A Bigger Crisis in Puerto Rico May Be Developing

The ongoing economic crisis in Puerto Rico has almost completely overshadowed the environmental one that’s gone virtually unnoticed by the major news media. The majority of the island’s landfills are well over capacity and possibly spreading disease and toxic waste to the nearby communities. The Environmental Quality Board, the local government entity in charge of managing Puerto Rico’s ecological concerns, was granted control over the landfills by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1994. Evidently, the EQB has not followed the regulations put in place by the EPA and the latter is cracking down of the former. However, Puerto Rico Limpio, an environmental citizen’s action group on the island, released a fairly damning report based on the EPA’s own documents that accused the agency of ignoring the impending crisis for the past decade.

The online narrative for this situation looks like a one-sided duel of press releases. In one corner, you have the EPA doing its best to claim a premature victory for wagging its finger at the EQB and closing down two landfills, with plans to shut down the rest in upcoming years. On the other side is PRL tossing fire and brimstone at the EPA for ignoring EQB’s wrongdoings for so long. To their credit, the EPA has stepped in a few times on the island in the past year, though that’s only recently and only concerning polluted water and private commercial interests. Up until now, the EPA has done little besides the finger-wagging at the EQB about the crowded landfills and, in an eerie repetition of the Flint water crisis, has done little else with the derelict local government agencies on the island.

That last point may shed some light on the entire situation. In the case of Flint, the EPA was supposedly powerless to take any action against Michigan’s own local environmental government agency. If the same is true in this scenario, then that’d the great case of tragic irony, given how easily every other federal agency who has tried has superseded the Puerto Rican government’s authority. Congress is sending a pretty clear message about priorities when it steps in to protect the investments of hedge funds and restore confidence in the municipal bond market, but not when another government body is trying to make sure the land stays habitable. As hyperbolic as that sounds, who can argue otherwise? Dozens of politicians stepped in to weigh in on the fiscal crisis, most weighing heavily in favor of restructuring the debt as opposed to a bailout. In contrast, only one congressional representative has been the only one so far to sound the alarm bells about the landfills, and he’s a former Puerto Rico resident.

Besides bureaucratic red tape, incompetence or corruption, the only other explanation for the EPA’s willful ignorance is just that they thought no one would care. The lack of coverage of the crisis from any of the major news organizations seems to support that last theory. Possibly irreparable environmental damage is going on as you read this, and it’s happening right on American soil. Every ecological activist should be bringing attention to this impending disaster, just as with #NoDAPL and the Sioux people who are even now fighting to fend off their own man-made crisis.

Puerto Ricans More Likely to Give Charity Than Other Americans

While searching through the increasingly depressing news reports concerning Puerto Rico, I found an interesting subject picked up by several different websites. Researchers have found that a majority of Puerto Ricans – almost 75 percent – regularly give charitable donations. That’s interesting for several reasons: that’s about 20 percent higher than the average for the rest of the U.S., Puerto Rico’s been in an economic decline for at least over a decade, and poverty levels in Puerto Rico are much higher than in the rest of the nation. Why then, are Puerto Ricans so willing to give up the few dollars left in their pockets?

Charity in Puerto Rico is a complicated topic to talk about, mainly because of the corruption that can often run unchecked through the island’s institutions. One such example is a local charity managed by the governor’s brother, its only employee, and a former New York union representative of Puerto Rican descent. The charity receives donations from the biggest companies doing business in Puerto Rico, and even the most casual observer can point out the nepotism and system of “pay-to-play” kickback politics. Worse still is the ammunition it gives to those who want to make sure no federal funds go to the island’s government, at a time when the effects of such are devastating.

Even with the less than ethical behavior of some charities, significant giving still goes and ostensibly manages to find its way to the actual people. A number of charities, including the one that initiated the study, both outside and based in Puerto Rico have been able to serve thousands of people on the island with donations from both locally and the mainland. However, according to the study, most Puerto Ricans prefer to partake in informal acts of charity, like donating directly to neighbors and family. A majority of those sampled knew next to nothing about giving through official channels. It’s also important to note that the study separated the population by general and high net worth households, the latter being those above $150,000 annual income or $1 million net worth. Though somewhat more gave to charity – about 88 percent – it was less than the average in the mainland U.S.

Puerto Rico has increased incentives for charitable giving, including the 2011 PR Tax Code which increased tax deductions for donations to 10 percent. However, most of those in the study had no idea this law existed, including quite a few high net worth households. Whether this is due to a widespread lack of exposure and education from philanthropic non-profits, or from an inherent distrust of institutions caused by corruption, it’s hard to say. What can be said is that there is a lot of untapped potential in Puerto Rico.

If you’ve read through our previous postings (which, you know, I’d personally recommend), then you have an idea of what we believe about Puerto Rican unity. While we – Puerto Ricans on both the mainland and island – can sometimes disappoint each other greatly, we continuously show that beyond the violence, racism, and self-hate we do care about each other deep down, even if we won’t admit it on an individual level. If that could be harnessed en masse, we could actually start to fix some of the internal problems on the island.

The Origins of the Palenque

If you look up palenque, you might get a couple of different results. The first ones to show up will likely be about the Mayan city-state that was actually named Lakamha, now a collection of ancient ruins in Chiapas that is heavily marketed by the Mexican tourism industry for its historical value. This has overtaken the term palenque’s more common usage, which you’d have better luck finding if you look up synonyms in other languages, like Quilombo, Mocambe, or Maroon. If you really look, you also might be able to find San Basilio de Palenque, Colombia, one of the best examples of the original term.
Palenque was the term the Spaniards used to refer to runaway slave communities, first for Indians then for the Africans that replaced them. The Spanish word for fugitive slave, Cimarron, would eventually be corrupted into the English Maroon. This particular variation was most often applied to the Maroon communities of Jamaica, who regularly raided and ambushed the British colonial forces until the latter were forced to sue for peace. The military prowess of some palenques was so great that their Maroon militia (and their descendants) decisively ended more than a few battles between colonial powers. These communities, and many others throughout the Americas, maintained their autonomy so well that some remain relatively isolated even today.
The palenque and the cimarrones that resided within them were instrumental in developing and maintaining Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Latino culture, and at times even Pre-Columbian Indian culture. Some even helped shape the greater cultures of their nations, like the former palenque of Loiza in Puerto Rico, where Bomba was born and of whose instruments and rhythms can be seen and heard in the musical styles that came after. Though usually occupied by a majority of Africans and Afro-descendants, palenques became melting pots of culture, language and ideas, and the people that emerged from them were altogether unique. That is what inspired us to choose the name palenque – we seek to form our own community, where people and culture from all over the world can mingle freely.