Interview by Katiana Murillo, Rainforest Alliance
“Buying land is a costly and complex process that requires time and money, not just for buying the land, but also for legal expenses, especially in complex cases.”
The Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico, a nonprofit non-governmental organization, has been working for 45 years, to acquire lands for permanent conservation and develop initiatives such as environmental education and growing native tree species for reforestation. During its first years, the Trust’s financial resources came from tariffs imposed by the federal government on petrochemical companies operating on the island. Later, the Trust generated income from private financial transactions with companies. When the provisions of this law terminated, the Trust formed contracts with private companies in Puerto Rico and also received a portion of the federal government’s excise taxes on rum. That income allowed it to create a fund to acquire lands with high historic and ecological value. It now has 19 natural areas, 95 percent of which are property of the Trust. The remaining 5 percent are conservation easements or cooperative agreements with landowners who continue to hold the titles, but make a commitment to protect those areas.
In the last ten years, the Trust has been looking into acquiring lands in the karst zone on the northern part of the island, one of the few regions in the world with a cavern and underground river ecosystem and important habitat for endangered Neotropical migratory species. It is also the most important aquifer recharge area on the island. One of the initiatives underway is being developed by the Trust and the US Fish and Wildlife Service Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act to acquire lands for the conservation and eventual legal declaration of the Rio Encantado National Wildlife Refuge in the karst zone.
We spoke with Fernando Silva, head of development and planning for the Conservation Trust, about the Trust’s experience in land acquisition, other achievements and obstacles encountered.
Question: What is the importance of Puerto Rico’s karst zone?
The Karst Zone, Puerto Rico
Silva: The karst zone is a unique limestone area with caverns and underground river systems. Because access to the area is difficult and suitable farm land is limited, it has remained untouched for the most part, and its forest composition is very similar to its original, natural state. The forest structure has changed somewhat because the oldest trees were cut for lumber, but generally, all of the original species remain. It is also one of the most extensive areas without roads in Puerto Rico and comprises the largest continuous forested tract on the island. This makes it an important area for conservation and for species such as the critically endangered Puerto Rican parrot (Amazona vittata), which uses caverns in the karst zone for nesting. Organizations such as the US Fish and Wildlife Service have identified the karst area as vital for the parrot. There are plans to release captive-bred birds there next year.
This led the US Fish and Wildlife Service to propose the creation of the Rio Encantado National Wildlife Refuge, which would require land purchase. The Trust decided to intensify its protection efforts in the karst zone of the Encantado River and created its own project.
Q: What category of protection does the Encantado River have now?
Silva: The Encantado River is a special planning area. It has highly valuable natural areas whose value is recognized, even though they have not been officially designated. The planning board submits land-use project petitions. There are various categories: state forest, natural reserve, wildlife refuge, national forest, and sanctuary, among others. We have not yet started to push for a special designation for the area because much of it is still privately owned, and the government avoids designating lands until it has the property titles, due to legal implications.
We have been designating areas that we hope will become conservation areas, regardless of whether or not they have legal designations. We are now dealing with a mosaic of properties that constitute a fragmented zone of acquired areas. When we consolidate a more extensive protected area, it will have to be given a legal designation.
Q: How much land have you obtained so far and how much have you invested?
Silva: A total of 477 acres (193 hectares) have been obtained to date; 1,000 acres (405 hectares) are in negotiation and the first stage of acquisition involves approximately 6,998 acres (2,833 hectares). To date, some two million dollars have been invested in land purchase in the karst region, plus an additional several thousand dollars to cover expenses.
The Trust supports the efforts of the US Fish and Wildlife Service to acquire habitat for Neotropical migratory birds through economic assistance. We do not depend on outside funding for land acquisition, but we do consider those funds when they can be used without compromising the Trust’s control over the property title, mainly because the lands are going to be used strictly for conservation.
Q: What are the main environmental threats and legal obstacles to land purchase?
Silva: One of the greatest threats is that limestone is very valuable as a raw material for construction. The karst zone is a potential quarry site in Puerto Rico, which would destroy it. Even though we had a contract with a landowner, a third party appeared with a contract from the same owner for the development of a quarry on the same property, subject to permit approval. Things like this seriously delay the process until a solution is found.
We also find that some properties have not been registered, and there is no way to acquire a clear title; we have to make sure that we are not buying future disputes. The karst region is a remote area and many transactions were made without listing them in the property registry, so it must be demonstrated that the seller is the legitimate property owner. This has required time and money that could have been spent in other areas.
Q: What procedures does the Trust follow when acquiring lands?
Silva: We try to avoid entering into land acquisition negotiations when we can’t have control over the property title, because this puts us in the vulnerable position of paying legal expenses to protect a property for other uses or intentions. If we are the title holders, we can ensure site protection with much greater effectiveness than federal, local, or other governmental entities. In the instances when we have jointly acquired properties with the government of Puerto Rico, this has been done with the condition that if the Trust does not hold the title, the deed in the registry must have an easement in our favor, which authorizes us to make decisions regarding its uses. We are submitting a proposal to the US Fish and Wildlife Service because if we accept its funds to buy land, this in no way compromises our control over the property title. The proposal is for some $250,000 dollars, which isn’t much considering the cost of property in Puerto Rico, but it will help.
We also foresee the creation of ecological easements to conserve the land in perpetuity. In these cases, the owner retains the title to the property, but voluntarily renounces the possibility of some uses and establishes a land trust for conservation in perpetuity. According to the law, there must be a custodian, which can be an organization such as the Conservation Trust, which is why we use this legal mechanism.
Q: In addition to land purchase, does the Trust have any environmental education programs?
Silva: We support a project called the Corretjer Forest that is being developed by the Casa Corretjer organization, in honor of the Puerto Rican poet Juan Antonio Corretjer and linked to the nationalist movement. The Corretjer Forest is a farm that has been planted with native species. The Trust has had a three-year relationship with the organization, supporting workshops on the importance of the karst zone and its species, so that local youth and the general public become more familiar with the flora, the landscape, and the importance of conservation. We have provided trees and technical assistance. They work with the public education system in the village of Ciales, which is part of the karst area, and they have students participate in conservation projects in the Corretjer Forest. This farm, in particular, was one of the properties the Trust acquired; part of the Trust’s commitment is to collaborate independently of whether we are the property holders in the project or not, because it is compatible with the uses and management guidelines that the Trust adopted for the conservation of this zone.
We also have a membership program called Friends of the Trust and we use it to promote “Encounters with Nature.” To encourage participation, we ask Friends of the Trust to sign up for these encounters, which are half-day programs for people to learn about the geology of the area, the cavern system, the flora and fauna, local conservation projects, threats to the zone, and its history. We aim to provide an experience that will help the people enjoy and understand the natural history of the karst region and why it’s important to protect it. We also explain the problems that are threatening the ecosystem and the conservation strategies that are being used to save it. Approximately 4,000 people have participated.
Q: What are the main lessons you have learned in your work with the Trust?
Silva: Legally protecting lands has financial implications, whether you are transferring land titles or placing land-use restrictions on the property title based by applying conservation easements. It is costly and complicated and requires time and money, not just for buying the lands, but also for legal expenses, especially in complex cases.