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October 21, 2013

Puerto Rico Environmental Hero Receives Conde Nast Traveler Award

Luis Jorge Rivera Herrera engaging police officers at protest for the protection of the NEC
Luis Jorge Rivera Herrera engages rangers at a peaceful protest in the Northeast Ecological Corridor.

The historic campaign that secured the permanent protection of 3,000 acres of Puerto Rico's Northeast Ecological Corridor showed the world the power of grassroots activism. It couldn't have happened without those who played key roles in ensuring the area's protection for future generations.

One of those key people, Sierra Club member and local environmental leader Luis Jorge Rivera-Herrera, today received Conde Nast Traveler's Environmental Award, an honor that recognizes remarkable activists from all across the globe.

Luis jorge"I am honored to receive this award on behalf of all the individuals and organizations that belong to the Coalition for the Northeast Ecological Corridor, whose strong commitment and partnership made possible the designation of this extraordinary area as a nature reserve," he said.

The Northeast Ecological Corridor, and its jaw-dropping natural beauty, sits at the foothills of El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico. Corals, lagoons, wetlands, leatherback sea turtles, and 50 threatened and endangered species all call it home. When plans emerged to pave over the area with mega-resorts, golf courses, and thousands of luxury homes, the grassroots responded with a fight that Luis Jorge helped lead.

His roots in environmental causes run deep. As a kid he spent time with his dad and brothers on a coconut farm in Piñones, west of the town of Loiza. Eventually the government expropriated the land to build a water treatment plant. Luis Jorge witnessed workers cutting down the palm trees to make room for the plant, something that upset and inspired him at a young age.

In college he started planting Ceiba trees -- they are illegal to cut down in Puerto Rico -- in tin cans. He'd then replant them in strategic places around the San Juan Metropolitan area, an act that earned him recognition in the local newspaper. He went on to study environmental science as an undergraduate and environmental planning as a graduate student.

During his college years, he worked at the Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico’s Las Cabezas de San Juan Nature Reserve as one of his first jobs providing tours on the area’s coastal dry forest and mangroves to local people and tourists.

After graduating from college, he worked as an environmental scientist for the US Environmental Protection Agency sponsored San Juan Bay Estuary Program. It was during that time that he became aware of the threats facing the NEC from proposed mega resorts. He and a colleague, today’s head of the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, Carmen Guerrero Pérez, then moved to create an organization, Iniciativa para un Desarrollo Sustentable, to provide free, volunteer consulting services to local communities opposing these and other massive construction projects affecting other coastal areas in the island.

Luis Jorge has been involved with every part of the campaign to protect the Corridor since 1999, from identifying and solidifying support outside the area, to helping organize events and grassroots action. In 2009, when then-governor at Luis Fortuño sided with developers and removed Corridor protections put in place a year before his election, Luis Jorge helped campaign leaders draw hundreds of people to protests and public hearings. Finally, Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla signed into law the Corridor's protection earlier this year, putting an end to almost 15 years of fighting.

But the effort to preserve this natural gem is not over. Luis Jorge plans to donate the $1,000 from the Conde Nast Traveler award to the Corridor's coalition to make sure protections stay intact.

Leatherback nestling on its way to the ocean

"Our work is not done, though, as we still need to purchase remaining private lands and develop the adjacent town as a gateway to ecotourism. As such, we are launching a fundraising campaign with the prize money granted by Conde Nast Traveler, and ask all those who are committed to the conservation and enjoyment of our natural environment to donate to this effort and support us in achieving our vision for the Corridor," he said.

For more information and to donate to this great cause, visit the Sierra Club's Puerto Rico Chapter

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