Cloud over Puerto Rico Rain Forest

As development eats up the national park's buffer zone, advocates warn of dire implications

By Ray Quintanilla
Tribune staff reporter

March 20, 2006

CARIBBEAN NATIONAL FOREST, Puerto Rico -- The scent of flowering tropical plants fills the moist air amid a chorus of whistling birds and singing frogs. The only other sound for a mile in any direction is water crashing over a 100-foot falls.

Despite 28,000 acres of lovely scenes such as this, the tropical rain forest that Puerto Rico's prehistoric Taino Indians called "El Yunque" or "Land of the White Clouds" is struggling for survival. Thousands of surrounding acres of forests and green lands that insulate the only tropical rain forest in the USDA Forest Service
from development are being cleared at a torrid pace.

"This has got to be stopped, or what we are going to have very soon is irreversible damage to this wonderful rain forest," said Pablo Cruz, supervisor of the Caribbean National Forest.

"It would be a travesty for all Puerto Ricans and the millions of visitors who come here every year if development isn't put in check soon," Cruz added while assessing a large tract that a developer had begun clearing illegally.

El Yunque's future is caught between powerful forces: conservationists on the one hand, and on the other those who view lands surrounding the rain forest as among the last parcels of open space for development. Puerto Rico's government relies on construction jobs to ease a 12 percent unemployment rate on this section of the island.

There are consequences to clearing these lands, beyond harm to hundreds of rare plants and wildlife in El Yunque. The rain forest, located 25 miles east of metropolitan San Juan, provides one-third of the island's fresh drinking water.

"This deforestation is not the fault of any one governor or government on the island," said Jesus Chinea, a professor of ecology at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez. "It's all of them.

They all want to create jobs, but look at what this is doing to the rain forest. The changes around the rain forest in the last five years alone are pretty shocking."

Chinea said a quirk in Puerto Rico law enables developers to begin clearing land before obtaining building permits. That is adding to the rapid pace of development approaching the rain forest, he said.

Puerto Rico Senate President Kenneth McClintock said environmental groups must not be allowed to scuttle development of two hotels slated to be built within 2 miles of the Caribbean National Forest.

The island still is reeling from job losses it suffered when the U.S. government closed Roosevelt Roads Naval Station here two years ago.

"The environmentalists have to work together with developers. There's no other option. Period," McClintock said. Without the new hotels, Puerto Rico's tourism economy will suffer and that could lead to more job losses, he said.

A Puerto Rico land-use report released last spring showed that in the three decades since the island set aside about 30,000 acres surrounding El Yunque as secondary forest and green space, more than 50 percent now has construction on it. That development includes several hotels, a golf course and dozens of condominium complexes with spectacular views of the rain forest.

A crucial buffer zone

Cruz, the Caribbean National Forest supervisor, said the buffer zone insulates the forest from fires and provides an important barrier protecting wildlife and plants from habitat change. Cruz said it also ensures that the flow of water through the forest is not altered. The Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority says the
island cannot afford to lose any of the 100 billion gallons of drinking water El Yunque produces annually.

Tropical forests such as El Yunque constitute about 6 percent of Earth's surface and account for 50 percent to 80 percent of the world's plant species. Rain forests once covered 14 percent of the planet's land surface, but development and deforestation have cut that by more than half.

Some of the development has arrived within 30 feet of El Yunque's main entrance.

"I'd like to think we live in harmony with El Yunque," said Martha Herrera, 69, who bought a two-story house next to the rain forest a decade ago.

"Some people say I'm hurting El Yunque. But how am I hurting anything?" she asked as her three dogs and a flock of chickens in her back yard roamed in and out of the park one recent morning.

About a quarter-mile away, construction crews were pouring concrete and rushing to finish a 20-acre condominium complex.

"People who buy these units want the views of the rain forest," said Hecter Ramirez, 35, a construction worker at the site. "I have a job. That's important to my family and me. People tell me this isn't doing to damage anything."

Another worker, Marco Colon, 30, offered a similar observation: "Don't come in here trying to take my job. Who is going to feed my family if I lose this job?"

The future of tropical rain forests holds great importance for everyone, not just the people of Puerto Rico.

Riches used in medicine

The National Institute of Health says more than 60 percent of the anti-cancer drugs in use today are derived from natural sources such as those found in rain forests. Those drugs, including taxol, have proved effective in treating breast and ovarian cancer in millions of women around the world. Similar agents in rain forests hold great promise to one day treat AIDS and scores of other medical conditions, officials said.

El Yunque is home to 240 native tree species--more than in any other national forest. Federally listed endangered plants grow in the forest, too, such as the miniature orchid and palo de jazmin.

Endangered wildlife species include the Puerto Rican sharp-shinned and broad-winged hawks, the Puerto Rican boa and the island's own parrot, one of the most vulnerable bird species listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. Within 500 years, these bright green parrots in Puerto Rico have dropped in number to fewer than 50 from about 1million.

To protect the rain forest, Luis Fortuno, the island's non-voting representative in the U.S. House, won approval for the Caribbean National Forest Act last year. It designates nearly 10,000 acres of El Yunque as off-limits to construction.

"Development around the forest continues to threaten the biodiversity and the balance of the ecosystem of the forest," Fortuno said. "Due to the inaction of the local government, it is necessary that Congress create a mechanism to protect this national treasure."