Caño Martín Peña: A Case Study in Community Action
To the Rescue of an Estuarine Ecosystem.
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Introduction: From Resistance to Proposal
The case of Caño Martín Peña is a story of the rescue and restoration of an almost completely lost natural resource, with the aim of integrating public spaces and green areas into the highly populated urban communities that surround it. Caño Martín Peña's Proyecto ENLACE (ENLACE Project) was proposed by grassroots community activists in order to further the integral development of their communities, including the restoration of the blocked body of water and the provision of basic infrastructure. The project combines two aspects of environmental struggle: the fight for basic services, and the fight against environmental degradation resulting from economic exploitation; in addition to the fight for the restoration of a neglected urban ecosystem. Re-establishing connection between the eastern and western waters of the San Juan Bay Estuary through dredging the Caño, is a vital contribution to the rehabilitation of the estuary, one of the most important ecosystems in the metropolitan area.
Caño Martín Peña: The Dividing Line between Santurce and Hato Rey is also the Thread that Brings Us Together
Originally, the Caño Martín Peña, a natural body of water approximately four miles long, measured between 200 and 400 feet wide, and connected the San Juan Bay to the west with the San José Lagoon to the east. The Lagoon, in turn, connects the rest of the San Juan Bay Estuary to its other access to the sea at Boca de Cangrejos. During the first half of the 20th century the combined effect of the fall of the agricultural industry in the 1930s and the industrial economic development project Operation Bootstrap in the 1940s started waves of internal migration from the countryside to the city. Since the state was unable to meet the growing need for housing in the city, the families themselves, in conjunction with the state, started filling in the marshlands bordering the estuary to forge a space to live. By 1956, most of the wetlands and even part of the body of water had been filled, while strong social networks and community cohesion developed in the process.
Today, the eastern segment of Caño Martín Peña, which separates Barrio Obrero in Santurce to the north from Hato Rey to the south, barely reaches 100 feet wide and 5 feet deep at its widest point under the historic Martín Peña Bridge. Closer to the Laguna San José to the east, the Caño continues to lose width and depth, coming close to severing the connection. The feasibility of crossing El Caño on foot from north to south in several segments is proof of the almost complete lack of water exchange between the San Juan Bay and the San José Lagoon. The existing blockage prevents the circulation of water, affecting the quality of the ecosystem and the management of surface water in the city. In addition to the physical blockage in the Caño Martín Peña, thousands of structures, homes, and businesses from the nearby areas discharge their wastewater directly into the already degraded body of water through the storm sewer system. The lack of infrastructure results in wastewater overflowing the streets, houses, and schools, putting at risk the health and safety of thousands of human beings.
The Genesis of Proyecto ENLACE: From Engineering to Social and Environmental Justice
The eight communities located on the banks of the Martín Peña Canal are: Parada 27, Las Monjas, Buena Vista Santurce, Israel-Bitumul, Western Barrio Obrero and San Ciprián, Barrio Obrero Marina, Buena Vista Hato Rey and Península de Cantera. For decades—and despite their important contribution to the island's cultural and economic life—the communities of El Caño had remained invisible to social development and environmental protection initiatives. The proposals pushed forward by the government and the private sector for the improvement of El Caño entailed the displacement of the surrounding communities. In 2001, a maritime transport project from the Departamento de Transportación y Obras Públicas (Department of Transportation and Public Works, DTOP) proposed dredging El Caño. Proyecto ENLACE was able to reorient this initiative to the development of the communities surrounding El Caño, making the need to address the social and structural conditions that led to the environmental degradation of this body of water visible. The goal of dredging the canal gave momentum to the existing civil participation, and led to the emergence of new organizational structures such as the Group of the Eight Communities Surrounding Caño Martín Peña, Inc. (G8). Now a leading entity, the eight communities, with their respective organizations and community boards, have come together to work on the dredging of the Caño Martín Peña, ensuring citizen participation is foregrounded in all aspects of Proyecto ENLACE.1
Between 2002 and 2004, more than 700 activities were undertaken with the objectives of promoting the exchange of knowledge to form a consensus, defining goals and objectives, and identifying the necessary work required to achieve the planned holistic development. Community social workers, architects, urban planners, engineers, lawyers, and psychologists (who all learned from the residents and vice-versa) in part facilitated this process, making sure the state’s efforts were in the service of the community. One of the most significant results of this participatory process was the creation of the Plan de Desarrollo Integral y Usos del Terreno del Distrito de Planificación Especial del Caño Martín Peña (the Comprehensive Development and Land Use plan for the Caño Martín Peña Special Planning District), commonly known as the “CMP District Plan.” Its objectives are the environmental restoration of El Caño through dredging the channel, the construction of infrastructure for the surrounding communities, and their social and economic development. The overarching vision is “a united and prosperous community, a model of self-managed coexistence in the heart of San Juan,” as expressed by the communities and recorded in Law Num. 489, September 24, 2004, amended for the Comprehensive Development plan for the Caño Martín Peña Special Planning District (Law 489-2004).
Law 489-2004, collaboratively written by residents and professionals, validates the designed plan and the G8 as a community participation entity. It also creates the Proyecto ENLACE del Caño Martín Peña Corporation (the “Corporation”), and the legal mechanism of the Caño Martín Peña Land Trust (the “Fideicomiso”), which formalizes the residents' relationship with the land. This mechanism, one of its kind in Puerto Rico to this date, stands out for its success protecting the community and preventing the involuntary displacement of its inhabitants that would result from market forces.
Achieving the Restoration of Caño Martín Peña One Day At a Time: The Struggle and Environmental Awareness of a People
The focus on the creation and mechanisms of change in public policy that led to the birth of Proyecto ENLACE is sustained daily, through short-term, medium-term, and long-term strategies. Different committees carry out these strategies. The G8, the Corporation and the Trust/Fideicomiso share responsibilities at different scales, according to their capabilities. In turn, the process of environmental restoration has not been limited geographically or socially. The strategies, developed from an environmental and social justice perspective, extend from the margins of the Caño, towards the recovery of public spaces for green lots within one of the most populated areas in Puerto Rico, with limited space for new housing and recreation development. The strategies have evolved over time. It becomes important to educate about the history of the struggle over the Caño Martín Peña, and to recognize it as an integral part of the San Juan Bay Estuary and for the just and equitable socio-economic development of Puerto Rico. In short, their community struggle benefits us collectively.
Between the main objectives of the movement are: to raise awareness about the current situation of El Caño, to recognize the need for action, and taking concrete steps towards these goals in favor of their communities, Puerto Rico in general, and the rest of the world. Children, young people and adults from El Caño work together to spread the message about the importance of a process of environmental restoration of El Caño that takes their needs into account, while sowing the seed of environmental consciousness for the future. This is the basis for their leitmotiv “El Caño that we want” or “El Caño Vive.”
Schools Today Preparing Tomorrow's Leaders
The students of the Baking and Pastry Program of the Dr. Albert Einstein Vocational High School in Barrio Obrero identified a need for fresh produce for use in their classes and workshops. The need to obtain fresh produce and connect it with a greater sense of stewardship towards El Caño and the natural environment was the catalyst for two momentous events: the creation of the first school garden, and an environmental education program called Estudiantes Dispuestos a la Restauración Ambiental (EDRA) (Students for Environmental Restoration) in August 2012. The youth working in the school garden focus, primarily, on environmental awareness projects and on learning to grow agricultural products in the conditions provided by El Caño. The school gardens become active classrooms where it is possible to talk about food security, a very important issue for the island. Both initiatives were replicated in the two middle schools of the Caño Martín Peña Special Planning District. The EDRA also became the forerunner of other activities such as: (1) the Cronistas del Caño project, in which students collected health-related data, and recorded their experiences and perceptions regarding the Caño in a notebook —information that was later used in the development of the Health Impact Assessment carried out in partnership with the Icahn School of Medicine of Mount Sinai;2 (2) water quality monitoring3 of El Caño, which was incorporated into the chemistry and environmental science classes, encouraging young people to see science as something they “can do”; and (3) the development of recycling projects in collaboration with the community-based enterprise Martín Peña Recicla, Inc. (MPR).
Meanwhile, the program Patrulleros del Ambiente (Guards of the Environment) was established in the eight elementary schools to promote the development of environmental leadership skills in children from the communities, encouraging them to protect and work together in the rescue of the Martín Peña Canal. The Patrulleros program helps elementary school students analyze their environment and how it is part of their daily lives. The Patrulleros create murals with environmental topics, and participate in recycling programs, community gardens, among other activities. The urgency of the dredging and environmental restoration of El Caño is taught at every school of the community, meeting short-term educational needs, while cultivating the next generation of grassroots environmental leaders of the future.
These year-long programs are the result of a need to follow up on existing environmental awareness initiatives. Each program has a summit event that uses popular tools such as music or theater, so that young people give free rein to their feelings and their vision of the environmental challenges around them. For example, the program El Caño Manifiesta (El Caño Manifests) offered diverse music workshops in different genres to hundreds of young people, giving them the opportunity to create lyrics and choreography around environmental issues and concerns. Another program called De Teatro por El Caño uses fine arts and integrates urban mapping skills to create street theatre performances, engaging young people both physically and metaphorically in the occupation of community spaces, and to express messages developed through working together. In one of De Teatro por el Caño's performances, a group of young people revitalized a vacant lot on Rexach Avenue nearby Albert Einstein High School. They walked together talking about different topics, highlighting and comparing the violence they experience as environmental violence, they reflected on living between two waters, on the migration process between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, on being a generational bridge between two traditions, and on how these issues influence their learning process, their new realities, and the impact of carrying the environmental and emotional burden of being that bridge. They also celebrate recreational activities focused on the prevention of social and environmental violence, such as Martín Peña Juega, a field day dedicated to playing games designed by the children of the community to provoke reflection on environment and social violence.
Impacting the Communities
One of the first significant environmental activities organized after the creation of Proyecto ENLACE, with the collaboration of private, governmental and community sectors, was two major cleanups, through which more than 300 tons of garbage were collected. In subsequent initiatives, community residents rescued, rehabilitated, and turned several vacant lots (usually transformed into clandestine dumps) into social spaces for the development of community empowerment.
The rescue of vacant lots inside communities like Caño Martín Peña is a crucial action that helps raise awareness and empowers the community. This kind of action pushes forward the following key objectives:
1) To strengthen the social network of the community through an action that requires collective work.
2) To eliminate illegal dumping sites and improve the health of the community by eliminating vermin and pests.
3) To educate about the use of spaces and the importance of a maritime terrestrial zone, learning about public domain assets, and about keeping El Caño clean through collective action.
4) To transform spaces, imbuing hope to the participants. In areas where the sensation of self-management has been lost, strength can be restored through teamwork and common projects that foster change.
5) To create an active citizen base, to develop spaces for collective enjoyment, and to educate residents in order to avoid the sprouting of new landfills after the dredging. The notion of collective space helps in keeping a clean and healthy environment.
6) To develop productive spaces.
As part of these initiatives, Caño Martín Peña's Proyecto ENLACE and the G8 created the Vacant Lot Committees—committees selected in community assemblies to define temporary use strategies and guarantee an appropriate use of vacant lots in vulnerable areas. As an example, we can point out the collective use that has been given to the spaces that result after the demolition of structures located in the maritime zone, previously inhabited by families who have been relocated to decent, safe, and sanitary housing; or spaces that arise as a consequence of public work, like the realignment of Barbosa Avenue. The plans for these spaces were elaborated in community assemblies, using methods like participatory geographic information systems, and elaboration of community maps. These initiatives can be translated into short, medium, and long-term interventions that range from public Environmental Movie Nights in collaboration with the San Juan Bay Estuary Program, to the creation of community gardens using discarded tires.
Las Monjas and Buena Vista Hato Rey Community Ecological Garden, supported by Proyecto ENLACE and the G8, is an example of other initiatives developed by residents to promote the cleaning and rescuing of vacant lots through the community board. Other sectors followed the lead, creating the community gardens of Israel and Bitumul, and El Pilar and El Bohío, both in Buena Vista Santurce. They also created a network of orchards known as “Huertos del Caño” as part of the initiative “El Caño that we want.” The communities reclaim a space of common unity to rethink the urban environment, and to reconnect with neighbors and with the informal economy that fuels many of their interactions: trades, favors, food, and labor exchange. Self-determination and participation in public spaces help people take over their destiny, improves food security, and makes sure “that the community eats first.”
The community environmental education efforts do not end here. Other educational activities have been carried out, like the distribution of informational magnets to all residents, with information on what to do in cases of flooding and how to take care of themselves if they come into contact with contaminated water from El Caño. Also, Martín Peña Recicla, Inc., a microenterprise that participates in the Incubator of Community Business with Social Responsibility, has led educational campaigns dedicated to the gathering of recyclable material to strengthen the area, along with campaigns aimed at reducing the environmental degradation of El Caño. Also, Proyecto ENLACE's community incubator supported the development of projects like ECO Excursions and Bici-Caño, which help publicize the environmental importance of El Caño and the efforts to restore it by providing boat trips through the estuary and bicycle rides through the District. These community-based microenterprises help prepare leaders while generating jobs that highlight the current beauty of El Caño and prepare the way for its restoration.
From the Invisible to the Visible
Although the leaders of the G8 recognize the ideal role of the state in the process of restoration of El Caño, the community has decided not to sit and wait for the government to do everything. The communities have exercised their power to direct the actions for the dredging of El Caño according to a different standard, where agencies are responsible to the community and the community maintains vigilance and active participation in the actions of the state. In the case of actions that may be threatening to the state, the communities fight to meet their needs, acting decisively, and executing the necessary interventions in the District to guarantee the health, safety, and well-being of the communities.
Consequently, the G8 has led health campaigns and a massive campaign to cover the District with yellow flags with the messages of “Dredging = Health” and “Dredging + Participation = Justice.” With its striking color, the deployment of these flags seeks to demonstrate unity in its claim: the restoration of the hydraulic flow of El Caño and the revitalization of the communities, regardless of the interest of any politician who visited the communities during electoral campaigns. Similarly, and to break the siege of invisibility coming from political candidates in 2012, the G8 created a campaign through which bottles of water from El Caño were sent to all candidates, with a letter signed by thousands of residents expressing the need to guarantee the funds to carry out the dredging of Caño Martín Peña. When no politician responded to the claims of the community, the campaign escalated into a protest on the Martín Peña Bridge.
The G8 has also been a participant in the development of the project at the federal level, especially when negotiations with the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) reached an impasse. The federal agency was in charge of approving the dredging feasibility study. On that occasion, the G8 mobilized and held a demonstration at the offices of the USACE in San Juan. This demonstration, what they called symbolic dredging or “dredging by hand,” consisted of carrying buckets of sediment from El Caño, identified with the names of the surrounding communities. Through this and other actions, they continued the work that had been started two years before, an essential requirement to compete for authorization of federal funds for the dredging. In this way, the community unites and raises its voice in favor of environmental restoration and public health, demanding action irrespectively from political interests that seek individual benefit before the collective well-being of communities.
We're Still Here: Successes and Future Challenges
Promoting and developing community participation are actions that require resources, the creation of spaces for dialogue, and spaces for action and reflection. In the case of the communities of El Caño, the participatory processes created new instruments to ensure broad resident intervention. The G8, ENLACE and Fideicomiso are the main instruments. We have a mature leadership that, in addition to being spokespersons, facilitates dialogues in their own spaces of action. Facilitators in some contexts are also actors. Leaders in some contexts are facilitators. The community makes decisions about the vital matters, and the rest design strategies for informed deliberative processes.
At the community level, the G8 creates and maintains its own activities and proposals. For example, initiatives such as Martín Peña Recicla, Inc., ECO Excursions and Huertos del Caño are a result of their work. Residents create and recreate the Caño they want, sharing their vision with others, the reasons for fighting and why it is worth the struggle. This shared vision; the sense of unity despite the setbacks; the certainty that they have achieved it with a plan designed by themselves; the passing of a law and the creation of a community land trust to ensure that the fight for the Caño’s restoration does not result in their involuntary displacement, are very important achievements for the communities. Perhaps the most valuable achievement is the impact of having strengthened their sense of belonging. Leaders have stated that through community activities and participatory processes, they have improved young people's self-esteem and their own. Community activities have led to a stronger “I,” which is framed within and as part of the community and its improvement goals. For the G8 it is clear that this increase in self-esteem and the strengthened sense of belonging, in turn generate a greater and better prevention and conservation of resources. The G8—through their activities and joint actions with ENLACE and the Fideicomiso—keeps active from within and without.
The G8 identifies that their main challenge still lies in the years they still have to wait for the dredging itself. From the G8 they think and question "How to maintain the interest and participation until the achievement of a distant goal?" The leaders see that their function is to present to the residents the possibilities and alternatives that exist, according to their current reality. As they strengthen and invest in the social capital of the communities, the goal becomes more real and tangible. They trust that as time goes by, more and more voices will visualize the dredging of El Caño as a possible reality and acknowledge the urgency of their claim. Mario Núñez, spokesperson for the G8, states: “if civil participation falls, the possibility of dredging Caño Martín Peña would also be lost.”
To reduce this threat, Proyecto ENLACE works with three types of participation and actions for environmental awareness and restoration: short-term, medium-term, and long-term actions. In the short-term, we have activities focused on small-scale impacts on the immediate environment. Community and school gardens are the manifestation of these actions that promote citizen participation, the union of residents towards collective land or collective work, and the protection of green spaces. The community gardens are a way to connect with the land, to develop a sense of ownership of the community, and to see the result of the work almost immediately, a visualization of how the geographical environment will look after dredging. In the medium-term, the community develops initiatives to design, build, and educate on infrastructure improvements, including new storm sewer systems in the District to replace the currently incompetent ones; a work calendar to clean existing sewage systems, and the construction of sanitary sewer systems. Finally, in the long-term, the hydraulic restoration of the Caño Martín Peña remains a priority, which, in turn, is nourished by specific activities such as the yellow flag campaign and the “dredging by hand.”
The fight for environmental justice in the communities of Caño Martín Peña has fueled the support of government agencies through agreements, joint work, and synchrony with non-profit organizations and private groups, in addition to the institutional support received from universities that have carried out research and collected the necessary data to support the need for dredging. Diversifying allies and sources of funds strengthens the stability and permanence of the fight, drawing attention to the environmental struggle for the restoration of the Caño as one of Human Rights in and out of Puerto Rico. Drawing attention to the conditions of Caño Martín Peña and its surrounding communities has led to an inter-agency coordination that incorporates basic infrastructure projects into the work plans of the agencies for the first time in the 21st century. Also, a growing network of over 100 local and international allies of the Caño Environmental Restoration has greatly helped the cause.Programs such as the San Juan Bay Estuary or the Puerto Rican diaspora in the United states echo and communicate to their networks that the dredging will not only bring about the environmental restoration of the estuary and will increase the resilience of the communities of El Caño and Puerto Rico in general, but will also multiply the effect of the investments on El Caño for the entire area.
Actions towards environmental restoration incorporate an element of generational renewal. Perhaps the environmental awareness activities carried out in schools are the actions that will have the greatest long-term impact, with the hope that the next generation will keep clean the restored Caño, and their communities vital and organized. The environmental awareness programs described above encourage participation, and environmental initiatives foster community work, promoting stewardship among the youngest residents. These programs have been key actors in establishing achievable objectives so that the young people who participate in them can take charge to protect their resources and their communities in the future. These experiences and acquired knowledge will allow them to become scientists, ornithologists, environmental interpreters, farmers, etc. in a dredged Caño, serving their community and the environment.
This is why, although one aspect may take prominence over another at a particular moment, it is crucial to maintain a balance between community activities and the planning and carrying out of medium-term and long-term goals; like the environmental compliance for El Caño environmental restoration project through dredging. To keep the focus on a single goal, the restoration of El Caño and the revitalization of its surrounding communities, can only happen through a constant process of education in the present.
Conclusion: Relevance and Permanence
The claim for the permanence of the communities goes hand in hand with the restoration of Caño Martín Peña as the unifying thread of the Estuary of the San Juan Bay, and as a valuable natural resource for Puerto Rico. The ENLACE Project is a comprehensive development initiative, with a holistic vision of the problem and its solutions. Its greatest characteristic: the consistent participation of residents in all of its processes. Precisely because it is a complicated scenario, the problem cannot have a simple solution. Given limited resources, the alternatives and opportunities are presented and discussed through a process of open dialogue and negotiation. The ENLACE Project and its supporting entities present an alternative to the lack of sustainability resulting from the current model of development, and brings hope for the future. The ENLACE Project emerged from a space of resistance and has becomes a space for proposal, where the power of the state is redistributed through the mechanisms of citizen participation, in order to ensure the restoration of an urban water body, as well as to create a base for the future management of the restored resource. How does this participation occur? How do we face the multiple challenges and fronts of resistance? How do we create successful experiences to move forward? These questions are only answered through a continuous learning process that allows people to grow, develop, and share new knowledge. The project has become a replicable model of a kind of comprehensive socio-economic development that takes into consideration the needs and circumstances of each community and each specific intervention. The ENLACE Project exemplifies how the union of wills, the sharing of knowledge, community participation and empowerment are essential to carry out tasks that can contribute to the social, economic, and environmental development of Puerto Rico.
The environmental work of Proyecto ENLACE has been possible, in part, thanks to the support of the members of AmeriCorps VISTA and AmeriCorps STATE, Departamento de Recursos Naturales y Ambientales, San Juan Bay Estuary Program, and the continuous support of volunteers and non-profit organizations in Puerto Rico and the United states. Many of the activities described here have been developed with funds from the UrbanWaters Program, granted by the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Written by Katia R. Avilés Vázquez, María T. Rodríguez Mattei, Ana E. Pérez Quintero, Lituania Alicea Bernard, and Estrella Santiago Pérez with contributions from leaders of the Group of Eight Communities surrounding Caño Martín Peña (G8, Inc.).
This text was originally published in 2018 under the title “Al rescate de un ecosistema estuarino: la acción comunitaria en la lucha por la restauración del Caño Martin Peña.” Original edition by Mario Núñez Mercado and Felícita Maldonado.
- For more information on the process of community organization, see: Cotté Morales, Alejandro. “Transformación social desde las entrañas del gobierno: Experiencias del trabajo social comunitario en el Proyecto ENLACE del Caño Martín Peña.” In A. Cotté Morales, M. Orfilia Barreto, D. Pizarro Claudio, W. Quiñones Sierra, R. M. Seda Rodríguez, y L. A. Vega Rodríguez (eds.), Trabajo Comunitario y Descolonización (Puerto Rico: Fundación Francisco Manrique Cabrera, 2012)
- Although health initiatives are not the focus of this paper, it is important to state the importance of the input and participation of residents in the direction and design of epidemiological health studies carried out in partnership with the School of Medicine and Health Sciences of Ponce and the School of Public Health of the Medical Sciences Campus of the University of Puerto Rico. Two different epidemiological studies were complemented by the work of the Health Committee of Proyecto ENLACE in the design of the questionnaire and its distribution in the District. The Health Impact Assessment collects the experiences and results of previous studies in a single document, strengthening the arguments in favor of the implementation of the Plan designed by the residents.
- The monitoring of water began under the Water Monitoring Program of the San Juan Bay Estuary.