How to Create a Marine Reserve

Rincon, Puerto Rico

In the Northwest corner of Puerto Rico lies one of the best stretches of surfing in the Caribbean — indeed in all of the Atlantic. The small village of Rincon area boasts several world class waves, including Trés Palmas. Rincon also supports pristine reefs, sandy beaches and is a haven for humpback whales and sea turtles.

However, all of this was threatened by a series of mega resorts that were proposed for the area. A little over a year ago, our own Terry Gibson and the Surfrider Foundation got heavily involved in a grassroots campaign to save Rincon. The following two-part Q&A is with Surfrider board member Leon Richter. Leon became heavily involved with the issue, and has helped lead the way in defeating the development measure, and perhaps, just perhaps, in helping to create an entire marine reserve along the entire three kilometer stretch of coast.

Chris Dixon: Leon, give me some background on this.
Leon Richter: I’m not sure who rang the alarm first. But in February of 2000, Surfriders, Chad Nelson, Surfer’s Terry Gibson, and a few others went on an island-wide trip looking at places in PR that had hot spots or issues that required some kind of initiative or attention. At that point, Puerto Rican issues became part of a national spotlight for Surfrider.

CD: Interesting that Surfrider chose to focus on PR so much.
LR. Yeah, I think part of it was that the people were doing such great things that they wanted to support them.

CD: How did you get involved in this?
LR: I’m on the board of Surfrider and we had a board meeting down there last October. Turns out the meeting was rescheduled because everyone was freaked out about traveling. But I went down anyway, and it was a great opportunity to have some impact and help empower the community to do what they wanted to do, which was protect this area, and try to maintain some of the characteristics of the town.

CD: What did they want to develop?
LR: There were three projects proposed that would turn the area into an Orange County type development. That was really unappealing to the community for several reasons. Among them were that the town’s infrastructure can’t support that kind of development. The water supply is really unreliable, there’s no sewage line, they’d have to build giant septic for it. That and access to the beach — this is one of the few pieces of undeveloped coastline left.

Surfrider’s Leon Richter and Planning Board Chairman Dr. Hermenegildo Ortiz

CD: Why did it stay undeveloped so long?
LR: It’s privately owned, and the families who own it have held it for a long time and own a lot of land in the area. But I really don’t know. Two of the projects, the Tres Palmas Hotel and the Hotel Manihiki died their own deaths for different reasons, but the Via Icaria project was the last one standing. ( ) We spent a lot of time lobbying at the planning board level and with the local municipality to add our comments about why we didn’t think it was a good idea. Aside from the infrastructure and quality of life issues, there’s the coral reef. The elkhorn coral, so we were able to use that as one of our weapons.

CD: Elkhorn is one of the most endangered corals, and you guys are surfiing over that coral as well.
LR. Exactly.

CD: What did you tell the planning board if this went through?
LR: Well, with the planning board, we focused a lot on the sensitivity of the reef to sedimentation and to white band disease, which is actually the result of human sewage on the reef. So we’re saying look, if you build this here, not only do we think this is inappropriate for the community, but there’s no infrastructure and the reef itself would be imperiled. And it’s a candidate for the endangered species act as it is. Also, the reef protects the beach from erosion. So if the reef dies, the beach is at risk.

CD: How many people live in this area?
LR. Twelve to fourteen thousand.

CD: How is that spread out?
LR: Well, this coastal area is largely undeveloped. There’s a main road with a lot of development, but the nearby hills are not that heavily populated. The land along the coast is pretty much a green area.

CD: Who owns the land in queston?
LR: The Levy family, they’re one of the bigger developers in Puerto Rico.

CD: So, how did you go about trying to build awareness of this?
LR. Well, when I went down, there was very little information about this campaign. It wasn’t really organized. Many locals were like, hey, there are these threats, we want to do something about it — create a coastal park, or marine reserve, but there wasn’t a real plan of action. Also, there wasn’t a real clear indication of what the community wanted. So the first thing we did — I went around and met as many people as I could — some of it under the guise of looking around for an apartment. And I would ask, do you know what they trying to do there? There was very little awareness, almost no one knew. But also identifying what the real problems and issues were that the town faced.

CD: What were the issues in the town?
LR: One problem was unemployment — a big one. So the concept that hey, construction might be a solution for that was something we had to be prepared to address. Water supply and sewage were infrastructure problems. And then there was access to the beach, because as people were building, they were restricting access. Those were some of the top issues facing the town, so we wanted to be able to identify that and evaluate this project under those guidelines.
We said, hey if what we’re trying to do doesn’t help fix these things, or lessen these problems, we’re not going to be able to get support.

CD: How did you counter the jobs argument?
A lot of people said, we need jobs, so this will be good. So we brought in a professor/economist named Lynwood Pendleton and had him do a study to reveal what drives the economy in Rincon. It showed that 40 percent of the economy is driven by so-called "slow tourism". These are not people who want to go to a big resort. The people who go there stay at B&B’s or guest houses, they eat locally and at local restaurants. There’s this one barbecue place where the guy buys all his food and produce locally. But if you build the condos, the theory is that these are going to be owned by people from San Juan, they’ll stop at Wal-Mart on the way, bring their food and leave at the end. Then on top of that, the buiding contractors were not likely to be local.

Endangered Elkhorn Coral

So we said, hey, you’re jeopardizing your local economy, if you turn this from this unique type of community with the bands of green and the palms leaning over the beach to just another San Juan. Why drive across the island to basically end up in the same place you started? That was one aspect. The other was, we held lots of town meetings to find out what do people think, what do they want?

CD: How many people did you get to these early meetings?
LR: Initially, 70 to 80 people. And these meetings were very informational. You know, what’s happening with this? There was a lot of Q&A in those meetings. So these were happening in parallel with meetings with the department of natural resources and a community reprsentative — the community relations officer for the speaker of the house. That’s where we kind of developed this strategy of starting with this marine reserve and expanding then to a special planning area, which would be the entire watershed. It was kind of a long term planning strategy for the community, that ultimately also included a terrestrial aspect to the park. So first we had to stop the development, which was the lobbying with the planning board. Then get enough time working with the politicians to create the marine reserve. Then we had to have the community work together with a long term strategy. It was a lot of work.

Here to Read Part 2 of This Interview…You Just Might Learn Something!