Similar Pressures, Different Places: A Preliminary Visit to “the Island” of Puerto Rico

From May 11th to May 16th, I had the pleasure of conducting a preliminary visit to Puerto Rico as part of an International Research Working Group that was funded by Mississippi State’s International Institute in the spring of 2015. I traveled to Puerto Rico with Dr. Brian Counterman (Biological Sciences) and Dr. Francisco Vilella (Wildlife, Fisheries & Aquaculture). The intent of the working group and this trip is to establish and amplify the existing research and teaching collaborations between the University of Puerto Rico and Mississippi State. More specifically, the working group intends to develop a study abroad course in Puerto Rico next academic year, as well as researcher and student exchange programs in the near future. Both programs will focus on the “science and culture of protected areas in Mississippi and Puerto Rico.” This report will provide a glimpse into what we did on this brief trip.

This was my first trip to “the Island” as Puerto Ricans call it; a deliberate semantic move that separates Puerto Rico as a politically, economically, and culturally distinct place from the “the main land” (the United States). My first reaction to Puerto Rico, especially San Juan where we spent our first few days, was that of being in some sort of liminal space; neither here nor there. It was obvious to me that this was Latin America; things were in Spanish, the flora and fauna were neotropical (albeit limited due to its island ecology), colors were somehow more vibrant, the architecture was that unique blend of Spanish colonial and modernist concrete block, and the music and food were most definitely more aligned with my past travels in Mexico and Central America. On the other hand, the layer of U.S. territorial and cultural colonization laid blatantly on the surface; the economy runs on the U.S. dollar, cars are predominantly from U.S. manufacturers, road signs follow most of the U.S. patterns (albeit in Spanish), and there are all the familiar federal institutions that were involved in the governance of natural resources and protected areas. I was glad we were able to escape the “bubble” of San Juan and get into the countryside where a deeper layer, one that is more distinctly Latin American, was on display. Yet, the oddity of the last vestiges of colonial structures, and the liminality it bestows on the economy, politics, people, and culture was something that stuck with me.

My second reaction was a bit of frustration due to having trouble communicating! I wasn’t prepared for people to struggle to understand my Spanish. Clearly the years I have been living and working in Costa Rica affected the way I speak, which threw many of our interlocutors in Puerto Rico for a loop. As well, I was underprepared for the whole series of new vocabulary words I encountered—from food to car components—that are just different. It reminded me of this funny Youtube video, “Que dificil es hablar el Español” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eyGFz-zIjHE, which explains the myriad dialects and semantic shifts that occur within the wonderful Spanish language :)!

First impressions aside, there was important work to be done. Thanks to Dr. Vilella, who is Puerto Rican and has worked on wildlife conservation and endangered species projects there for over 30 years, our agenda was full of meetings and visits to important protected areas, projects, and organizations. Again, the end goal was to get a sense of how we could best develop a basic structure for a cultural/biological protected areas course for next year. That said, our first day in the field we went and visited with a civil society organization (Centro Para la Conservación del Paisaje) that is working with local communities on the outskirts of El Yunque national forest, the Island’s crown jewel of forest conservation and a place that is incredibly important biologically, culturally and historically. The meeting was immensely informative and there are a myriad of ways that socio-cultural anthropology students could help them in their mission to conserve biodiversity and provide livelihood sustainability to local communities, both in the buffer zone of El Yunque and connecting to newly developed conservation corridors on the northeast corner of the island. Later in the day we visited Humacao Nature Reserve, which is a former sugar and coconut plantation that is being restored back to its former wetland and coastal forest.

Humacao humedal Humacao Nature Reserve

humacao vista al mar Humacao Nature Reserve

There are excellent lessons here regarding restoration ecology, alternative economic development, and community organization. Day two saw us visit the actual El Yunque forest where we met with folks from the International Institute for Tropical Forestry at their “La Sabana” station.

la savana el Yunque “La Sabana” station

We also had the pleasure of meeting with Pedro Rios, the Ecosystem Management Team and Forest Planner for the Forest Service there, who was very excited about our course and potential projects. Day three was an inspirational visit to the civil society organization named “Casa Pueblo.” It is hard to sum up what Casa Pueblo is, but simply put it is an environmental/social movement that has been fighting hard to create sustainable, empowering, and alternative approaches to livelihoods in the Adjuntas region of the island. We visited their headquarters and their “Bosque Escuela” (Forest School), which were both incredibly inspirational and will make excellent visits for our students.

casa pueblo Casa Pueblo Headquarters

bosque escuela Bosque Escuela

Students will be able to see an organization that is taking a total approach to changing minds, hearts, and outcomes whether it be via outdoor teaching, sustainable community coffee, or organizing against threats to the people and environment of Puerto Rico. At the end of the day we changed our home base to the western city of Mayaguez, which was much less “Americanized” and felt a whole lot more like Latin America.

mayaguez Mayaguez

Day four saw us visiting the Maricao National Forest Reserve, Guánica National Forest and Cabo Rojo. Maricao is another example of an excellently conserved highland forest, albeit with very different environmental, flora, fauna, and community conditions from those at El Yunque. Guánica is a tropical dry forest with an attached marine reserve, which provides a great example of connecting healthy coastal ecosystems to healthy forest ecosystems! Finally, we ended our day with an almost sunset visit to the southwest tip of the island, Cabo Rojo, which is the home of not only an important estuarine ecosystem for migratory birds, but is also the home of the island’s still-maintained artisanal salt extraction.

Guanica Forest Guánica National Forest

cabo rojo Cabo Rojo

In the end, the groundwork was laid for what promises to be an excellent student experience for next year. We are very much looking forward to developing this class and to getting back into the field there next year in May/June. In addition, it became abundantly clear that, just like Mississippi, conservation is facing a number of social, economic, and ecological pressures that need applied anthropological and biological science work. We are fairly certain that we will be able to develop collaborative research with the organizations and agencies that we met. They are often short on funds and expertise that could be supplied by our students and faculty.

So, it was a short trip, but one that was incredibly productive and that leaves me with a desire to return so that we can get to know more about the place and its people!! As they say in Puerto Rico… ¡Chévere! (Cool!)

– Dr. David Hoffman

Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology

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