkedIn!

For more information about SAM, visit their website or follow them on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

Interested in learning more about environmental action in Puerto Rico? Check out this article here.


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