The Conservation of Vieques

Reproduced from Enfoques 3rd ed, by José A. Blanco and María Colbert, © Vista Higher Learning (2012).

Translation by Austin B. Hahn

“Vieques is reborn!” announces the government of this Puerto Rican municipality, which seeks to stimulate the economy of an island rich in nature but poor economically. Vieques boasts important archaeological sites, spectacular beaches, a historical fort, and a bioluminescent bay, Mosquito Bay, which is a wonder of nature. Its coral reefs contain an ecosystem of enormous productivity and biological diversity. They form a small paradise which shelter and protect an immense variety of species of plants and aquatic animals.

However, instead of having a tradition of high tourism, the island has suffered grave problems. Vieques was used for bombing practices since 1941. In that era, many people were evicted when the United States Navy occupied two areas at the ends of the island. The practices continued for several decades, but, in April of 1999, a security guard died when a bomb fell outside the live-fire range. The death of David Sanes angered the people of Vieques and gave rise to a campaign of civil disobedience. President Clinton promised to cease bomb training in Vieques, but this continued with inert bombs despite that the people of Vieques had demanded, “Not one more bomb!” The demonstrators entered the zone of fire and established camps; others demonstrated in Puerto Rico and in the United States, and they soon captured international attention. Robert Kennedy, Jr., Jesse Jackson, Rigoberta Menchú, and Dalai Lama, among others, made declarations in favor of Vieques, and many people went to jail after being arrested in the zone of fire.

The protest focused largely on problems the bombs had caused to the environment, to the economy of Vieques, and to the health of the people of Vieques. The decades of bombing practices left a high level of contamination, which includes the presence of reduced uranium (a very dangerous poison.) Some think that the incidence of cancer in Vieques – 25% higher than in any part of Puerto Rico – is due to the residents’ exposure to toxic elements. These accusations have provoked controversy, since the Navy denied the effects on the health of the people of Vieques. Finally, after a tough campaign of protesting and struggle, the bombing practices ended forever in 2003. The Navy terrains went to the Department of Hunting and Fishing, and the Environmental Agency Protection declared in 2005 that environmental cleaning of Vieques would be one of the national priorities.

The east and west ends of the island now constitute an environmental reserve, which is the largest in the Caribbean. The people of Vieques hope that the island can, in its rebirth, return to a state of higher natural purity and, at the same time, develop its economy. Vieques remains a symbol of endurance, and it’s an increasingly popular place for local and foreign tourism.

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