Aerial photo of Sol y Playa condominiums. (Photo credit: Pearl Marvell)

P.R. - Who will save Puerto Rico's beaches from rising seas, storms, and developers? The people.

After Hurricane Maria, conflicts over public beach access on the island have become more complicated and frequent. And residents aren’t waiting for the government to step in — they’re banding together to protect their rights.

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Early one March morning in Rincón, Puerto Rico, a bulldozer equipped with a jackhammer rumbled across Los Almendros beach toward a half-built cement wall sticking out of the sand in front of a condominium complex called Sol y Playa. The words “propiedad del pueblo,” or “property of the people,” had been spray-painted on the wall, as was a turtle, a symbol of a growing movement in Puerto Rico.

A crowd gathered around the bulldozer, cheering and chanting as the machine ripped away sections of the wall: “Ese muro es ilegal y lo vamos a tumbar.” “This wall is illegal, and we are going to tear it down.”

The protesters were correct to say the wall was illegal. Multiple studies of the coastline deemed it in la zona marítimo-terrestre or — in English — the maritime-terrestrial zone. Simply put, that means the wall is in an area where waves are known to reach, particularly during hurricanes and seasonal storms.

In Puerto Rico, all beaches are by law public property, as is any area where waves touch along the coast. The condo association of Sol y Playa was given a deadline of March 1, 2023, to pull the wall down. When they didn’t, residents, environmentalists, and activists decided to take matters into their own hands.

The bulldozer didn’t make too much progress. The police seized it, saying the operator of the bulldozer didn’t have a permit to be there. They also arrested three people on charges of trespassing. Most of the wall was left intact, but this crowd was not going to give up so easily.

They had brought sledgehammers.

A fight exacerbated by climate change

Coastal communities in Puerto Rico, Hawai’i, California, North Carolina, and elsewhere have seen an uptick in conflicts over public access and beach protections as residents debate what to do about erosion from rising seas and stronger storms, both problems fueled by the changing climate. In Puerto Rico, the problem is worsened by lax permitting and oversight — permits are often given without inspection of construction sites. Adding to the pressure is a real estate boom propelled by 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.

Other high-profile beach access conflicts on the island have occurred along the coastline in Dorado, where public access has been drastically limited by waterfront property owners who hired private security to close public points of access — a violation of Puerto Rican law, which requires public access points every few hundred meters in both urban and rural areas. There are continuing protests in San Juan against construction that would limit access to Escambrón beach.

At a protest over construction at Las Golondrinas caves in Aguadilla, a security guard hired by a private property owner shot a protester in the leg.

Zair Dalí Torres Medina was one of the protesters at the caves in Aguadilla. She said she was moved to tears when she saw the environmental impact of the construction and knew that she needed to be part of the fight against it. “If I don’t do anything about it, what’s going to be left?” she said. “This is all we’ve got.”

Torres Medina left the island after Hurricane Maria, along with over 130,000 others — 4% of Puerto Rico’s population. She returned last year and made a promise that she wouldn’t leave again no matter how many hurricanes come. She said that the sentiment on the island is “el pueblo salva al pueblo,” which translates to “the community saves itself” — because the general sentiment is that nobody else will. “It has been a long time since we have trusted the government,” she said.

Sometimes, all it takes is a turtle to start a movement

The Los Almendros beach conflict began after Hurricane Maria in 2017, when the pool in front of the Sol y Playa condominiums was destroyed, as was much of the beach.

In January 2021, the condo association received the permits needed to rebuild and began construction later that year. Because that construction was occurring right on the beach, near where turtles nest and the general public comes to enjoy the sand, sunshine, and water, the move triggered community concern and anger.

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