Carmelo Ruiz

(San Juan, Puerto Rico, Jan. 28 1999) Right in the middle of the San Juan metro area, next to the border between San Juan and the high-income suburban town of Guaynabo, lies a lonely hill with a large Puerto Rico Telephone Company antenna on its top.

That lonely hill is the subject of a high-powered environmental dispute. On the one hand, the surrounding communities want to preserve it as a green lung, an urban forest, “an emerald in a sea of concrete”, as they call it. On the other hand, the Puerto Rico Housing Department, current owner of that piece of land, intends to sell it to developers who want to build condominiums and suburbs there.

Known as Mount San Patricio, this hill is the northern edge of a 53-acre forest.

In recent decades, Puerto Rico’s urban explosion has destroyed countless natural resources. Wetlands have been paved; mangrove forests have been razed to make way for resorts; and hills have been levelled to make room for shopping malls and parking lots.

But pockets of green have survived. Such is the case of the San Patricio forest, as the neighbours have named it.

The San Patricio forest is a reminder of a not too distant past: when Mount San Patricio was part of a non-stop chain of hills that stretched tens of miles to north central Puerto Rico, and when the nearby San Patricio shopping mall was a cattle farm.

In the forties and fifties, the San Patricio forest was a United States military base with housing and other facilities. Before the fifties ended, the base was closed and was left to the mercies of vandals.  Eventually the abandoned structures were demolished at the request of the community, which perceived them as a magnet for hooligans and drug addicts.

The debris was never removed. In any case it’s invisible now because the forest  has reclaimed the land. The former military base is now home to enormous trees of native species such as guanacaste, acacia and flamboyan, rare endangered snakes, and birds such as the guaraguao.

In March of last year, residents of the area formed Citizens for the San Patricio Forest (Ciudadanos Pro Bosque San Patricio) in order to preserve the forest and develop it as a community resource.

“This forest is an invaluable community ecological resource. It is one of the few green lungs in the capital city, and it mitigates the heating effect of cement and car traffic”, says university professor, local resident and CSPF spokesperson Mary Axtman.

“The San Patricio forest has the effect of an enormous air conditioning system, and it also reduces the effects of dust and noise pollution”, says a CSPF press release.

The group is currently working to establish alliances and consortia with educational institutions, to and institutionalise and formalise the participation and commitment of nearby communities. It also plans to design educational programs and materials, and to recruit private business firms as sponsors of the forest’s conservation.

The CSPF has received scientific advice from experts from local public and private universities, the city government of San Juan, the PR Department of Natural Resources and the United States Forest Service. Over 6000 signatures have been collected for a petition calling for the forest’s conservation.

“This is an exceptionally stable community. I’ve been living here for forty years, and very few families have moved out of here in all this time”, says 75 year-old Paquita Santiago, who climbs up Mount San Patricio every day.

The PR House of Representatives is expected in the next few weeks to vote on a bill that will insure the preservation of the San Patricio forest. The bill, introduced on October 9 of last year, orders the pertinent government agencies to freeze construction permits in the forest area.

But the environmentalists fear that if it is approved by the legislature, governor Pedro Rossells might side with the Housing Department and veto the bill, or that he might make amendments to the bill and thus weaken it.

“This is a historical moment to decide which quality of life we want to leave as a legacy to our children”, says Axtman.




Controversy is an inherent, often constructive and innovative part of democracy.

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