Big Turnout at Key Meeting Proves Pivotal to Puerto Rico Victory
The Club's Puerto Rico Chapter won a huge victory the last week of June when Governor Luis Fortuño signed a law protecting 1,950 acres of the island's Northeast Ecological Corridor (NEC) as a nature reserve, sparing the Corridor from massive proposed resort development in one of the most important nesting grounds on earth for the endangered Leatherback sea turtle.
Victories like this don't happen overnight. The Puerto Rico Chapter has been working to protect the NEC since the chapter's inception in 2005—in fact, Sierra Club activists on the Isle of Enchantment have been working to protect the Corridor for more than 15 years, ever since two megaresorts were proposed by Marriott International and Four Seasons Resorts in 1996.
Over this time, Puerto Rico Sierra Club activists collected thousands of petition signatures, put on the Festival del Tinglar (Leatherback Turtle Festival) six years in a row, led tours of the Corridor, lobbied the state legislature, and turned out citizens in big numbers for rallies and public hearings.
Key to the eventual victory was the ability of the Sierra Club and its coalition partners to turn out more than 500 citizens to a critical public hearing on the fate of the NEC in February 2011. (The Sierra Club was a founding member of the Northeast Ecological Corridor Coalition.)
We'll let Puerto Rico Chapter organizer Camilla Feibelman, above at right, tell the story:
On Saturday, February 5, 2011, the Sierra Club of Puerto Rico, together with our coalition partners, got 533 people to turn out to the state government's public hearings on the proposed fragmentation of the Northeast Ecological Corridor. Our goal was to turn out 500 citizens, and we exceeded that by 33 people.
From our database of 25,000 people we pulled names from the towns of Luquillo and Fajardo, two communities near the Corridor, and called as many of them as we could over the course of five or six call nights. We also called people who had received our kids' presentation on Leatherback sea turtles and the NEC, or who had gone on an excursion in the Corridor. We invited all of the artisans, businesspeople, and schools that have participated in our Leatherback Turtle Festival.
In order to populate our call nights with volunteers, we put each of our teams in charge of one particular night. One night was the kids' presentation team, another night our membership committee, another night was our Sierra Student Coalition group, another night the excursions committee, etc. Then on the final day we called all the "yeses."
We then held a series of lead-up events to the hearing, including a community breakfast on the street, and excursions to the Corridor with upwards of 80 people. We conducted a morning phone-calling campaign to our local talk radio shows and supplemented them with a couple of purchased radio spots. We paid for a week of announcements on what's called a "tumbacoco" (so loud it knocks the coconuts of the tree)—a car with speakers on top to announce the event. We also handed out flyers and put up posters in several neighborhoods.
The day of the hearing was amazing. We organized a demonstration of fifty people at the base of the building. At 10 o'clock we marched up seven flights of stairs, chanting together. We then walked into the hearing room together silently, with our placards raised. The room was packed and we had to rent an additional one hundred chairs to accommodate the crowd. An amazing array of people testified, and we generated a significant amount of earned media.
Much more work remained to be done, but this show of support at this particular juncture was critical. The following spring, the Puerto Rico House and Senate both unanimously passed a bill protecting the Corridor, with both local parties joining in their entirety as co-authors. And on June 25, 2012, the governor, recognizing the depth and breadth of public support for protecting the Corridor, signed the bill into law, protecting 1,950 public acres of the NEC as a nature reserve.
This victory is proof that when people participate in government they can make true change. The people spoke and the governor had to listen.