The New York Times:
A Golden Opportunity for Vieques to Be Green
July 26, 2003


When the United States Navy officially stopped its bombing exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques in May, the 9,000 islanders were overjoyed. After for more than 60 years of using Vieques for target practice and occupying two-thirds of the island, the Navy was going, leaving behind a priceless gift: 16,000 acres of untouched land that could make Vieques an unparalleled site for Caribbean eco-tourism. If development isn't handled wisely, however — and recent plans for projects aren't encouraging — Vieques may one day be nostalgic for the era of Navy occupation.

That land left behind by the Navy has rolling, forested hills that rise out of the blue Caribbean. The magnificent white-sand beaches are almost deserted. With the exodus of the Navy, this area has become a national wildlife refuge, one of the largest in the Caribbean. 

Next to the reserve is a ecological treasure, the Bioluminescent Bay, which sparkles at night because of microorganisms that glow as sea creatures brush against them — human swimmers feel as if they're floating among the stars. The area is all the more precious because the similar bays in the Caribbean have been destroyed by pollution.

The immediate issue that Vieques has to confront is two proposed projects, both promoted by the Puerto Rican government, that would threaten the bay and the commonwealth's 1,200-acre Bio-Bay Nature Reserve that surrounds it. The first is a recreational village, the second is a fisherman's wharf. Both proposals have been greeted by protests from residents, many of whom make a living catering to the relatively small number of visitors who have braved Vieques despite the bombing runs.

The first project, a "Village in the Park" to be built directly on the beach, would prevent turtles from nesting, disrupt bird sanctuaries and sacrifice acres of mangrove to new roads and parking places. 

Similar "villages" on the main island of Puerto Rico have been ecological and social disasters, and are known as havens for noisy parties and drug dealing. This development would also create mainly temporary jobs and would compete with the small innkeepers and local families who rent rooms to budget-conscious visitors.

The second project, the wharf, would use nature reserve land for an industrial fish-processing complex with a pier and a gas station. Gasoline spills and the remains of fish cleaning would pollute the waters of a beautiful bay nearby and attract sharks and barracuda to a shallow swimming area that is now a paradise for children. The stench and the pollution would discourage tourism in the neighboring village, Esperanza.

There are alternative locations for the projects, and the commonwealth needs only the political will to move both projects to suitable locations. The recreational village could be built on oceanfront land owned by the local municipality elsewhere. The wharf could be built on the Esperanza waterfront at a site fishermen have used for 20 years.

The longer-term problem for Vieques, though, is how to preserve the environment while encouraging sustainable development. Proper planning — taking into account residents' desires and environmental concerns — could transform an island that has suffered years of economic stagnation. Vieques has all the prerequisites to become a prime eco-tourist destination.

Indeed, there are several eco-tourism projects under way or planned for Vieques. A handful of small inns and resorts whose builders are trying to be sensitive to their surroundings are being planned. Other businesses are seeking to encourage organic farming. These projects hold the promise of providing long-term jobs while preserving, and in some cases improving, the environment. This is the sort of development that the government should support.

Puerto Rico's governor, Sila Calderón, proclaimed that the Navy's withdrawal was "the beginning of a new era of peace and prosperity for Vieques." To make this vision become a reality, the island needs to adopt a long-range policy that prevents the destruction of natural habitat and rewards ecologically smart development.

For Vieques, partly protected from crude development by an accident of history, the environment is its greatest asset. The Navy's gift shouldn't be squandered.

John Todd, professor of ecological design at the University of Vermont, is co-author of "From Eco-Cities to Living Machines: Ecology as the Basis for Design."