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Panel Explores Climate Justice and Recovery in Puerto Rico and Honduras

The international studies program, in coordination with the Earth and environmental studies program, hosted a panel called “Environmental (In)Justice in the Americas: How Do We Respond?” at Boston College for International Education Week on Wednesday.  

The panel was composed of environmental activists from Puerto Rico and Honduras and was moderated by Tara Pisani Gareau, the director of Earth and environmental studies. During the event, activists discussed their response to the recent environmental disasters caused by Hurricane María in 2017 and Hurricane Mitch in 1998.

Tara Rodríguez Besosa, a panelist from Puerto Rico, founded El Departamento de la Comida (The Department of Food) in 2010 as a way to return to sustainable farming practices that had been practiced on the island for hundreds of years. In the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and María, Besosa started El Fondo de Resiliencia, a two-year campaign to increase sustainable farming in Puerto Rico.

Besosa was joined by Jesús Vázquez Negrón, a lawyer and activist on the island, whose efforts are concentrated on food sovereignty and coalition building that combats poverty and destructive production methods. He currently is the national coordinator for Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica.

In addition to environmental activists, the panel also included two educators from Puerto Rico: Christina González and Michelle De Jesús. González works for Basura Cero Puerto Rico, a non-for-profit that aims at changing solid waste strategies to focus on conservation and benefit public health. 

De Jesús is a STEM coordinator at EcoExploratorio, which aims at furthering science education within different communities in Puerto Rico. The museum and the programs are created for and by the people of the island.

From Honduras, the panel was joined by Carlos Escobar of the Ecological Foundation of Mico Quemado, an organization that attempts to create sustainable models of water conservation to protect the Mico Quemado watershed. 

The beginning of the panel focused on recovery efforts in Puerto Rico and Honduras, as well as the obstacles faced by people in both countries. 

“The loss of trees—deforestation—had an impact on the watersheds,” Escobar described the situation in Honduras. “They had more landslides and it contaminates the water in those areas.” 

Like Honduras, Puerto Rico experienced a similar problem with contaminated watersheds and flooding after Hurricane María. Though the issue of flooding was compounded with the loss of the electrical grid “up to a year at some points,” according to Besosa.

When discussing recovery issues, Escobar suggested that “politicians don’t understand the situation."

“The majority of people affected were very vulnerable, low-income families,” Escobar said. “There’s still not policies or a plan in place for when disasters strike.”

“In terms of the environmental injustices and is Puerto Rico fully recovered after Hurricane María, we weren’t even fully recovered before the hurricane arrived,” Negrón explained. 

Besosa suggested that the difficulties with recovery have "to do with a much larger problem."

"That larger problem was made very evident with Hurricane Maria for more people, though many people have been directly working with that problem, which is colonization,” Besosa said.

“One of the main impacts of colonization has been the lost identity of Puerto Ricans to their indigenous history and their indigenous practices,” Besosa continued.

Because of colonization, Puerto Rico lost many of the traditional practices that protected the island from major storms. Islanders no longer use ancient farming methods or hold older cultural beliefs that helped to explain why storms happened.

González expanded the topic by discussing the challenges of both changing mindsets towards sustainable practices and introducing reforms in a place where recycling is not uniform across different municipalities.

Instead, González and her educational organization focus on teaching people to refuse what they do not need, reduce what they do use, and to begin to rot, or compost, what they can. 

When asked about viewing colonization as the primary struggle of environmental justice by an audience member, Negrón added that the climate crisis was forcing people to have conversations about colonization. 

“To address climate justice, we have to address the systemic causes: racism, colonization, sexism," said Negrón. "We have to name them. We have to have our own solution.”