Islands & Island Nations 2002


Alexis Massol-González

Puerto Rico
Forests

 

The Recipient
A civil engineer by training, Alexis Massol-González, 58, is the founder and director of Casa Pueblo of Adjuntas, Puerto Rico, a self-managed community organization that proposes and develops plans to protect the environment, affirm cultural and human values, and create sustainable economic alternatives.
The Setting
The small mountain town of Adjuntas is known as La Ciudad del Gigante Dormido/City of the Sleeping Giant for the mountain formation of that name. The city sits amid higher peaks of Puerto Rico's central mountain range, which includes peaks as high as 3,900 ft., the highest on the island. The mountains are covered with tropical forests, including gigantic ferns and philodendrons and pockets of orchids and bromeliads.
The Threats
The mountains of central Puerto Rico are rich with deposits of copper, silver and gold. In the late 1970s, the Puerto Rican government approved a plan to develop mining operations across more than 35,000 acres of mountain terrain, including the region of Adjuntas. In 1980 and again in 1993, permits were granted for open-pit mining operations that would have spread pollution and toxic residues into the forests and rivers. The ecological integrity of thousands of acres of mountain forests and the purity of the mountain headwaters were at risk.
Struggles and Success
In response to the mining concessions granted by the government in 1980, Massol-González organized Casa Pueblo to educate the communities and mobilize them in a fight to stop the destruction of Puerto Rico's central mountains. These mountains are home to the rivers that supply water to more than a million residents. In 1986, after a grassroots community campaign, the government decided to reject the mining proposal. However, in 1993 the government again granted mining permits. Casa Pueblo launched an even broader-based and intense campaign uniting the environmental, scientific, student, cultural and religious sectors. In response to the strong opposition, Puerto Rico's governor signed a law prohibiting open-pit mining in the region. To protect the area from future development, Massol-González urged that the area be declared a preserve. In the course of a hard-fought campaign, Casa Pueblo was able to win public support throughout the country. In 1996, the governor signed a measure that officially converted 303 hectares (748 acres) into a forest reserve, later named Bosque del Pueblo (People's Forest).
The establishment of Bosque del Pueblo is a significant environmental advancement in Puerto Rico. For the first time in the island's history, a community is in charge of managing a government-owned reserve. It also was the first time in 50 years that a region was designated protected at the initiative of a community-based group. The leadership of Massol-González in this campaign has led to a new model of community and government collaboration. The reserve is locally run, and Casa Pueblo has developed opportunities to involve scientists, specialists, artists, young people, and adults who volunteer their labor in virtually every aspect of the forest's management. The cultural significance of the forest is incorporated into the ecologically sustainable activities that take place within it. Local volunteers lead walking tours and offer visitors educational programs on environmental and cultural topics. Ecologically friendly cabins are available for visiting organizations. In 2001, Massol-González and Casa Pueblo developed the Bosque's newest program, the community butterfly garden. Casa Pueblo partnered with the people of Adjuntas as well as local universities to cultivate plant habitats that would increase the Bosque's butterfly population. The butterfly garden is used for youth environmental education and has increased tourism to Bosque del Pueblo as well.
The conservation management plan of the reserve, developed by Massol-González, has provided a model for other Puerto Rican and Caribbean communities working to establish co-managed forest reserves. In addition, there are plans to designate the Bosque del Pueblo a U.N. Biosphere Reserve, increase its area, establish a research station and begin restoration projects where necessary.
Massol-González and Casa Pueblo of Adjuntas have incorporated sustainable practices into Casa Pueblo's solar-powered building, the organization's headquarters, and a community and cultural center. In keeping with its philosophy of economic self-sufficiency, Casa Pueblo produces shade-grown coffee that it markets under the Madre Isla name.


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