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ver the past two decades, environmental justice (EJ) movements have been amongst the most persistently and strongly mobilized groups in Puerto Rico. In this essay, I elaborate on how the many struggles that gave rise to this summer’s movement to oust Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rosselló can also be traced and understood through the histories of EJ struggles. I argue that such struggles have been key to opposing the colonial-capitalist condition and its corrupt death politics, while generating decolonizing life alternatives based on self-assembly and autogestion.
Challenging necrotic colonial-capitalism
LeBrón (2019) observed that this summer’s movement was about “life and death” – against the political economy of the colony, which is a necropolis as Lloréns and Stanchich note (2019). Tormos-Aponte (2018) had also observed these “politics of survival” in the aftermath of hurricane Maria. This is not just about Puerto Rico but rather a larger global capitalist system that is “accumulating extinction” and leading to “mass extermination” (McBrien, 2019).
Puerto Rican EJ movements have made the theme of life and death front-and-center since their birth in the late 1960s opposing a huge mining project in the Cordillera Central (central mountainous range). In the 1970s, socialist leader Juan Antonio Corretjer declared that the independence movement had to oppose the mines because they would make Puerto Rico unlivable (Anazagasty, 2015). Casa Pueblo, a community organization from the central mountain town of Adjuntas formed in 1980 to continue this struggle, and made ‘habitability’ a central aspect with the slogan “Yes to Life, No to the Mines.” Mining was a central part of Plan 2020, a strategic master plan from c. 1974 to turn vast regions of Puerto Rico into an extractive project of military bases, industrial parks, mining pits, and road and water-pipeline infrastructures to supply these industries (Massol González, 2019: 31-32; Image 1). Activists charged that this plan would amount to a genocide which would produced a “Puerto Rico without Puerto Ricans” (Image 2) – the “dream” that one of Ricardo Rosselló’s bros joked about in the Telegram scandal that began this summer’s protests.
While the mines were defeated, EJ struggles have continued facing many of the toxic-extractive industrial ‘developments’ envisioned in Plan 2020. In the 1990s, tourist-residential construction projects privatizing and destroying the coast and displacing historic communities became a key source of EJ conflicts (Valdés Pizzini, 2006), which today reemerge as central (see below). During the Fortuño administration (2008-2012), Casa Pueblo and other EJ organizations continuously opposed a proposed gas pipeline (gasoducto del norte) that would cross the island south-to-north, and an enormous waste incinerator in the northern coastal town of Arecibo, where communities already faced high levels of air pollution. Both projects were approved ‘fast-track’ under a declaration of a “state of emergency” that minimized mandatory environmental analysis and public participation (Torres Asencio, 2017). Both were marred by corruption scandals and were dubbed by activists as projects of death, opposed to a struggle for life/people/environment (Images 3-5).
Some compared the gasoducto movement to the one against the US Navy in Vieques, another exemplar case of necrotic-disaster-colonialism –and people’s power to face it. In the 20,000+ march organized by Casa Pueblo on the symbolic May Day of 2011, an activist put clearly the life-and-death struggle:
If Fortuño, his government or whoever decides to impose the construction of this nefarious project, leaving no alternative to choose between death or life, I will choose life…in my sovereign right to self-defense of the waters, the forests, the karst and the security of our people…
Similar stories can be told of the legacy of EJ struggles in the southern region between Guayama-Peñuelas, which began against petrochemical factories in the 1970s (Berman Santana, 1996) and continue today against the “killing” by AES coal plant and its ashes (Lloréns, this issue), and against transgenic crops and its deadly pesticide Roundup (Images 6-7).
With the US PROMESA Act, new opportunities arose for the incinerator and other such projects of disaster colonialism to be “fast-tracked” as “critical” for the country’s ‘economic recovery’. In this context, the Anti-Incineration Coalition organized protests against the Junta, while the Jornada Se Acabaron las Promesas (one of the main anti-Junta groups), sent ashes to the PR Capitol with the banner: “The only ashes we want are from the Junta” (image 8). Both portrayed the shared life-threatening toxicity of these corporations and the colonial institutions that foster them.
The pipeline and incinerator were ultimately cancelled, and recently a law prohibiting coal ash deposits was approved, but today, as the summer protests’ dust settles, new EJ struggles continue to confront the destructive path of disaster-colonialism. This summer, as people in the streets demanded the resignation of Rosselló, the Planning Board published a national land-use zoning map that eliminated protections to hundreds of thousands of acres of existing agricultural and conservation lands. At the same time, the public electric utility PREPA presented a draft plan (PIRA), which proposes 4 new marine and terrestrial gas ports, gasification of all existing power plants, and construction of a new 200-mW gas plant –perpetuating our dependence on fossil fuels for 60+ years.
In both cases, coalitions of EJ organizations have been created to fight these plans. In the case of the zoning map, more than 60 environmental, agroecological, sovereignty, science, communitarian, and artist collectives joined to oppose the process. Some activists are calling it “a new Plan 2020” –situated in the context of the debt/housing/post-Maria disasters, special laws for attracting (vulture) investors and creating “opportunity zones” for them, the avalanche of federal ‘reconstruction’ funds (CDBG-DR), and a law that fast-tracks construction permit approvals. The map would legalize tourist-residential projects being opposed by EJ movements since the 1990s, and many new ones being advanced by these disaster-capitalists. The movement has denounced the corruption networks trying to displace us and steal and destroy these lands and the country. It also emphasizes our right to stay in place, and to protect our greatest source of life – land (Images 9-10). Multiple protests and media discussions have been held, and the pressures are having an effect: a legislative inquiry is in process, and governor Wanda Vazquez created a commission to review the process.
Self-assembly, autogestion and life alternatives
Events over the past two years have “opened eyes” not only about the disasters generated by the corrupt necropolitics of colonial-capitalism, but also the power of self-assembly and autogestion as part of a politics of life: in the “mutual aid” groups flourishing post-Maria, and in the creation of people’s assemblies (asambleas de pueblo), labelled a “shift from protest to proposal” of this summer’s movement (Villarubia-Mendoza and Velez-Velez, 2019). EJ movements show a long history of such dynamics between protest and the development of grassroots autogestion projects combining environmental protection, research and education, and solidarity economies (García López et al., 2018); in other words, moving between a politics of surviving/existing and a politics of thriving/re-existing.
Casa Pueblo was one of the pioneers in this. In confronting the mines and later the gasoducto, the main slogans of “the people has decided” and a “yes to forests/water/people” prefigured the idea of a sovereign people’s power – present in this summer’s slogan of “Ricky we fired you.” Casa Pueblo coupled these enunciations with concrete proposals of a “People’s Forest” (Massol González, 2019: 101-102) –a forest with and for the people– in the area of the mine, and a project of “communitarian autogestion” based on the principles of democratic self-government, self-sufficiency, social economies, and solidarity. Casa Pueblo saw this model as one of autonomous spaces (with “their own voice” and initiatives) to break the bonds of political dependency, manipulation and imposition, while transforming the country from below to create their/our “realizable utopia” – without waiting for change from above (Massol González, 2019: 129-141, 196). With this perspective, they developed coffee production and processing, a community store, ecotourism and forest-based education, music, cinema and radio station, and renewable energy. This performative praxis has challenged hegemonic common senses about community-economy-ecology, “living/performing a form of life that is not at the expense but rather in support of other (human and non-human) lives, a common(s) sense of life.” (García López et al., 2017).
After the victory against the gasoducto, Casa Pueblo expanded its focus on renewable energy, and in 2017, before Maria, launched the 50%conSol campaign, which proposed to transform 50% of residences in Puerto Rico to solar energy. Maria made this proposal more tangible and urgent in Adjuntas and across the island. Casa Pueblo developed a social base of more than 150 solar “oasis” in restaurants, small colmados (markets), and houses across all the barrios of Adjuntas, including people with special health conditions requiring electricity (many energy-dependent patients died after Maria across the island). In April 2019, they organized the “March of the Sun,” which mobilized thousands of people under the slogans of “Energy Insurrection, Resurrection of the Planet” and “For an energy future that is ours” (Images 11) – i.e. creating our own destiny from below. As Arturo Massol stated in the press conference, the march was meant to “affirm our destiny of a future of energy self-sufficiency” in the face of the government’s plans to perpetuate what he has called our “energy slavery” on fossil fuels. In the March, Casa Pueblo presented and validated with the crowd –in a sort of spontaneous assembly– their initiative to make Adjuntas the first fully solar town of Puerto Rico.
The Jobos Bay Eco-Development Initiative (IDEBAJO) has also been organizing autogestion projects for a long time, as part of their struggles against toxic industries in their region. In 2014, as a direct response to their successful opposition to a proposed offshore gas port, IDEBAJO began developing a community solar project (Coquí Solar) before hurricane Maria as a way to not only provide energy but also regenerate communal ties and provide employment to local youth (de Onís, 2018). After the hurricane, they continued with renewed emphasis with the solar project, adding also a solidarity housing reconstruction and an urban food garden. Roberto Thomas (2019), one of the leaders of IDEBAJO, explains that these autogestion projects, by generating new sources of livelihoods, seek to confront the doubly tragedy of people being dependent on working in what kills them, and not being mobilized to fight without a clear vision of an alternative. Yet autogestion is not only a localized involuted effort, but part of broader struggles for multi-scalar transformations: IDEBAJO, El Puente-ELAC, Sierra Club, PREPA workers’ union (UTIER), and CambioPR launched a coalition called Queremos Sol (We Want Sun), which elaborated a clear plan for a national renewable energy transition, centered on principles of participation, transparency, public governance and auditing of PREPA’s debt.
The agroecology movement has also been crucial in these politics of self-assembly and autogestion as an alternative to disaster colonialism: from struggles to protect farmlands and against transgenic crops, to building food sovereignty from below. As Casa Pueblo, a long history of self-organizing facilitated a response to Maria. Thus, immediately after the hurricane, Boricuá, the country’s main agroecology organization, began solidarity brigades across farms to support rebuilding infrastructure and crops, also integrating political trainings and other convivial activities (McCune et al., 2018). This was part of a grassroots-led “just recovery” strategy with the support of the US-based Climate Justice Alliance’s “Our Power Puerto Rico” campaign. This initiative sought to confront disaster capitalists seeking to make a killing after Maria, calling for a “Puerto Rico recovery designed by Puerto Ricans” (Yeampierre and Klein, 2017). It also demanded repealing local austerity policies and the colonial PROMESA and Jones acts, and approving a Just Recovery US Aid Package. As Jesús Vázquez of Boricuá explains, the objective of this is not a ‘recovery’ or reconstruction of the system that caused the disaster in the first place, but to have “systemic change, starting with our own communities and territories….For us, this work is resistance, as well as the solution we are seeking at the same time.” (in CJA, 2019)
The impetus of this “just recovery” frame has continued in the context of strong participation in this September’s global climate strike week (including a sit-in against the AES coal plant, a youth-led climate strike, and the 7th annual El Puente-ELAC “Climate Walk”); and a forum and gathering in October where a broad coalition of groups came together to discuss actions linking community struggles for just recovery with the climate emergency and ongoing debates about a Puerto Rican grassroots-led version of the “green new deal”.
These EJ movements had a confluence with many others in the streets this summer, actively participating in the protests – most visibly the anti-coal movement (Lloréns, this issue). Today, the influence of these movements can be observed in the people’s assemblies. In some of the assemblies, EJ organizations or activists are directly involved in organizing them --e.g. in Toa Baja, Toabajeños en Defensa del Ambiente, key in the struggle against the gasoducto. During the September Climate Strike week, one of the leaders of the Santurce assembly organized a “green assembly” and agroecological market, while another group organized a climate assembly (the same day of the 2nd assembly on the debt audit). Several people’s assemblies have created environmental committees and have organized discussions around the zoning map, the energy system, and agriculture and pesticides. The Assembly of Bayamon’s environmental committee has rescued a house to turn it into a community center and urban garden, while the Northeast (a region with a strong history of environmental organizing) and Santurce assemblies have organized mobilizations against the proposed zoning map.
Autogestion as decolonization and sovereignty “from below”
Since the debt crisis and then Maria, our colonial condition was inevitably in discussion this summer: “Ricky vete y llévate a la Junta” (Ricky go, and take the Junta [Fiscal Control Board] with you) was one of the slogans. The critique of colonialism was central to Puerto Rico’s EJ struggles from the beginning. Movement activists coined the concept of “environmental colonialism” to refer to the use of our territories as zones of extraction and wasting (Atiles-Osoria, 2014; Concepción, 1995). Corretjer –and later Casa Pueblo– linked the environmental destruction of mining with the destruction of the nation. The struggles for sovereignty were thus linked to those for sustaining socioecological territories –what Casa Pueblo has called the “geographic homeland.” Because the colonial matrix is based on creating a system of toxic-extraction which make us dependent precisely on what kills us, autogestion initiatives are understood by Casa Pueblo and other EJ groups as ways of re/producing the geographic homeland to sustain it as a viable place to live, and for generating concrete alternatives (“realizable utopias”) that can dismantle these relations of bondage.
After Maria, the politics of autogestion became a clear way to link basic survival with the need to break our colonial condition (Thomas, 2019). Against the “energy colonialism” that has polluted our airs/lands/waters/bodies, and that left us in the dark to die after Maria, Casa Pueblo proposes an “energy insurrection” for “energy sovereignty,” based in “community sovereignty.” They and others emphasize that breaking free from the toxic fossil cartel through our own initiatives creates the material freedom and demonstrates the possibility of a sovereign people and nation: they help “delink” from energy coloniality (de Onís, 2018). And agroecological activists use slogans such as “agroecology or death” and “our machete will liberate us,” transposing and transforming the slogans (“independence or death”) used by independence movements of the past.
We can thus call these efforts forms of “decolonization from below”: decolonizing concretely through actions that transform the socioecological relations of (re)production of the colony, particularly those tied to the basic needs of life: food, energy, water. Agroecology and community garden initiatives, community energy projects, and related solidarity economies can enact sovereignty in its multiple dimensions beyond national independence, and against the corrupt national electoral politics, by delinking from those material bonds. This is not only a material struggle but also a decolonization of discourses and imaginaries, a breaking of what activists call the “colonial blackmail”: the idea that we are too small, resource-poor and inept to govern and develop ourselves (Berman Santana, 1996). Longtime EJ activist Juan Rosario, reflecting on the challenge of confronting the blackmail, adds the “sovereignty of the spirit” – being able to take charge of one’s own governance and future. Thus the emphasis to “speak with our own voice,” a liberated voice that is not bound by hegemonic political-economic interests, and to demonstrate, with acts, what is possible to achieve, as empowered, liberated peoples: grow our own food, produce our own energy, make our own decisions, collectively, for the common good.
In sum, EJ movements are part of the longer and diverse tradition of resistance in the Puerto Rican archipelago which this summer to oust Roselló. They have contributed to the repertoires (strategies, frames) that were in display this summer, and afterwards. They have visibilized and confronted the projects of death/destruction/disaster/displacement/dispossession planned for Puerto Rico since the 1960s, showing the links to systemic corruption, capitalist accumulation, and colonialism. At the same time, they have showed the way to self-assembly, to enact through a praxis of alternative “projects of life,” based on autogestion, which integrate social justice and ecological sustainability, and the construction of sovereignties from below. They have thus reframed the struggle for survival and the hegemonic calls for ‘resilience’ into a resistance, and a re-existence, against-within-and-beyond the structures of the colonial disaster. The links between the EJ movements and the summer’s protests movements are evolving together now, as assemblies adopt EJ issues and organize their own protests and autogestion initiatives. Moving ahead, deeper intersecting and expanding the scope, scale and pace of this archipelago of alternatives will be needed to transcend the exterminating system we face.
The author thanks Joaquín Villanueva, Marisol LeBrón, Irina Velicu, and José Atiles Osoria for highly valuable feedback on earlier versions of this essay. The author’s work was supported by the Stimulus Program for Scientific Endeavors (CEEC) of the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT), under contract CEECIND / 04850/2017 / CP1402 / CT0010.
Other essays from this forum include:
Making Space for Decolonial Futures: An Editors’ Introduction, Joaquín Villanueva and Marisol LeBrón
La Calle Fortaleza in Puerto Rico’s Primavera de Verano, Aurora Santiago-Ortiz and Jorell Meléndez-Badillo
Summer 2019: The Great Racialized Puerto Rican Family Protesting in the Street Fearlessly, Bárbara I. Abadía-Rexach (a version of this article is also provided in Spanish)
Three Poems from the Summer 2019, Ana Portnoy Brimmer
The Public Reckoning: Anti-debt Futures After #RickyRenuncia, Sarah Molinari
Aguadilla, Decoloniality, and the Summer of ‘19, Pedro Lebrón Ortiz
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Gustavo Garcia-Lopez is a scholar-activist working on environmental justice movements and commoning initiatives’ contributions to creating more just and ecological worlds. He is Assistant Researcher at the Center for Social Studies, and the 2019-2021 Prince Claus Chair at the International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague. He is also an Associate Professor in environmental planning at the Graduate School of Planning, University of Puerto Rico- Rio Piedras (on leave). He is a co-founding member of the editorial collective of the Undisciplined Environments political ecology blog; and of JunteGente, a space of encounter of grassroots movements struggling against disaster capitalism and for another Puerto Rico possible in the aftermath of hurricane Maria.