A Chat with Surfrider’s
Leon Richter Continued.
Chris Dixon: What was
the feedback from the community?
Leon Richter: I think initially we were met with a lot of skepticism, yeah,
ok, a bunch of surfers, whatever, we’ve heard this all before. And so we
started to hold outreach activities — beach cleanups and meetings. And then
the politicians told us, you have to demonstrate that the community actually
wants this — that it isn’t just a few people who want to preserve
their surf break.
So we started a signature
campaign and collected 5300 signatures locally out of 12,000 people in the community.
CD: That’s huge!
LR: And that was done all by hand. Everything there is done really old
school and grass roots. No one has computers. The internet access was so bad
that when I was working with the designer on our maps, I had to stay up or wait
til 3 AM to download them. We were definitely working on a shoestring with no
budget. If we had a meeting, we had to put up 150 flyers around town — no postcards
and no email. There was a lot of just one on one talking and through the petition
campaign, which was all done by hand, you start to learn how people actually
feel about the issue and their objections.
Then, you ask someone to
sign the petition who happens to be a developer and he freaks out about it.
Then you find out why. It was actually a really good way to find out how the
community felt about the whole issue and why. It gave us visibility and credibility.
CD: How did you get along
with the mayor of the town?
LR: I think our relationship
with the mayor is pretty symbolic of how the whole campaign has gone.
Originally, he just kind
of glad handed us, but the more we went to see him the more he would include
us. So when the president of the planning board came out, we were invited to
the meeting, and I was actually able to give the president and his delegation
a tour of this area. So rather than it just being photos or someplace on a map,
we actually walked a stretch of this beach, and the whole issue really became
tangible to them.
We had brought him a bound
copy of the first 5000 signatures, and we had conducted beach cleanups and he
helped us arrange for the trash to be collected — it had been really collaborative.
By the end of the first six months, the mayor made a comment to us that I think
sums it all up. He said, “most people come to us asking me for something. Everyt
ime you come, you bring me help.”
We even held our meetings
in Spanish to make sure we were addressing everybody. There’s a real significant
expat community, and a pretty strong local surfing community.
CD: What breaks are we talking
|The Map of the Reserve.
Here to Blow it up.
LR: The first is called
Little Malibu, which breaks over elk horn coral and is shallow and super tubey,
then is Tres Palmas, which is the famous big wave. It breaks really far out
and is just an awesome place. Dogman’s — there’s upper and lower
dogman’s, a faster, hollower wave, and then Maria’s. Indicators is
a right point, and Domes is a nice right in front of the old nuclear power plant.
CD. And when do these places
LR: Any storm front coming
off the east coast, so you get northwesters and then wrap on big northeast swells.
The North shore of Puerto Rico is definitely more consistent, but the thing
is, when this area is working, the tradewinds are out of the northeast, so it
almost never blows out.
CD: Is there a dichotomy
between how the Puerto Ricans feel and how the expat Americans feel? I would
think a lot of the locals wouldn’t want these gringos telling them what
LR. I would constantly tell
people, look I don’t want to tell you what to do, I’m just here to
help facilitate what you as a group wants to do. So once the community said,
look, we want to preserve things kind of the way they are, we came up with a
strategy to accomplish that and they’re the ones making it happen. We were
really just there for guidance.
CD: So where are all the
LR: Well, they’re pretty
much dead. One of them was denied by the planning board, another one Manihiki,
was pretty much approved, but the corporation that was building it pretty much
went bankrupt. The Via Icaria is the one that we lobbied heavily on. The man
who owns the land is the developer.
On the Surfrider website
we actually have a lot of the reasons the planning board denied this. And they
incorporated a lot of our reasons as to why they denied it — the natural
resources that are there, the value of those resources. Which was pretty amazing.
The developers appealed the decision, and the appeal was denied. Which means
that basically short of going to court, which is highly unlikely, that project
CD: Did you meet the developer?
LR: I met the developer
in February. The mayor invited him and us to a planning meeting.
CD: Do you think he was
expecting to find you so well organized? Did he think he had a shoe-in?
|One of the area’s non-existent
LR: He definitely did not
take us seriously. The way the meeting started in the mayor’s office was
that we had our maps blown up poster size and we said, hey, look, we’re
part of the coalition, and we’d like to show you what we’re talking
about. His reaction was, there are no turtles there, I’ve been going there
for 30 to 40 years.
But there are turtles there.
We have lots of photos of them.
CD: Were you the only group
working on this?
LR. No, Surfers Environmental
Alliance was involved as was Environmental Defense. And at the grassroots level,
we also weren’t the only group warning about this project. There was another
flyer that circulated that dealt with other problems the community already had.
Lack of water, electricity — the power supply is very unreliable. Then there
were points that I can’t verify about developers getting tax breaks. Traffic,
the fact that it would increase traffic, and then effects on beach access. Environmental
harm, quality of life and then small businesses getting hurt. And this was locally
generated — not a Surfrider product. It was the kind of thing that made me
say, wow, the community really feels this way.
On the website, we tried
to make it like a library so people can see what we did, how we proceeded and
the process. So the whole thing has been pretty cool. It’s been a town
and its people who knew what they wanted to do but didn’t really know how
to go about doing it, and each step of the way there would be kind of challenges
thrown up —hey, we need you to demonstrate local support. Well, how do
you do that, well, We need to go out and get signatures and that would help
us to recruit other people.
CD: Tell me about the bulldozer
LR: Well, I go to the black
eagle, a pub, and one of the guys there said, hey, did you see what they’re
doing at Maria’s? There’s some guy there with a bulldozer.
So the next morning, I got
up there with my little point and shoot camera and I was looking around. Sure
enough, they were bulldozing the brush in front of the beach. So I called a
woman I knew and said, so what do I do? And she said, ask the guy for permits
11 and 27. They have to be on the equipment before they can do any disturbing
of natural resources. So I went and said, “excuse me,” in my nicest Spanish.
“Sorry to bother you, but can I see your permits?” The guy went crazy and ended
up chasing after me with a machete. I ran to the car.
The municipality actually
was bulldozing the area for a surf contest. And so, I, like an idiot drove down
toward Domes which is a dead end. And so I had to go back, I went back and said,
look I’m really sorry, but if you don’t have permits, you have to
wait for the DNR to come and sort this out. I was totally nervous for the next
But it was things like that
that actually gave us some credibility. Instead of everyone just sitting around
the bar complaining and not doing anything. A lot of little things like that
CD: And get around a small
town like that quickly.
So this guy who’s a
forestry expert, he and one of the local surfers, Vito, decided after the bulldozing,
that they wanted to do a complete reforestation. And last month, the mayor signed
a letter saying the municipality would help.
So we start with one incident,
and the more become involved, and the more success we have, the more people
participate. We had a big beach cleanup at a contest and the pros were actually
picking up trash between heats. That gave us credibility in the surfing community.
CD: Did this grab much attention
from the Puerto Rican media?
LR: Yeah, most of the early
coverage came from Terry Gibson. And he wrote a huge piece in the Surfer’s
Path. And we launched a huge media campaign.
And one of the things that
came from that was that we were able to get an audience with Alexis Massol,
who was one of the Goldman Prize winners — people call it the Nobel for
Another person who got involved
is Edwin Santos. He’s kind of the king of Puerto Rican pro surfing — everywhere
you go with him, people start acting like ten year olds. He saw the flyer and
showed up at a Surfrider meeting and his help has been unbelievable.
So, I would say that beginning
this spring or summer. We had a dozen pieces in the PR News — including
their top newspaper, El Nueva Dia.
CD: So where do things stand
now in terms of the Marine Reserve?
LR: Where we literally are
now is, we’ve got a draft of legislation to create the marine reserve.
That’s going to be introduced at the capitol in the next week or two.
CD: How much of PR’s
coast is protected at all?
(at this point, Surfrider’s
Chad Nelson sits down at the table)
CN: There’s only one
other big marine reserve, it’s on Culebra, the island offshore. There are
a number of coastal nature preserves that sort of de facto protect the water
by protecting the coast.
I think there are 25 nature
|White Banding Disease
on coral. A direct result of human waste in the water.
CD: But PR is not so much
known for its environmental stewardship.
CN. Yeah, it’s been
sort of a rape and pillage thing, and I think there’s an urgency for economic
development because people feel it will get them out of poverty. The irony is
that often it gets a handful of people wealthy with the promise of jobs that
never really materialize.
CD: Then in the case of
something like this — a private development — then you deny the very
people access to the beach that they’ve been going to forever. You wipe
out their fishing and make them reliant on bullshit jobs whereas they can be
more reliant off the land and sea if those are still intact.
CN: Plus the mom and pop
outfits there are doing alright. They’re all be gone in the Wal-Mart phenomenon.
LR: There’s also the
perception which is probably real that if they end up developing these things,
then they’re going to get most of the water and we the locals are going
to have water no days of the year rather than half the days of the year.
One of the things I think
we’ve been able to accomplish in Rincon is to empower the community to
make them feel like they really have a voice. The current mayor won his job
on an anti-corruption platform. The previous mayor was incredibly corrupt. I
think he has federal charges against him. The town bulldozers were on his son’s
ranch. He built a tower hotel right on the beach in a community of single and
two story homes.
CD: Sounds like what you
see on the Baja coast.
CN: Exactly like that. So
one of the other things we ran into besides, ‘hey we need jobs,’ was
yeah, whatever, they’ll just pay off the politicians and build it anyway.
CD. That’s why it’s
almost such a surprise that you guys had any effect at all. Because you think
how hard it is to win an environmental battle here. Much less in a place that’s
known for cronyism and corruption. P.R. is supposed to follow US environmental
laws in a lot of ways, but often it doesn’t.
LR. Well, there’s no
local newspaper in that area. People don’t have Internet access. So local
issues don’t get a lot of coverage. It’s all word of mouth. And the
other is that there’s a lot of defeatism there. You know, we’re not
really a state, we don’t have any power. The government’s always corrupt
and it never does what it says it’s going to.
So it was getting local
surfers together — local key figures When Edwin Santos showed up, and Juan
Ashton, the godfather of the young surfers, showed up, it gave us a lot of credibilty.
Renee, the guy who owns the local surf shops, got involved. All these guys gave
us the street credibility, all the way up to Alexis Massol.
Massol’s group fought
a 20 year battle to stop mining operations in their community that destroyed
forests, and they created the People’s Forest — it’s co-managed
between the community and the department of natural resources. They have a cooperative
coffee plantation in the jungle and it’s the best coffee in Puerto Rico.
The first think Massol said
was, ‘how long has this been going on?’ And we said, ‘well, the
work you’re looking at here has been done in the last six months.’
He said, ‘you’ve done 10 years of work here, how can I help?’
We said, we really need
media attention to recruit additional people and to put pressure on the politicians.
So he agreed. And he really helped, he came and spoke at chapter meetings. He’d
never been snorkeling, so we held a press conference right on the beach and
Steve Fitzpatrick took these sick photos of him in among the Elkhorn. We’ve
probably done over a dozen radio shows this summer. We got every newspaper and
all the major networks.
When this guy says, ‘hey,
I’m going to bat for you,’ he really means it.
|A Whale Breaches in
PR While a Surfer Looks On.
CD: So where do you go from
here in terms of the marine reserve?
CN: We’ve been working
with Vizcarrondo, the Speaker of the House to get this thing on the floor.
LR. Vizcarrondo’s office
along with the DNR in a meeting, said we want to recommend to you, the marine
reserve, the special planning area and the terrestrial reserve. We’re working
closely with Vizcarrondo’s office and the DNR and the planning board.
CD: Why do you think you
were able to get this going so big? Was it really the grassroots support?
CN: Some aspects are hard
to speculate. But we do know that getting 5300 signatures is a pretty powerful statement.
When we first came to them, they said, you need local support.
LR: Yeah, we met with the
local congressman and he said, I vote with the mayor. So we got the mayor to
sign the petition.
CD: Were you surprised the
mayor went for it?
CN: I think it was a sequence
of events that led to his support. It took us some time, almost a year, but
we started collecting these signatures and he saw that local support was being
generated. We also did these beach cleanups — that sounds so trivial in some
ways, but I think they really impressed him. He said, ‘not only are these
people fighting for a vision of preservation, but today they’re cleaning
up the beaches.’
CD: It will be really interesting
if this passes. It will set up an interesting precedent for Surfrider and Rincon
and other places that have issues like this.
LR. I think that the other
thing is that even if this goes through, and we get a park management plan and
everything goes well, one of the greater challenges that lies in front of us
is the terrestrial aspect. Private land rights and getting to the table with
this guy who owns the land. There’s a new conservation easement law that
went into effect last January that provides tax incentives for creating easements
— that’s one possibility. Or partnering with another non governmental
or conservation organization to buy the land. I think we’re actually to
the point where we can get him to the table and work through a solution like
that down the road.
Or maybe we put a grassroots
education center on the land and other people can come for information as well.
CN: You know, one of our
sort of longer, far reaching goals was totally accomplished too. We set up a
sort of template, so we can say, ‘Hey you can do this for other communities.
Here’s a model, we’ve done some of the homework and here are the laws
that apply. It can be done. Collect the signatures, do the work and maybe your
community can get the same results.
To see how they did it,