Activists fight to save Puerto Rico’s beaches
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"Beaches belong to the people" is the slogan of a protest movement in Puerto Rico, which denounces the privatisation of certain beaches, often for real estate projects, and the environmental impact of this appropriation. The movement has been going on for years, but has been in the news a lot in recent weeks, after an incident on a beach at the end of January, as our Observer explains.
On 25 January, a fight between a couple and a group of young people took place in Ocean Park, at a beach in an upscale neighbourhood in the American territory of Puerto Rico.
In a video capturing the dispute, a young woman says that the couple do not want them to install a beach tennis court on the beach because it would block access to their residence. She is heard shouting, "This beach is public!" The other woman then retorts that she can give her opinion the day she has "a million dollar house".
Ocean Park Beach, Puerto Rico, 25 January: This video, which has more than 176,000 views, shows the fight between a group of young people and a couple.
"The beaches belong to the people"
The video went viral on social media. Our Observer, Wilmar Vázquez, who lives in the area, told us why.
People were outraged when they heard this lady telling young people that they could enjoy the beach the day they had a million dollars, because the beaches are for everyone, and there is a crisis in Puerto Rico right now, regarding the cost of living. [There have been recent demonstrations by public sector employees, including teachers and firefighters, to protest their precarious pay, editor's note].
That's why we held a rally in Ocean Park on 29 January, to send the message that 'the beaches belong to the people'. It was a peaceful and festive rally, where we played sports.
Ocean Park Beach, Puerto Rico, 29 January: a festive event was held that day to say that "the beaches belong to the people". The photos included messages such as "The beaches belong to the people", "My beaches, my heritage is not for sale", "My grandchildren's beaches are not for sale", and "The rich are stealing our beaches".
Disputes over beach access don't happen every day in Puerto Rico. But for several years, people have been coming together in a movement called 'Beaches are for the people'. They're frustrated about hotels being built on the coast, making beaches private, when they're supposed to be public.
On Dorado Beach, for example, there is a complex of residences and hotels along the beach. To get there, you have to go around and climb rocks. That's why we organised another event - similar to the Ocean Park event - on 12 February on a beach next to Dorado Beach, to highlight the difficulties of accessing the beach.
"Endangered turtles are laying eggs on our beaches"
Hotel construction along the beach also has serious environmental impacts.
There has been a lot of construction on the coast lately, especially in the 'marine-terrestrial' area, which by law is public property. It's a disaster for the ecosystem, because we have endangered turtles that lay eggs on our beaches, like the leatherback turtles on Ocean Park beach, hawksbill turtles... We also have birds, fish and corals, and they're in danger of disappearing because their ecosystems are being disrupted by these constructions.
Leatherback turtles in Puerto Rico: this species is in danger of extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
In addition to the recent events in Ocean Park and on Dorado Beach, activists are mobilising in other places on the island, such as Luquillo, where they are protesting against the planned construction of a hotel on a wetland. Another example: for years, residents have been opposing the construction of a mega-hotel complex on Playuela Beach.
Video shot in 2020, in Playuela, Puerto Rico, where activists have been protesting the construction of a mega-hotel complex for years.
Several Puerto Ricans we spoke to believe that illegal building permits are sometimes granted "because of corruption".
Building permit cancelled in mid-February
In mid-February, beach activists did have one victory, when a judge cancelled a permit for a beach side swimming pool in the municipality of Rincon.
Rincón, end of 2021: residents wanted to build a swimming pool by the sea, opposite their home.
Rincón, mid-February: activists celebrate the cancellation of the building permit for a swimming pool.