Speaking of Access to Information Week, let’s talk about the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources

March 20, 2024

Photo by Gabriel López Albarrán | Center for Investigative Journalism

Journalist Luis Joel Méndez investigates erosion, construction in the maritime-terrestrial zone and other environmental violations in areas of Cabo Rojo.

Ten months ago, I began interviewing residents, activists, and community leaders in coastal neighborhoods to learn about the consequences of the climate crisis on their shores, especially coastal erosion. During these conversations, people denounced the acquisitions of coastal land, as it happened in the Joyuda neighborhood in Cabo Rojo, on the southwest coast, and the development of luxury residential projects in the Bajuras neighborhood, in Isabela, in the North coast.

This is also the case in the Quique Bravo sector, a small community in Isabela where the investor beneficiaries of Act 60, Daniel Grunberg, and Tyson Carter, intend to build luxury homes in a partially flood-prone area. This situation is repeated in other coastal municipalities of Puerto Rico: In Vega Baja, in the North, Mason Edward Gorda and Dennis Keith Bostick — also beneficiaries of the tax exemption for foreign investors — purchased ecologically sensitive land on Sarapá beach. And in Arecibo, also in the North, where the Abreu Valentín family occupied abandoned structures in the Maritime Terrestrial Zone of the Islote community to expand their short-term rental businesses.

Projects like these have been developed for decades in Puerto Rico under the impassive gaze of those who have directed the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DRNA, in Spanish). This government’s indifference has led to the loss of the beaches that we expect to serve as natural barriers that protect us from the voracious climate crisis. While our natural barriers are destroyed, the DRNA builds a wall against transparency.

The Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) has had to go to court three times in the past five years for the DRNA to hand over public documents. This is also the experience of citizens who, concerned about land movements, developments, and other events in their communities, go to the agency to seek information.

While working on my most recent investigative series “Ineffective coastal protection,” Lourdes Irizarry, who has dedicated herself to warning about excessive development in the Quique Bravo community, in Isabela, in the northwest, told me that citizen oversight is affected because the DRNA continually ignores their requests.

For example, the community leader wrote to the DRNA several times in October and November 2022, to request a public hearing regarding a demarcation solicited by the proponents of the luxury residential project in Quique Bravo. After insisting, the public hearing was finally held in March 2023. Irizarry explained with frustration that the DRNA rarely responded to the multiple calls and emails she sent for months to find out the status of her request for public hearings.

“It’s very frustrating because it’s so hard for an ordinary person to navigate all the obstacles that they put in front of you [in the DRNA],” Irizarry told me.

After being ignored, Irizarry filed a complaint with the Citizen’s Advocate Office (Ombudsman) for the DRNA’s lack of response.

Irizarry isn’t alone in her complaints. Hundreds of Puerto Ricans have gone through the same thing. In five years — between fiscal years 2018-2019 and 2022-2023 — the Ombudsman Office attended to more than 350 complaints against the DRNA, according to data from the office. In 2022-2023, 187 cases were addressed, an increase of 405% when compared to the 37 cases in 2018-2019.

Irizarry’s experience has also been shared by many environmental organizations. Last summer, more than 14 of these organizations protested in front of the DRNA building in San Juan while delivering a list of complaints to Secretary Anaís Rodríguez Vega, among which the lack of transparency and the lack of collaboration of the agency stood out.

Protests and setting up camps have become the most common way in Puerto Rico to draw attention to environmental problems not addressed by the DRNA. The agency drags its feet in addressing urgent issues or prevents citizens from having the necessary information about potential developments. However, that strategy carries the risk of arrests, criminal charges, and even assaults.

For my investigation on the government’s lack of effectiveness on coastal protection in the face of climate change, I waited nearly nine months for information, such as the complaints that had been filed at the DRNA Ranger Corps Office in the Islote neighborhood in Arecibo. Information that I requested from the DRNA press officer, such as the recording of the public hearing on the demarcation of the land in the Quique Bravo sector, was never provided. I got some through alternative sources, such old files and   people who trust our work.

During the accelerated climate crisis that Puerto Rico is experiencing, transparent, fast, and effective communication is vital for the trust that constituents should have in their government.

Reporting a potential environmental crime requires trust in the processes that are delegated to government agencies to ensure compliance with the law. When you must call dozens of times to have your questions answered or wait months for a public hearing, that trust is eroded as much as our beaches are. When the media must constantly appear in court to obtain information that should be available, the possibilities of overseeing the power structures are limited.

The fight against the effects of climate change is comprehensive. It not only requires specific solutions, but also communication and information to educate and so that constituents know and trust in the effectiveness of government agencies.


Necesitamos tu apoyo para seguir haciendo y ampliando nuestro trabajo.