Artist, writer, and naturalist Javier A. Román-Nieves on the struggle to preserve one of the last undeveloped stretches of coastline on the island.
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Playuela is among the few undeveloped strips of land remaining in the northwestern tip of Puerto Rico. From cemented sand dunes and limestone, water has carved an unmistakable landscape of secluded coves with mostly rocky beaches that border a coastal valley of green pastures dotted with palm trees. The once-heavily cultivated scenery is nowadays set to a background of coastal second-growth forests lining cave-ridden karstic slopes that shield Playuela from the urban noise—a barrier also effective against light pollution. At night, the rolling waves of its surfing spots are clearly lit by the stars and the moon, which rises there above the greenery instead of upon a concrete-laden landscape.
The rural character of its closest neighborhood and its unique topography isolated Playuela from development until the 1990s, when initial plans for a multi-million dollar resort occupying 140 acres of underused farmlands were first drawn. Until then, the place was mostly known to locals and to the international surfing community. Residents have used its coastline, trails, and pastures for as long as anyone can remember. Surfers have treasured its world-class waves for almost as long as the sport has been practiced on the island. While the initial development plans never took off, in late 2016 heavy machinery and soil movement operations began on some of the private properties where the project is sited. Together, neighbors, surfers, and environmental organizations erupted in an uproar. Passive protests quickly escalated into civil disobedience, with charges being pushed against those arrested and legal actions taken to court in an attempt to stop the project.
Playuela was a conservation movement that took full advantage of new technologies and social media. Its mobilization of public opinion to conserve the lands in their present state was so effective because of this. Yet the struggle soon reverted into the ages-old gridlock over questions of how we should best use our resources, who gets to decide, and how these collective decisions clash with other human constructs like “private property.”
Between the months of December 2016 and April of 2017, I had the privilege of spending several nights and days at the Campamento Rescate Playuela (Playuela Rescue Camp). As with many other Puerto Ricans who joined the cause, my incursion in the campsite began as a gesture of solidarity but I quickly got involved in supporting the movement through photographic documentation and bird species identification. By then, the demands of the Campamento were not only about securing public access to the coastline—which is guaranteed by the Puerto Rican constitution—but had become much broader, including concerns for endangered species, fragile ecosystems, and water resources.
As with other techno-political movements, this one simmered down during its protracted legal battle. The landowner and the developers also seemed to have lost steam along with it. Today the presence of the campsite seems more symbolic than anything else. However, it succeeded in delegating its watchful eye to the members of a broader community that now stands in constant vigilance over Playuela. With the same pattern of development pressure and local resistance repeating across Puerto Rico, the ongoing struggle to save Playuela is poised to repeat itself all over again.