GRANDE, Puerto Rico — The El Yunque rain forest is unique in at least three ways. First, at only 28,000 acres, it holds one of the
most biodiverse ecosystems on earth. Second, perhaps as an antithesis to the
preceding attribute, it is a case study of escalating conflicts fomented, as it
were, by urban-rural interface and manifested in strained relationships between
environmentalists and developers. Third,
it is a laboratory in its own right for testing applications of
forest-management practices—with a view toward ascertaining their relevance to
the tropics at large.
In the conversation that
follows, Forest Supervisor Pablo Cruz sheds light on the social conflicts that
bedevil the forest and on the inherent contradictions of managing a forest
whose very existence has major implications for tropical forestry at the global
Q: What does the Caribbean National Forest (CNF) do to foster sustainability?
foster sustainability in two ways. First,
since I do not have the authority to work outside the [Forest Service’s]
National Forest System (NFS). I work with the Commonwealth of Puerto
Rico to maintain
vital ecosystem’s by planning, educating and providing technical assistance,
and to ensure that any mutual decisions we make are the right ones.
Second, when private lands
border the forest, we help the landowners understand the importance of
maintaining sustainability. It’s all
about influence. As you know some people
are only interested in profiting from development and have little or no respect
for ecosystem sustainability.
Are you comfortable
with how much has been accomplished so far?
At the moment, we have
problems with community outreach. Since
the National Forest System has a limited budget, we have no funds available for
private lands projects. The NFS does
have some state and private funds available through the International Institute
of Tropical Forestry [IITF], but they are very limited. However, we are working hard to become more
involved in our surrounding communities.
What parallels do you
draw between your work on the CNF and in the State Department of Natural and
The International Institute
of Tropical Forestry manages state and private programs for the Forest Service
in Puerto Rico; it is involved more with state lands and less with federal
IITF works very closely with
the Commonwealth Department of Natural and Environmental Resources [DNER] on many
of the same things that I’d like to work on.
It establishes community relations and engages in programs that I have
to improvise on my own without funding. However,
we have initiated a process to directly involve both IITF and the Department of Natural
Resources in collaboration with the CNF to find solutions to our rural-urban interface
I provide assistance by reaching
out to communities and influencing landowners through nongovernmental organizations
(NGOs) with which I establish Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs). These agreements map out both my responsibilities
and theirs and we are able to get a lot done.
But I must walk a very fine line here, because I cannot allocate NFS
money for private land use.
In what ways do social, economic, and
environmental forces, separately, present challenges to this island’s
sustainable management of its natural resources?
Urbanization is creating a
huge social impact on communities near the forest. Earlier, we had rural
settings and rural land values in communities next to the forest. Now, a new
and different set of urban values is beginning to replace those rural
values. Urbanization, particularly the
rural-urban interface, has created huge conflicts between urban and rural value
Another social problem is
related to economics—unemployment on the island is 15 percent. Compared with unemployment on other Caribbean
islands, that’s low. But we are located on the northeast end of the island,
where a naval base that was one of our chief
sources of employment was closed about two years ago, resulting in a 25
percent increase in unemployment in the northeastern corridor. As a consequence, we have seen an increase in
crime, and in the sale and use of drugs in neighboring communities.
forces, there is a huge polarization between environmentalists and developers
here. National environmental groups such
as the Sierra Club and Greenpeace have affiliations here. So we are not excluded from all the
environmental politics from the mainland.
There’s an ongoing battle between environmentalists and developers and
they both converge in government. The
environmentalists, the developers, and the government typically work at
cross-purposes. Whoever can influence any
or all of those three camps can usually get their desires or plans implemented.
Puerto Rico has always had a sustainable development policy. But polarization creates a lot of problems
and government does not do a good job in consolidating both development and
How do you help developers use open spaces
in a sustainable manner?
As I said, there’s a conflict
between environmentalists and developers.
We’ve worked with the Commonwealth [of Puerto Rico] to create laws that will encourage a more prudent and wise
management of resources. And we’re
effecting a change between how developers formerly did business and how they
are doing it now and hopefully into the future.
How important is interagency collaboration
The only way to survive in
light of dwindling resources is to collaborate with other agencies. We do have a coalition of federal
agencies—e.g., the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service—and we meet quarterly to try to combine our resources to maximize land
management. For example, in the
eco-management of St.
John in the
neighboring U.S. Virgin Islands, we have a unified command to work on all-risk
emergency response problems as well as on budgetary crises. But most of the work entails pooling our
resources in a cohesive manner.
We cannot maintain
of national forests
like green islands.