Published on:

2 June 2022

Written by:

David Thill

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In 2018, the WWF Environment and Disaster Management team visited Puerto Rico following the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria. They witnessed reforestation and agriculture restoration led by organizations based on the island.

As the Environment and Disaster Management program continues to integrate ecosystem restoration with disaster risk reduction, the team recently returned to Puerto Rico to learn how the local environmental NGO Para la Naturaleza has responded to extreme weather events. Among other things, the organization is restoring mangroves in partnership with local communities to reduce the risk of future disasters

Mangrove restoration can be labor-intensive work, requiring dedication and creativity to foster healing and regrowth. We found inspiration in the work that Para la Naturaleza and their community partners are doing to adapt for a more positive future. Here is their story.

Through its mangrove restoration initiative, Para la Naturaleza works with communities to reduce flood risk on Puerto Rico’s north coast.

A pickup truck and an all-terrain vehicle made their way up a flattened grass path toward the riverbank. It was an early Thursday morning in October. The air was heavy and the sun was bright over the spot where the Río Grande de Manatí lets into the Atlantic Ocean along the central north coast of Puerto Rico.

Alcides Morales Pérez, a conservation manager with the Puerto Rico-based land trust Para la Naturaleza, sat behind the wheel of the pickup while a small team of management assistants steered the ATV. They brought with them a set of buckets containing, all told, just under 1,700 red mangrove seedlings, as well as several seedlings each of black and white mangroves.

The team was about to add the next layer to a project Morales initiated in 2016, when he began planting mangroves along a nearby creek. It’s one in a series of Para la Naturaleza’s efforts that have ramped up since Hurricane Maria in 2017, aiming to transform Puerto Rico’s natural lands to a semblance of what they were before more than a century of agricultural production weakened and destroyed many of the island’s natural flood barriers.

It’s a race against time: As the Río Grande de Manatí, like the rest of Puerto Rico, loses its riverbanks to worsening floods and severe storms, new solutions are needed to keep the land intact, protecting not only wildlife but communities too. That includes many of Para la Naturaleza’s neighbors on the island.

The organization has undergone its own transformation in recent years, having come to the realization that its work is impossible without buy-in from the people it affects—many of whom are skeptical of the group’s intentions due to its history of protecting land but ignoring the people who live there.

But regardless of the past, for Para la Naturaleza, conservation must now include communities. And the mangroves Morales’ team was about to plant are a small but crucial component of the job.

Sewing the soil

The vehicles slowed and halted along a dirt clearing near where the river meets one of its many winding tributaries. They were about a mile from the former manor house at Hacienda La Esperanza, a 19th century sugarcane plantation which, together with its surroundings—about 2,100 acres total, including grassland, coastal forest, the river, creeks and limestone hills—form the largest of Para la Naturaleza’s protected areas in the region.

The terrain along the river ranges from rich brown to deep emerald; thick piled soil patched with tangled shoots and leaves where the mangroves sprout. Just north, the river water gathers in a pond where it flows through a bottleneck letting into the ocean, transforming abruptly from flat green to cobalt blue as it crosses the threshold.

A person stands among lush shrubs
Ricardo Arduengo/WWF
Para la Naturaleza conservation manager Alcides Morales poses for a photo at the Río Grande de Manatí in Manatí, Puerto Rico.
A person loads buckets of mangrove sprouts into the back of an ATV
Ricardo Arduengo/WWF
Ramses Ocasio prepares red mangrove seedlings to be planted at the river as part of Para la Naturaleza’s native tree planting initiative.

Morales and the others disembarked, retrieving the seedlings from the back of the ATV, along with some shovels he’d stashed in the bed of the pickup. Morales is wiry, with bright eyes. As the others began preparing the site for the trees, digging holes and clearing away grass that might stifle the new mangroves’ growth, he surveyed the water’s edge.

He pointed to a ridge on the bank, about an inch wide, running parallel to the surface of the river. “You can see this part’s about to come off,” he said, bending slightly to trace the snaking divot.

Formed by overflowing river water, the ridge will deepen with more flooding, separating a chunk of land about a foot wide from the bank until it breaks off. The bank, which before Hurricane Maria descended into the water at an incline, drops off sharply now, after the hurricane lobbed about 20 feet off the shore.

The river typically overflows here at least three times a year, Morales said. That chunk of land may break off completely in the coming years, although it could be salvaged if the mangroves grow fast enough and their roots secure the soil, or “sew the soil,” as he put it.

Clusters of mangroves dotted the shore, emerging bush-like from the water alongside newer and sparser growth, a stem here and there poking through the surface. These stems were the early products of Para la Naturaleza’s first “Mangleton,” held in August, when staff and volunteers planted several thousand red mangroves near this stretch of the river. The event, spearheaded by Morales, took its name from a combination of the word “mangle”—Spanish for mangrove—and the suffix “ton,” like a marathon. (It’s also a play on reggaeton, the popular style of contemporary Latin American dance music.)

Morales bent down and stuck a seedling into the bank. About a foot long, red mangrove seedlings somewhat resemble green beans in shape, rust-colored at the base and dark green near the tip. When planting, one simply sticks the base into the soil at the edge of the river, like a flag post, so that the seedling is exposed at low tide and partially submerged at high.

“Mangrove” is an umbrella term: Any coastal tree growing in a flood-prone environment, with varying levels of salt, could be considered a mangrove. Morales and his cohort were planting three species on this outing: Laguncularia racemosa (white) and Avicennia germinans (black) in the dirt clearing set back a few meters from the river, and Rhizophora mangle, or red mangroves, the ones along the shore, whose roots stand above the ground and prop the trees up over the water. (The colors differentiate the trees’ trunks.)

Like most trees, the early stages of mangrove growth are the most critical. They reach about three feet high in their first two years, after which they undergo a massive growth spurt, more than tripling their height over the next two years. If all goes well, Morales said, the ones his team is planting now will hit 25 feet in a decade.

He first began planting mangroves along the river after Hurricane Maria hit in 2017. Even before the hurricane, the bank had been losing land to erosion in recent years as flooding from Puerto Rico’s central mountains gets stronger.

The soil at the bank has a high concentration of salt from the ocean just north. It can’t support many trees. Aside from long-stemmed grasses, invasive species left over from when the area was used for agricultural production, the vegetation next to the water was thin. Morales wasn’t certain his mangroves would grow.

“This was my little experiment,” he said. It’s showing promise. Para la Naturaleza staff say they’ve seen a reduction in erosion at the bank thanks to the mangroves, which provide a natural subterranean flood barrier.

Morales described a vision of the riverbank in its prime—and its future—transformed: “megadiverse” and “impenetrable.” “I want to give back the jungle this place used to have,” he said. He continued his search for growth on the bank, his feet sinking lightly into the soil with each step.

An ecological culture

The area around Hacienda La Esperanza, like much of the land in Puerto Rico, underwent massive change as the island was colonized first by Spanish settlers, then transitioned to U.S. annexation at the end of the 19th century. (While it’s often referred to as one island, Puerto Rico is technically a small archipelago.)

During the 19th and much of the 20th centuries, many parts of the island were used for large-scale agricultural production, most notably of sugarcane, which decimated native species of trees as others were introduced. During Puerto Rico’s industrialization period in the mid-20th century, Hacienda La Esperanza sat unused briefly and the property, like other rural areas, became a target for development.

The land was purchased in 1975 by the Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico. The nonprofit was created in 1970 through an agreement between the government of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Department of the Interior, and would eventually lead to the launch of Para la Naturaleza, a unit of the conservation trust. Since the 70s, the organization’s protected acres have expanded to more than 35,000 throughout Puerto Rico, falling under its watch through joint protection agreements and acquisition from landowners and the government.

“It’s difficult for people when they come here and they see all this open space—all this green space, all the grassland—and they start thinking, ‘But what’s happening with this place?’ Why are we not doing something with it, building or development?” said José Nevárez Rivera, a Para la Naturaleza community action leader based at Hacienda La Esperanza.

“It’s very difficult to change that mindset,” he said, “because we were told for many, many years that development, housing being built, shopping malls…was equal to progress, to growth. And it’s not.”

The organization’s goal at Hacienda La Esperanza, like its other protected regions, is to return the land to something that resembles its pre-agricultural state, he said. It won’t be the same after centuries of human intervention and the introduction of nonnative species, but Névarez and other leaders with the group view it as part of their goal to advance Puerto Rico toward becoming an “ecological culture”: one in which humans protect nature in the interest of preserving their own societies.

“A society that knows the importance of functional ecosystems, that values other forms of life as an integral part of their social wellbeing, possesses an ecological culture,” Para la Naturaleza’s president, Fernando Lloveras San Miguel, wrote in a 2021 white paper documenting the group’s work over the last five decades.

This type of collective mindset is important, Nevárez said, because many communities in Puerto Rico were established in vulnerable areas, prone to dangers such as flooding, landslides and earthquakes. In the same way the mangroves protect the riverbank, allowing nature to thrive can ultimately protect communities from disaster without forcing drastic changes to their economies—even if it means less new construction or fewer shopping centers or housing developments.

Para la Naturaleza wants to work with communities to adopt nature-based disaster risk reduction strategies. The challenge is that in the past, Para la Naturaleza, like other land trusts, went to great lengths to conserve natural lands without accounting for communities that have lived on those lands for decades and in some cases have built economies that rely on the natural resources. That has left some communities wary of the organization’s intentions.

By the group’s own account, Para la Naturaleza’s relationships with communities near its protected lands have been rocky. During the conservation boom of the 1960s and 1970s, human presence was often viewed as detrimental to the protection of natural lands, Nevárez noted. This meant communities that had existed on or near protected lands were displaced or cut off from the resources they relied on and from each other, putting them at odds with conservationists.

This tension is ingrained in the history of Hacienda La Esperanza, the acquisition of which brought Para la Naturaleza into uncomfortably close quarters with La Esperanza, a hilltop community of about 100 people located in the northwest section of the reserve.

“How do you tell people that, yeah, ‘You have been raised in this place, this is your home, this is the backyard of your house—but now we’re going to protect it, and in order to protect it we have to limit the access of people,’” Nevárez said. “So, yeah, those were difficult times.”

“It was very difficult…hearing the people in the community say stuff about the organization or about the reserve,” said Karen Bunce Rodríguez, superintendent of Para la Naturaleza’s north region lands and properties. Community members accused the organization of “choking” their land, she said; they assumed Para la Naturaleza wanted to take it. “It was very hard,” Bunce said. “But as a Puerto Rican and living in the context of the island, we have to have empathy with them.”

Para la Naturaleza has undergone a change in mindset in recent years. Nevárez attributed it largely to the presence of Lloveras, who began leading the Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico in 2003 before taking his current role as president of Para la Naturaleza. He’s focused much of his work on improving community relations.

Ricardo Arduengo/WWF
Ramses Ocasio plants mangroves at the Río Grande de Manatí.

After the storms

Hurricane Maria inundated Puerto Rico in September 2017, a direct hit less than two weeks after Hurricane Irma disrupted power and water service as it swept along the north coast. In the wake of the disasters, much of Puerto Rico, particularly rural mountain communities, was left without running water for months and without electricity for as much as a year. Para la Naturaleza’s lands and facilities suffered about $12 million in damages. The organization was still completing repairs more than four years later through donations and budget reallocations since its insurer declared bankruptcy after the hurricanes.

By the time the storms hit, Para la Naturaleza was already in the midst of change, focusing on several volunteer engagement and citizen science initiatives. But the hurricanes “marked a turning point,” Lloveras wrote. “Up to that moment we had been protecting nature from humans,” he said. “Now we realized the importance of protecting humans from our own collective decisions.”

“I think widely in the organization, throughout the island, we changed our way of thinking about how we manage our lands,” Bunce said.

Following the initial recovery period, the organization began focusing on four initiatives that aim to bring it closer to communities while continuing to emphasize conservation. These initiatives include providing funds to farmers working on regenerative agriculture; bringing botanical gardens and educational programming to Montessori public schools; planting native trees throughout Puerto Rico—including mangroves—with the help of volunteers; and equipping communities throughout the island with “resilience centers” to ensure they’re better prepared for disasters.

So far, 33 of these centers have been established in rural areas in partnership with local organizations: central sheltered gathering spots—a basketball court in Toro Negro, a community center in Cialitos—typically equipped with rooftop solar panels, a satellite dish and a water filtration system. With these basic amenities, provided by Para la Naturaleza and private companies, communities should be able to refrigerate food and medications and provide clean water to residents during a disaster. The satellite dishes allow for cell phone signal, something many rural isolated communities lacked in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

Para la Naturaleza is also working with a smaller group of communities near its protected lands, as part of a program that aims to make them more active partners in the management of these areas. Known as AComPAÑA (which translates from Spanish as “to accompany”), the program’s goal is to eventually bring these communities onboard as co-managers of the land currently overseen by Para la Naturaleza, through new land management agreements. This is a major change from the group’s origins, and it will take decades, as both Para la Naturaleza and partner communities adapt to new ways of working and strengthen bonds that until now have largely been tenuous and fleeting.

The objective, Bunce said, is for the communities to “be at the same table and talk about different strategies for managing the space or taking action.”

Already, Para la Naturaleza has seen some success, notably in La Esperanza, a relatively new member of the AComPAÑA program. Bunce and Nevárez in 2020 began making a concerted effort to connect with the community. “Now, we can go there, and we can take coffee with them and talk with them,” Bunce said. “For us here in the north region, that’s like our big goal.”

“At the end, these communities are the original stakeholders,” Nevárez said.

Ideally, communities will be integrated into management plans by about 2050. “A lot of change in the mindset needs to happen in order to get there,” he said. “But that’s what we want. Our vision of the future is…our Puerto Rican culture to become a more ecological one.”

‘Running against time’

The tide receded as the sun rose higher, allowing the newly planted mangrove seedlings to take the light.

Morales’ team plants the trees in clumps, encouraging competition within and among species, mimicking a natural-born forest. If their effort is successful, birds, insects, wind and water will disperse seeds from the trees, filling in the gaps their team doesn’t plant. Each seedling Morales and the others place in the ground is tallied in a log the team maintains, both for the organization’s records and as part of a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to help Para la Naturaleza advance its native tree planting efforts.

Ricardo Arduengo/WWF
Para la Naturaleza staff plant mangroves at the river.
Three people use shovels to plant mangrove seedlings in a wetland
Ricardo Arduengo/WWF
Hector Ortiz, Christian Ríos and Yordan Rodríguez plant mangroves at the Río Grande de Manatí.

The grant was awarded through a program launched by the foundation in 2018 to advance projects that aim to reduce the vulnerability of coastal U.S. communities to storms, floods and other destructive events. Para la Naturaleza aims to plant about 50,000 native trees at the reserve with the grant by the end of this year. Roughly 43,000 had been planted as of early May, including more than 10,000 mangroves.

North of the mangrove planting site, at the mouth of the Rio Grande de Manatí, a cluster of low buildings sits on the bank next to the bottleneck where the river meets the ocean. They’re part of La Boca—literally “the mouth” in Spanish—a small fishing community that Nevárez estimates has about 80 to 100 residents.

It’s the sort of community that faces intensifying challenges amid increasingly severe flooding and the threat of worsening hurricanes. It underwent extensive damage when the river flooded during Hurricane Maria, and the same thing could easily happen again in another storm. Morales wants to get community members onboard with his mangrove planting initiative.

“Wetlands have a stigma as a place of no use,” Morales explained. When people think of mangroves, if they think of them at all, they often think of mosquitoes and a rotten egg smell. They’re “not as charismatic as other forests,” he said. Nearby community members have been skeptical of the mangroves he’s planting because they worry they’ll lose the beauty of the landscape, including the view to the mountains.

Then there’s the burning. Blue land crabs burrow in the riverbank, and they’re especially attracted to the food (insects and leaves) and protective shelter they get from burrowing under mangroves. The quickest way to expose the burrowing crabs is to burn the shrubbery sheltering them.

A person typically can catch several dozen crabs in a night this way and sell them at market the next day for about $100, Morales said. It’s a valuable way to earn money. But in addition to killing the crabs, it ruins the flora and leaves the soil ill-equipped for further growing. He understands the delicate balance: It would be unfair to ask a community to give up such a vital source of income—and identity—when there’s nothing ready to take its place.

La Boca itself isn’t part of the nature reserve, but residents fish for crabs on the land overseen by Para la Naturaleza. Morales tries to maintain a sort of compromise with them, requesting that if they fish, they don’t burn.

Mangroves could be a valuable buffer for La Boca, slowing the crush of water during flooding. Morales wants to make sure residents are aware of this. It’s part of his effort to demonstrate what he calls the “ecological services” mangroves provide: the direct benefits these natural resources deliver to residents. As is often the case with environmentally focused activities, appealing to pro-environment attitudes can only get so much buy-in. People tend to accept the solution more if they can see what’s in it for them.

“We’re investing in green infrastructure,” Morales said. He’s noticed people generally like the word “infrastructure.”

He acknowledged contact with La Boca has been limited so far, mostly sporadic one-on-one interactions with residents and work with a local sea turtle protection organization that does activities in the community. Part of Para la Naturaleza’s grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation includes educational outreach to La Boca and other nearby communities so residents can understand the reasons behind activities like mangrove planting. That outreach is taking place this year.

Walking along the bank, Morales paused, looking across the river. Undisturbed by human cultivation, mangroves have been growing there for decades, a snapshot of the rich green forest-like environment Morales wants to foster on the side he manages.

A compact motorized fishing skiff passed on the water, lumbering south from La Boca toward the mountains in the distance. The driver waved hello.

Morales knows time isn’t on his side. The mangroves face challenges from both sides: burning from the north and flooding from the south. Increasingly powerful deluges could wash the riverbanks away before the mangroves have a chance to establish roots. The threat will grow as the climate crisis grows, delivering stronger floods and more violent storms to the Río Grande de Manatí, La Boca and Hacienda La Esperanza, and across Puerto Rico.

“We’re running against time in all directions,” Morales said. He waved hello back.

A birds eye view of a large river leading to the ocean
Ricardo Arduengo/WWF
A fisher drives their skiff on the Río Grande de Manatí in Manatí, Puerto Rico.