By mid-afternoon on any given Sunday, the noise on Palomino Island is deafening. Dozens of boats, some tied together and others directly anchored to the seabed due to lack of buoys, compete to be the ones entertaining visitors with their music. The sound is so shrill that the family day becomes unbearable. The types of music vary, but reggaetón, salsa and bachata, abound, mixed with the smell of marijuana.
Law and order officials are scarce, although the scenario is the same in nearby islands and keys of the Arrecifes de la Cordillera Natural Reserve, such as Palominito and Icacos.
On Tamarindo Beach, located in the Luis Peña Channel Nature Reserve in Culebra, a police patrol boat passes by and ignores the potentially conflicting activities that occur there, such as jet skis that cross by almost above those who are “snorkeling” on the reef, or very close to those who are “kayaking” offshore. Nor do they intervene with those who ignore the warnings and take walks in areas where traces of the war practices of the last half century are still present, or with those who are tanning naked, although this practice is illegal in Puerto Rico and involves charges for indecent exposure.
As sunset approaches on Luquillo Beach, just behind the kiosks, the noise is as deafening as in the eastern islands. The same music is heard, except that here it comes from buses and “minivans” equipped with a score of speakers. Vehicles are parked on the sand, near sea turtle nesting areas. Trash cans are in short supply, so there is garbage near children and adults who are playing, eating or simply want to relax.
If you wonder why these problems occur, consider that, for the past three and a half years, the Interagency Board for the Management of Beaches in Puerto Rico has not invested a single cent in the island’s main natural, recreational and tourist resource, as revealed by an investigation by El Nuevo Día and the Center for Investigative Journalism. Despite the fact that Law 293-1999 obliges it to maintain and develop beaches by means of activities like environmental protection, acquisition of land, establishment of facilities for passive use and recreation, security measures and programs or educational campaigns, and specifically, the cleaning of areas, among others. The statute also obliges the entity to ensure that its 10 member agencies enforce their respective laws regarding the management and conservation of coasts.
The research found that, for the past 18 years, the Beach Board has been practically inoperative, without leadership and with a meager budget that, in addition, was partially invested in questionable expenses, not related to the protection of the coasts. The annual contributions made by law to the public units that make up the Board have merely totaled $105,000 and the agency’s expenses totaled $93,738.02 in the same period. On top of this, 10% of the expenses had nothing to do with conservation and management of the resource, therefore, the Government of Puerto Rico has only invested $84,298.57 in the maintenance and protection of its 1,225 beaches, from 1999 to the present .
Ask yourself, what can you do with $3.82? That is the small amount that the Board has invested annually, on average, per beach, since its inception, according to a certification from the Finance Division of the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DRNA).
Web of inconsistencies and squandering
Among the questionable expenses of the Board are, for example, that it allocated $4,617.90 to food services (caterings), $3,500 to the design of a website that does not exist, and $1,265.55 to activities of the Secretary and the Board, and $56 To the purchase of “office supplies”, even though the agency does not have an office.
Furthermore, $35,000 was returned by the Board to two of its member agencies: $25,000 to the Tourism Company for an advertising campaign, and $10,000 to the National Park Company for a security campaign. These two campaigns consumed 37% of the body’s resources for the past 18 years.
Members of the Board can not attest to what the remaining budget has been used for, and question whether the agencies have actually made the minimum contributions assigned to them by law.
“Nothing about the expenses is discussed in plenary sessions,” said the director of the Sea Grant Program of the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez and representative of the academic sector in the Board, Ruperto Chaparro, in reference to that the economic subjects are not usually part of the agenda of meetings of the body.
“I’ve never been to a board meeting or activity where they gave me a glass of water,” he added.
Alberto Martí, an officer of the non-profit coastal conservation organization Scuba Dogs Society and a representative of the private sector on the Board, was also unaware of the agency’s expenses.
In none of the 11 meetings that the Board held during the last four years was mention made of its income and expenditures, according to the minutes. Ernesto Díaz, Director of the DRNA Coastal Zone Management Program usually leads the meetings, and his office is a kind of secretariat of the Board. The DRNA did not provide the minutes of meetings that were held in previous four year terms.
The DRNA did not provide receipts or purchase orders that justify the expenses, detail the activities or specify the equipment supposedly acquired by the Board. The DRNA certification only refers, in general terms, to the purchase of “beach cleaning materials” and “laboratory effects”.
“All these contributions (attributed to the agencies) are scams,” said Chaparro, while denouncing that the agencies do what is known as “payment-in-kind.” This happens when they report income to the special account of the Board, but in reality it is money that never goes out of their budgets and is destined to tasks such as management of beaches, salaries of watchmen and trash collectors.
Apart from the DRNA, the Board is composed of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, the Environmental Quality Board, the Planning Board, the Department of Sports and Recreation, the Aqueduct and Sewer Authority, the Department of Health, the Police, the Office of the Commissioner of Municipal Affairs, and the State Agency for Emergency Management and Disaster Administration. It also has two representatives from the academic sector and two from the private sector, for a total of 14 members; all appointed by the governor.
The scarce budget of the Board contrasts with the fact that, in 2014, the financial contribution of beaches to the Puerto Rican economy – considering its indirect and induced effects – amounted to $7,420 million or 7.3% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), according to The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC).
On the other hand, the study “Describing the Ocean Economies of the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico”, commissioned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and published last year, found that in 2012 there were 4,295 commercial establishments that were “ocean-dependent”, which employed 66,720 people and generated $921.8 million in wages.
Similar findings were provided by the study “Economic valuation of coral reefs and associated environments east of Puerto Rico,” prepared in 2007 by the firm Estudios Técnicos. It was found that its economic value totaled $1,852 million, with tourism and recreation constituting 51% of that amount. Those, however, are the same reefs that may be affected by the conflicting uses that are occurring in the area.
The budget of the Board also contrasts with the astronomical figures that the Tourism Company invests in the promotion and marketing of the Island as a tourist destination. In this equation, beaches are the main attraction to persuade tourists to visit the island.
Between July 2009 and June 2016, Tourism disbursed $275.7 million to acquire goods and services related to the advertising account of its Office of Promotion and Marketing, according to an audit report from the Comptroller’s Office published on January 23. Incidentally, in that report, Comptroller Yesmín Valdivieso issued an adverse opinion about the Office of Tourism Promotion and Marketing, after finding that its operations related to regulation, advertising services, disbursements and the filing of tax documents were not carried out according to the law.
The director of the company, José R. Izquierdo, said that, on average, annual spending on promotion and marketing ranges from $19 million to $22 million. He clarified that not all that money is used to advertise the beaches, but admitted that, despite attempts to diversify tourism, Puerto Rico remains mainly a “sunny destination.”
He added that, following the recent creation of the Destination Marketing Organization (DMO), the tourist promotion of the island abroad is passed on to private hands and for that there could be an annual budget of up to $25 million.
“We are in the business of selling an experience and the beaches are part of that, as they are the greatest natural resource and the most accessible,” Izquierdo said, acknowledging that management problems on beaches, particularly the fact that 30 drowning fatalities occur per year, “harm us as a destiny”.
By government agency and elected office term
In 18 years, the agencies that have contributed the most to the special account of the Board have been the DRNA and Tourism, with $40,000 and $25,000, respectively. There are some agencies that have never earmarked funds, and others that have not given more than $5,000.
When analyzing revenues by elected office four year terms, the largest numbers were made under the four-year terms of former governors Sila María Calderón of the Popular Democratic Party (PPD) and Luis Fortuño of the New Progressive Party (PNP).
The Board was created at the end of the Pedro Rosselló’s term as governor and there are no records of contributions by then.
On February 16, the current Secretary of the DRNA and Board Director, Tania Vázquez, wrote a letter to government agency heads reminding them of their annual contribution of not less than $3,000 (required by law), but nothing has happened yet.
Saúl Suárez Flores, Tourism’s Director of Planning and Development, said that although they have not met their financial obligations to the special account of the Board, they spend $534,282.64 per year for the management of beaches in the metropolitan area of San Juan. The figure is divided into $78,282.64 from a contract with the Organization for Sustainable Environment (OPAS) for the management of the Blue Flag Beach Recognition international program, and $456,000 from a contract with Save Green Corp. for shore cleaning services from El Escambrón in San Juan to Isla Verde in Carolina.
Regarding the expenses of the Board, two disbursements to fund advertising campaigns stand out. National Parks received $10,000 to promote beach safety, while Tourism received $25,000 to raise awareness about solid waste management. This means that, instead of the agencies giving money to the Board as mandated by law, the agency ended up subsidizing them. In fact, both disbursements meant returning to the agencies everything or almost everything they had contributed to the special account of the Board. The annual reports that the Board submits to the Legislature fail to detail the effectiveness of these publicity campaigns.
The highest expenses of the Board, including questionable ones, were made under the government of Luis Fortuño (PNP). Between 2009 and 2012, the agency spent $76,205.50 or almost double of what the agencies contributed in the same period. But the special account was not overdrawn, because there was money accumulated by the inaction of the Board in previous years.
Under Fortuño’s administration, the secretary of the DRNA and director of the Board was Daniel Galán Kercadó, who was not available for interview. Tania Vázquez, who then served as head of the agency’s Legal Division, claimed to have no details of these expenses.
“How is the Board supposed to take care of beaches if it does not have a budget? It does not even have a secretary! A contribution of $30,000 a year is nothing; with that you don’t even install three showers, nor pay a week of lifeguard services. But what is truly ridiculous is that we are talking about a natural attraction, which is the base of tourism in Puerto Rico, and they want to manage it with $ 30,000 a year,” Chaparro said.
What lies ahead for the beaches?
DRNA’s former secretary, Javier Vélez Arocho, recommended amending the law of the Board, as it “fails” in not guaranteeing revenues for the agency to fulfill its obligations.
When interviewed, he called for higher annual contributions to be set, as the current $3,000 “do not do justice” to the infrastructure and human resources needs for the beaches.
“Significant amounts of money are needed in order to have top-notch basic equipment such as patrol motor vehicles, rescue equipment, observation infrastructure, binoculars, radiotelephones, flags and first aid equipment. The Board has never had any of that,” he said.
Questioned as to why he did not push these recommendations while directing the Board, Vélez Arocho acknowledged that, after two years as secretary, “many issues remained pending for lack of follow-up”, which he attributed to the fact that agency heads did not attend board meetings. He did not specify what actions, if any, he took so that they would not delegate their participation in non-decision-making officials.
Last year’s Board report proposes the creation of a financial committee, as an alternative method for identifying funds due to the government’s budgetary constraints. This committee, whose members would be from the Board itself, would seek funding in both the public and private sectors. However, this has not been done either.
Vázquez, who attributed the lack of economic contributions from the agencies to “current economic times,” said he will propose the establishment of public-private partnerships to, for example, develop a mobile application that provides information about beaches to locals and tourists. The development of this application, which would be known as “Playa Segura PR / Safe Beach PR”, is a law mandate that has not been observed since 2015.
DRNA’s former secretary, Carlos Padín, commented that the Board should be attached to a non-governmental entity, which supervises its operation and manages its budget, and that it must be “tied” to results. He said he did not introduce or implement this idea under his mandate, because “I was not long enough” (10 months) in the post.
Meanwhile, Chaparro, recommended the creation of a new tax, which would only be paid by tourists at a rate of $1 per hotel room and for each night they stay on the Island. The money collected would be used exclusively for lifeboat service on the beaches.
A Sea Grant investigation, conducted in 2015, revealed that tourists coming to Puerto Rico are willing to pay up to an additional $5 per hotel room per night, if funds are used to provide beach safety. The study commissioned by NOAA found that 3.2 million people visited the island as tourists in 2014. With a proposal like that of Chaparro, the special account of the Board would have received revenues of $ 3.2 million that year.
The research series “ISLAND WITHOUT BEACHES?” is the result of a collaboration between the Center for Investigative Journalism and El Nuevo Día, through the environmental journalism scholarship granted by Para la Naturaleza. See the complete series with its graphs and interactive media in periodismoinvestigativo.com and endi.com.
Cronicas del ELA