Puerto Rico at Center of Struggle for Climate Justice

Recent talk at URI highlights environmental injustices on the island

Videos and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Try living through 10 hurricanes in one year. Then endure a grueling recovery on an island with a legacy of slavery and racism, where powerful industries see the reconstruction of your homeland as a means to assert more power and increase profits.

That's what Puerto Rico is struggling with.

The media covered the physical damage and painfully slow recovery of the extraordinary hurricane season of 2017. But overlooked is the story of the ongoing emotional and physical duress. That story comes from the complicated and even uncomfortable discussion among people who don’t share the history, ethnicity and oppression.

Elizabeth Yeampierre, an attorney and activist, is deeply involved with the Puerto Rican community on both the mainland and on the island. During a recent talk at the University of Rhode Island, Yeampierre explained her journey to Puerto Rico through the lens of climate change and environmental racism. The disasters exposed injustices felt by many oppressed communities, even those that have never been to Puerto Rico, including groups in Rhode Island.

Yeampierre wasn't born in Puerto Rico, but in Brooklyn, N.Y., where she is a climate justice leader and co-chair of the Climate Justice Alliance, a coalition of environmental justice groups spread across the country. She identifies as African and Indigenous ancestry. And many at her March 20 talk associated with a similar complex connection of groups and heritage.

From the perspective of these communities, the response to the hurricanes reveals how language and offers of assistance can be grossly misguided. It goes beyond misappropriating terms like Latina and resilience.

“We in the movement have a problem with the word resilience. Resilience means you bounce back, it means you go back to where you were before there was an extreme weather event or disaster,” Yeampierre said. “What does that mean for people of African and Indigenous ancestry to bounce back? Does is mean to bounce back to displacement? To police brutality? To be put in positions that are unacceptable and violate basic human rights? Is that what it meant in New Orleans? Is that what it means in Puerto Rico to bounce back to colonialism?”

Instead, Yeampierre said it’s better to describe the recovery as "resistant."

“We are going to decolonize: decolonize our diets, decolonize our minds and reclaim our traditions. Those are the things that are going to hep us survive," she said. "Basically being able to reclaim what we lost when we became Westernized. When capitalism and colonialism turned us into dependents on a lifestyle that was based on extreme consumption.”

Environmental justice, or injustice, Yeampierre said, dates back to the slave quarters. Generations of descendants have been suffering ever since, she added.

“It started when people had the worst food, the worst health care,” Yeampierre said. “They were put in places where the were exposed to the most toxins. It started with the exploitation of our people with the extraction of our land and the extraction of our labor.”

When it comes to climate change, the media focuses on big storms and sea-level rise, but the real risk is drought and excessive heat. Also, many coastal cites such as Providence have an environmental justice crisis along their industrial waterfronts. There is a health crisis from air pollution and the threat of toxic exposure unleashed by extreme weather events.

“The fight is to make them cleaner. But not to get rid of the industrial waterfront,” Yeampierre said. “Losing them means that we lose jobs."

It shouldn't be forgotten that 500,000 Puerto Ricans have yet to get their electricity back, Yeampierre said. “The time for incremental solutions is over. The time to do something radical is now because our survival depends on it.”

Yeampierre said local and federal agencies can't help because they fail to coordinate with one another. Large nonprofit relief organizations are often guilty of “nonprofit capitalism.” These groups have money to spend but they tend to “helicopter in and tell us what is in our best interest,” Yeampierre said. “The moment that happens we fail to address climate change.”

Businesses are trying to privatize schools and transportation, and build large commercial developments. Yeampierre called it “disaster capitalism.”

“You’ve got these international companies coming in that want to take advantage of the situation,” she said.

The best solutions, she said, are grassroots efforts.

“People like to think they know what is in our best interest, but the truth is every single community has the answers,” Yeampierre said. “If you believe in justice, your obligation is to support, not supplant, local leadership.”

Local Puerto Rican groups are starting farms hubs and installing community solar-energy collaboratives.

Residents, she said, “are reclaiming traditions that have disappeared in our lifetime.”

The talk was sponsored by the Rhode Island Department of Health.