Explosions and Ecology: Puerto Rican island deals with military legacy to protect environmental future

Story by: Catherine O’Neill

Photos by: Viviane Feldman

Videos by: Amanda Lalezarian, John Aceti and Viviane Feldman 

VIEQUES, Puerto Rico — The Taíno people have a story about why the bays glow in Vieques. They say that thousands of years ago, the stars in the vivid night sky broke into a million pieces and tumbled into the bioluminescent water, making it shimmer with the ethereal flicker that draws natives and tourists alike.

But stars weren’t the only things that fell onto the tiny island, which sits just six miles off the southeast coast of the main island of Puerto Rico.

From the 1940s until 2003, the United States Navy used Vieques as a base for military maneuvers and bombing sites, leaving thousands of unexploded munitions behind.

In 2001, the island of Vieques was established a national wildlife refuge after the land was transferred from the U.S. Navy. “There’s only about 13 percent [of the land] legally set aside for conservation in the Caribbean,” said Mike Barandiaran of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife’s Vieques branch. “That’s it.”
The island, which is approximately 22 miles by four miles in size, provided a crucial bridge between the mainland United States and islands within the Caribbean. The Navy ultimately claimed both eastern and western segments of the island–close to three-quarters of its total land mass–and displaced its nearly 10,000 residents to the center of the island, often with little or no compensation.

Today, Vieques is at a crossroads. Thousands of unexploded bombs lay hidden in its forests, beaches, mountains and bays. Natives remain simultaneously frustrated about the Navy’s impact on the island and resentful at the transition the island has faced since the base left.

As tourism numbers continue to grow, the island faces a challenge many parts of the main island of Puerto Rico, like San Juan, have faced in recent years; the tension between conservation and development leaves islanders unsure of what the future holds.


The letter, dated December 28, 1961, reads:

“We are, of course, prepared to do everything within our power to contribute to the security of the Nation; but we submit that the project which has been proposed is so drastic, destructive and dangerous that it should not be undertaken unless you are convinced that to forego its effectuation is clearly to imperil the Nation’s ability to defend itself, and that there is no alternative to the proposed program.”

The letter was sent from Puerto Rican Gov. Luis Muñoz Marín to President John F. Kennedy. In it, Marín begged the president to reconsider seizing the property of native Viequenses to allow for naval expansion on the island.

Fifty years later, in April 2001, the late president’s nephew Robert F. Kennedy Jr., was arrested for trespassing on that very same naval base in Vieques. He ultimately served 30 days in jail for his part in the protesting the Navy’s military maneuvers.

According to a 2002 congressional update on U.S. naval presence in Vieques from retired Vice-Adm. John Shanahan, the Navy’s use of the island was centered around three primary purposes: “(1) Marine amphibious landings, coordinated with supporting naval, air and artillery fire, which take place on Camp Garcia beaches; (2) naval surface fire support (NSFS) from Navy ships stationed off the Vieques coast; and (3) air-to-ground (ATG) bombing from Navy and Marine Corps aircraft launched from carriers onto the Live Impact Area (several miles from Camp Garcia).”

The same brief estimates that, during the 1980s and 1990s alone, the Navy dropped “1,464 tons of bombs and high explosive ordnance on Vieques a year.”

In 2001, in response to increasing pressure from residents and activists, the federal government decided to release 3,000 acres of the land controlled by the base. The land was given to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to become part of the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge. Two years later, in 2003, 15,000 more acres became a part of that refuge, making it the second largest conservation area in all of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

Both the legacy of destruction and federal control as well as the future of an important ecological and environmental gem makes managing the refuge an especially challenging task, according to Mike Barandiaran, the refuge manager in Vieques.

Barandiaran said the Navy divided the island into three zones–an active bombing area, an area for military maneuvers and a buffer zone to separate civilians from the naval exercises. Although conservation certainly wasn’t the Navy’s primary purpose, Barandiaran said this separation between residents and nature provided some room for wildlife to flourish.

“Nature doesn’t know about the buffers…, and wildlife don’t care about the buffers,” he said. “So throughout the last few decades, military bases have become inadvertently–and without the military necessarily wanting that–they’ve become conservation havens.”

Following the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, the military was required to set up conservation zones. Barandiaran said that, while the military had biologists to abide by the act’s requirements, conservation wasn’t their primary goal.

Animosity toward the naval presence on the island came to a head in 1999 when Vieques native David Sanes Rodriguez was killed due to a fatal error during a bombing exercise. The subsequent protests gained some national media coverage when notable people such as Kennedy were arrested at demonstrations on the island.

According to Barandiaran, the people initially viewed the departure of the Navy as the victory they had been seeking for so long.

“People were ecstatic; (it was) David versus Goliath. This small group of people defeated the most powerful navy in the world.”

Vieques is an island full of wild animals; the stray cats and dogs you see so often in many Latin American countries also wander the streets. But even more common are the horses–some just old enough to stand on wobbly legs–or a native Viequense riding a full grown steed into town to run some errands.

When protests against the Navy began in earnest, locals would ride the horses to the base and gather. But when the Navy formally handed the keys over to Fish and Wildlife Service on May 1, 2003, the horseback protests continued.

The realization that the land would not be returned to the Viequenses to whom it had originally belonged, upset many, Barandiaran said.

He said people would ride horses onto the refuge and damage Fish and Wildlife Service buildings and vehicles. FWS, which only has 10 employees, had no way of stopping the protests because it lacked the security.

After transferring the land from the Department of Defense to the Department of the Interior, the federal government realized that much of the island would be unsafe for civilians until munitions clean-up and removal occurred.

Currently, the munitions cleanup, which is being done by contractors chosen by the Navy, is not scheduled to be completed for another 10 years.

The process is both thorough and surprisingly low-tech, Barandiaran said. The active bombing areas have been divided into grids that are being searched one by one. Clean-up of the bombs in the water has not begun in earnest yet.

According to Barandiaran, the Environmental Protection Agency has determined that the eastern segment of the island that was most heavily bombed will never be safe to re-open to the public.

Every spring, the families gather on Vieques beaches in large groups. Multiple generations, those who live in Vieques and those who have moved away, return yearly to their chosen campsites and set up tents and hammocks, grills and stereos, and enough food to last for weeks.

The tradition of camping on the beaches for La Semana Santa (Holy Week) leading up to Easter goes back generations in Vieques.

Angelica Maldonado said her family has been camping on the beach near the town of Esperanza for close to a decade. Each year, the extended family gathers and sets up a temporary home on the beach for three weeks.

“It’s a tradition that we have for Holy Week, and the whole world can share in it with their families,” she said. “It’s about sharing in family, in friends, and in the beach.”

Wanda Camacho and her family have also been camping in Vieques for decades. But they said that, since the Navy left, FWS has prevented them from camping on some of the island’s most beautiful beaches, like Caracas.

She said the base’s departure was challenging for the island, and that she believes they never should have left.

“When Navy was here, we had more protection, more jobs, more everything,” she said. “Now there are all these new restrictions that we didn’t have before. But that’s how life has to be–changing a lot of things and moving on.”

Barandiaran said the Easter camping restrictions have been a source of frustration for locals but that FWS simply doesn’t have the resources to facilitate the tradition in the same way as the Navy. He said the Navy provided setup, cleanup and security but that FWS cannot do the same. In addition, many of the beaches have been found to be important nesting sites for endangered species of turtles, like the leatherback.

“Our job was to say no, especially at first,” Barandiaran said. “We spent our first five years telling everyone who would listen not to hate us, that we weren’t the Navy.”

Cherry (left) and her daughter Wanda Camacho sit by their campsite near Esperanza, Vieques. Around Easter, many local people camp for up to a month on the beach with their families.

According to Taíno lore, Guanina was a Taíno princess who fell in love with a Spanish officer. When her brother killed the officer in retaliation for Spanish mistreatment of the Taíno people, Guanina threw herself on his body and tried to kiss him back to life.

When the elders went to punish Guanina for her traitorous behavior, they found her dead on her lover’s chest and buried the two beneath a giant ceiba tree. Legend holds that red and white lilies immediately blossomed from above their earthen tomb to symbolize the passionate love that the two had for each other.

Those who tell the tale of the star-crossed lovers say that when the evening breeze whispers through the branches of a ceiba tree, you can hear the sounds of the two lovers escaping their tomb to kiss under its shadow.

Only one of the original trees from Vieques’ historical natural groves of ceiba trees remains on the island. It is estimated to be over 300 years old.

Protecting such important and unique elements of Vieques’ natural biodiversity is part of Armando Carlo Asencio’s job.

Asencio is one of the wildlife firefighters whose job it is to both fight fires on the refuge and ensure that any fires that do occur don’t threaten the towns that border the conservation areas.

He said people in Vieques–locals and tourists alike–don’t realize the impact that humans have on the land, which makes his job especially challenging.

“The hardest part…is the human factor,” he said. “You know, nature behaves in the same way; humans don’t. Humans are part of nature, but they’re the only animal that makes things that are not in the program, makes things different.”

Armando Carlo Asencio is a firefighter who is currently working with a crew to create a firebreak on the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge. “Human-caused fires, every year, they are getting more difficult to control,” said Asencio. “Because humidity rates are going down, [and] the heat wave is getting higher.”
Randall Bermudez is a native Viequense who works with Asencio. He said that every Viequense seems to have a different response to the departure of the Navy and the creation of the refuge.

“Right now, the refuge, it’s a good thing,” he said. “I prefer that it stays a refuge than (that it) gets developed. Because if it’s developed I would see it in like 20 years like it is in San Juan. At least for me that’s not good.”

Bermudez said he has grown up knowing that island has been irreversibly affected by the naval bombings, and that he has seen munitions frequently on his scuba-diving expeditions.

As biologists continue to uncover the ecological and environmental importance of the area and tourists continue to visit an island known for its beautiful beaches and relative isolation, the island will face significant future challenges, Barandiaran said.

“Vieques is in a transition,” he said. “So from a conservation point of view, Vieques is still very important and it’s going in the right direction. But from a tourism point of view, people perceive that it’s pristine, and they want to come here.”

Vieques is important not just because of its endemic plant and animal species, but also because it has both subtropical moist and subtropical dry climates in different regions. Its subtropical moist region is the only one of its kind in the entire Fish and Wildlife system.

Over 300,000 people visit the refuge each year, with few realizing that the beautiful beaches to which they flock are actually on conservation lands.

Barandiaran said this fact highlights the need for preservation of the island’s natural beauty for economic reasons as well.

Erick Bermudez, a FWS biologist who helps coordinate much of the department’s educational outreach, said tourism and local use of the land doesn’t have to cause environmental damage and that it doesn’t seem to have negatively impacted Vieques’ recovery so far.

“Nature is recovering, and it’s important to keep this conservation and protection area,” he said. “We need to make (conservation) part of the life of the people here for the future of the island.”

Barandiaran emphasized that conservation isn’t about managing nature; it’s about managing humans. His office has plans to redevelop some of the land previously controlled by the Navy into parks and outdoor recreation areas to engage the public without damaging the natural environment.

But he said they must also prioritize protection and conservation above all.

“Nature should exist for its own sake,” he said. “How much loving is too much loving?”

Asencio said the focus on preserving nature rather than encouraging development is what will help Vieques leave its legacy of naval control behind.

“This isn’t for that,” he said.  “You know, this is our chance to make…(the refuge) is a second chance for Vieques.”

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