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April 23, 2013

Victory in Puerto Rico -- Northeast Ecological Corridor Protected


The Puerto Rico Sierra Club celebrated the biggest victory in the chapter's eight-year history on April 13 when Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla, above, signed a law permanently protecting 3,000 acres of the island's Northeast Ecological Corridor (NEC) from development.


"This measure was passed unanimously by both house of the state legislature and represents 15 years of work by the community," said Sierra Club organizer and longtime NEC champion Camilla Feibelman, below at microphone with the governor. "Permanent protection of this incredible natural treasure is the best possible birthday gift for the chapter, which celebrated its eighth anniversary in January."

Next to Feibelman in the red hat is Angel Berrios, a community leader in the Coalition to Protect the Northeast Ecological Corridor, of which the Sierra Club was a founding member.


Among the Sierra Club activists who have fought longest and hardest for protection of the NEC is Carmen Guerrero Perez, who was nominated and sworn in by Governor Padilla this January as Puerto Rico's Secretary of Natural and Environmental Resources. That's Perez below at right, celebrating the victory.


The signing took place at the Eighth Annual Leatherback Turtle Festival (Festival del Tinglar), an event put on by the Sierra Club and the Coalition for the NEC in the town of Luquillo, the "gateway" community to the NEC.


"Today, with the signing of this law, we honor and acknowledge the respect that this natural reserve deserves," Governor Padilla said at the signing ceremony.

Puerto Rico environmentalists, including many who would join the Sierra Club's newest chapter when it was officially formed in 2005, have fought for 15 years against plans by developers to build two mega-resorts, four golf courses, and 4,500 luxury homes in the Corridor.


"We're extremely pleased that the NEC is finally protected by law," Feibelman told the El Nuevo Dia newspaper. "We've always had support from the three political parties, but there have been obstacles along the way. With the governor's signature, we are finally fully protecting the NEC as a Nature Reserve."


Protecting the Northeast Ecological Corridor, which features every ecosystem found in Puerto Rico, has been the chapter's top priority from the get-go. The Corridor includes the United States' only tropical rainforest, a bioluminescent lagoon, and is home to nearly 900 types of flora and fauna, including 50 rare, endemic, or threatened species. Scientists recently spotted a limpkin, a large bird with an unusual walk that had last been seen in the 1950s.


The NEC's pristine beaches are also one of the most important nesting grounds in the U.S. for the federally endangered Leatherback sea turtle, largest of the world's sea turtles. In high season, female leatherbacks lay eggs in hundreds of nests that they carve out on the NEC's beaches.


Former governor Anibel Acevedo Vila issued an executive order in 2007 to protect the Corridor, declaring it off-limits to all but small, eco-friendly development. But his successor, Luis Fortuno, revoked Vila's order and issued a new one allowing large-scale development just north of the El Yunque National Forest, outside the official boundary of the NEC. However, thanks largely to a groundswell of public opposition led by the Sierra Club and the Coalition, developers were unable to obtain permits to begin construction.

With the election of Governor Padilla last November and his swearing in this January, the predisposition of the governor's office shifted yet again. The Puerto Rico Senate and House of Representatives both unanimously approved the new legislation protecting the Corridor in March, and Padilla intentionally chose the Festival del Tinglar, below, as a symbolically important place to sign the bill into law.


Below, local Sierra Club volunteers at the 2013 Festival del Tinglar.


"This is so exciting," Angie Colon, a leader with the Coalition, told the Associated Press the day of the signing. "I'm still coming to terms with the fact that this is real." Colon said the government still has to purchase private land to complete the designated Nature Reserve, as about 35 percent of the protected land in the NEC is privately-owned.

Environmental groups envision the new Nature Reserve as a complement to El Yunque, and will promote hiking, biking, bird-watching, and offer guided tours to the bioluminescent lagoon and to watch hatching sea turtles. They will also work with the towns of Luquillo and Las Croabas to resuscitate their city centers by developing an ecotourism economy and promoting the towns as "community portals" to the Corridor.

Below, the El Yunque rainforest.


Feibelman gives a shout-out to fellow Puerto Rico activists Luis Jorge Rivera Herrera and Carmen Guerrero Perez, Sierra Club environmental justice and community partnerships director Leslie Fields, and "the amazing, dedicated members of the Puerto Rico Chapter of the Sierra Club and all our partners in the Corridor Coalition for this outstanding victory -- the result of many years of movement-building and struggle."

Send a thank-you message to Governor Padilla for his role in sealing this victory.

Viva la Isla del Encanto! Viva el Corredor Ecológico del Noreste!

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