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US Congress

Most U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico acknowledge that we need to seriously shake up how the Commonwealth Government manages its finances, and that we have the legal responsibility and moral duty to pay our debt holders. The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed H.R. 5278, better known as the PROMESA bill, giving a proposed Oversight Board the authority to override any local law or regulation – including environmental laws – as a means to supposedly improve our economy and thus, be able to pay our debt. The bill would also give the Board the power to force the sale of government assets belonging to the people of Puerto Rico – opening up our protected public conservation and agricultural lands to grave risk.

Puerto Rico has started to pay the price of climate change with a protracted drought, fast eroding coastlines and coral bleaching, all of which impact our economic viability. It is vital that our efforts to fix Puerto Rico’s economy in the short term do not come at the cost of the ecological services our natural protected areas provide, including water resources, food and tourism.

H.R. 5278 sets up a power dynamic similar to that which was established in Flint, MI where efforts to fix financial difficulties ultimately came at a grave cost to the environment and citizens. We cannot undermine the protection of Puerto Rico’s very limited natural resources, and thus, the most basic means we have to maintain our people, sustain our development and thus, improve our economy.

The US Federal Government shares a responsibility for the fiscal and economic crisis U.S. citizens face in Puerto Rico. Our financial troubles have been unraveling during the past decades under the indifferent eye of US authorities. For example, in 1984, the U.S. Congress took Puerto Rico out of the U.S. Chapter 9 bankruptcy laws, leaving the Island government without any legal means to restructure its debt. In addition, and since 1940, investment firms operating in Puerto Rico have been exempted from the jurisdiction of the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission (SEC), thus avoiding any investigation of possible misconduct related to the underwriting, sale, and trading of Puerto Rican municipal bonds that may have contributed to the current debt crisis.

Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew has stated, on behalf of President Barack Obama, that H.R. 5278 is “a framework for a sustainable economic future”. But the Bill strips US citizens of their power to engage is such endeavor, that is, a true sustainable future. I’ll give an example; I’ve worked with a local coalition for the last 16 years to protect the Northeast Ecological Corridor as a nature reserve, an effort recently recognized by the Goldman Foundation’s Environmental Award. This area, comprise of 3,000 acres, is home to one of the most important leatherback sea turtle nesting grounds in areas under U.S. jurisdiction. Having achieved our goal, we are now working to develop the area and adjacent towns into a prime ecotourism destination. Will the Board opt to sell most of the Corridor’s public lands that thousands of U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico and in the U.S. mainland have fought to defend, in order to pay our debt?

In another example, a U.S. company, Energy Answers, has proposed building a trash burning incinerator in the town of Arecibo with financial support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Local people are concerned about the impacts on air and water quality, especially downwind, where the biggest concentration of dairy farms exists in the Island. A similar incinerator from the same company was recently defeated by many citizens in Baltimore, MD, whose local rights empowered them to stop it; among these, Destiny Watsford, another 2016 Goldman Award winner. The Oversight Board, however, would have the power to override local environmental laws to fast track the approval of this facility in the Island, endangering not only one of the most important sectors of our agricultural industry, but also our people, which already suffers from higher asthma rates than many other areas in the U.S. mainland.

By allowing the Oversight Board to repeal local laws that look after public health, including Commonwealth owned natural protected areas and precious farmland, and allowing these to be sold to the highest bidder; we would be seriously undermining the means to assure our future. And, as a result, we would also be hampering our ability to pay our bond holders. Nobody wants those two outcomes to unfold.

The mission of the House Natural Resources Committee, who’s Chairman authored H.R. 5278, is to “empower people through our nation’s resources”. The PROMESA Bill, as currently supported by the House and President Obama, betrays that promise. We’ll soon learn if U.S. senators will follow that same path, or otherwise, decide to act as they are meant, “a government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Publicado en 80 grados
Autor: Jorge Luis Rivera-Herrera
28 de junio de 2016