Mourning Over Puerto Rico


El Yunque National Forest

The sun rose before me, shining on the tropical rainforest mountains of El Yunque behind me. With the Atlantic ocean frothing over my bare feet I looked out beyond the far horizon yearning to look anywhere but within. I’d had enough of that the past couple of years, having recently left war torn Guatemala where I had led an international parrot conservation project. The violence, danger, and loss of human and parrot life had left me with symptoms of post traumatic stress syndrome and a hopelessness that anything could be done ever to save the people and parrots of Latin America and the Caribbean.

I yearned for some kind of breakthrough, and with that longing saw my presence on Puerto Rico as a parrot pilgrimage. Going back to the roots of violence in the Americas, perhaps I could detect a pattern and find a solution to go forward. The Caribbean islands were the first places in the Americas where parrots were extracted for the pet trade and first place they went extinct. They were also the first places where people worked who were extracted for the slave trade and the first place cultures went extinct, Before Columbus came there were an estimated 1 million birds here, and 600,000 Taino Native Americans. By 1973 there were only 13 parrots left on the whole island in the El Yunque National Forest and perhaps a little over 1000 people who identified as Native Americans (though 61% of Puerto Ricans have Amerindian DNA). Yes the violence of colonialism began here, but so did the hope of parrot conservation as the first comprehensive parrot conservation book was written here about the Puerto Rican parrot.

The author, LoraKim Joyner, at Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico near the Rio Bravo aviary and release site

I was here in the mid 1990's on a grant from the USFWS as veterinary consultant from the North Carolina State University, School of Veterinary Medicine. The USFWS had hired me to help improve the breeding output of the two aviaries and produce protocols to release the birds as part of the Puerto Rican Parrot Recovery Project. My work was also to heal and see if I could continue working on front-line parrot conservation in the Americas. It was unclear if I ever could. But that first morning, giving it my best shot, I plunged into the sea and into the project, letting the work and the ocean vista wash away the nearly constant tears over the devastation of habitat loss and nearly 100% poaching in Guatemala, of which I was powerless to stop.

What I learned about the people and parrots of Puerto Rico alleviated only a tad bit of that powerlessness. Though situated in paradise, the island was gridlocked with traffic, unemployment, debt, and the violence of gangs and the drug trade. and Most of the existing parrots were not free flying but were held in breeding cages, so that their young could repopulate the island. For so much money going into the project, it was not clear that the birds could ever recover. Those early years of parrot releases were not in Puerto Rico, but in the Dominican Republic. Here I found myself once again on a beach with a national forest behind me. The tears were still flowing and the sadness had not alleviated. It didn’t help to know that this was the island upon which Columbus first landed. Taking Hispaniolan parrots and native Taino people back with him to Europe, he was the first to embody colonialist extraction.

The rise of the Spanish culture on Puerto Rico led to the demolishment of the culture of Taino and rapid diminishment of Puerto Rican parrot. The native peoples were wiped out due to disease, warfare, and slavery. Their demise was much quicker and complete than the parrot’s for by the beginning of the 20th century the Taino assimilation was complete, but still flocks of hundreds of parrots flew on the island despite habitat loss. The human society that replaced the Tainos was considered to have the strongest economies and cultures in the Caribbean where colonization had terminated other peoples and parrot species.

Then came a second wave of colonialism when the USA got involved. In 1898 they invaded the island and wrestled ownership of it from Spain. They devalued the Puerto Rican currency, making it easy to purchase smaller coffee farms to turn them into sugar cane production. Sugar cane companies ended up owning 75% of the land. The people’s economic and mostly sustainable base was shattered, and what was left of the island’s patchwork forest was quickly deforested where now there is only 2% forest coverage remaining. The sugar economy collapsed after World War II leading to a max exodus of people from the rural areas to San Jose and then to the USA.

Iguaca Aviary in 2008 where parrots are bred and trained for release

There was not much left to extract from Puerto Rico at this point, and a complex array of business policies and tax structures continued to impact the economic health of communities and lower their resilience to change. For instance the Jones Act restricted shipping making imported goods more expensive in Puerto Rico than in the USA, USA tax code Section 936 shifted taxes from stateside corporations to Puerto Rican domestic businesses, and very low Medicaid funding by the US federal government strained the commonwealth's budget. In the meantime, after the parrot's low point in 1993 it started to make a comeback. A conservation consciousness was brewing and extreme efforts were made to save the parrot from extinction. Many people did and continue to do amazing work to bring back the splendor of the biodiversity of the island. Aviary production improved in the 1990s and multiple releases of parrots led to 3 populations of parrots on the island when there had only been one – and the bird now numbered over 600 in 2017.

It had been a long road of recovery for the parrot, and the dream of free flying stable populations of Puerto Rican parrots on the island seemed feasible. I too had been on a journey and had mostly recovered from the losses of Guatemala. I was now working in several countries in Latin America. The heart ache, though ever present, was manageable. I could almost dream of massive and wide scale and parrot and people recovery, though he parrot populations and human communities remained fragile throughout the Latin America because of centuries of colonization and extraction.

Rio Bravo aviary after Hurricane Irma 2017

Puerto Rico suffered a direct hit of Hurricane Maria in September 2017. El Yunque was leveled and only 2 of the 60 birds that had been there are still alive, with 74-86 of the 134-160 free flying birds in Rio Bravo surviving. The breeding pairs in captivity are still viable and reproducing well, though the aviaries had to be rebuilt. Much of the human infrastructure of the island also had to be rebuilt in a context of what many saw as racism in the way the US government provided aid. More than 1000 people lost their lives.

Rio Bravo Aviary after Hurricane Maria 2018

The suffering of parrots and people will continue on Puerto Rico, and from the same causes. Climate change will mean more and stronger hurricanes and more flooding and loss on the island, and the fractured economy and culture over the centuries continues to strain families, communities, and habitats. What befell the parrots toppled the people as well. The core oppression of domination, which leads to inequality, patriarchy, and white supremacy, gave birth to colonialism, racism, and the speciesism that scars the island with environmental injustice. In an interview, Lisa Paravisini-Gebert , author of forthcoming book, The Amazon Parrots of the Caribbean: An Environmental Biography said, "We are suffering the consequences of Modernity. Any prosperity we had was not build upon anything real. We are now bankrupt and our living standards are worse than the 1905's. Colonialism, racism, extraction is the history of Puerto Rico. She added that colonialism collapses communities, including the parrot native community. "They have lost their culture."

I write this not to assign guilt or shame to those born of privilege, but so that we can mourn how a society and economy built upon extraction economies and domination has hurt us all, and will continue to do so. By mourning and embracing the reality of our shared losses, we can move from being overwhelmed to community solidarity with people and parrots everywhere. There is strength and resilience even in the most fragile heart, community, and population. The recovery of the Puerto Rican parrot and my life is testament to this. Let us not accept a life built upon domination, for anyone, anywhere. Instead we will resist and love the remnant, even though more storms are brewing over the horizon. Paravisini-Gerbert ended her interview with, "We need an economic pattern that doesn't work on continual extraction which is not good for people or birds. The nation will renew itself." From one of her lectures:

“Caribbean societies’ resistance to the loss of the remaining parrots is an act of defiance, an effort to preserve what remains of the sacred in their natural habitats, in their contributions to biodiversity, their specific roles in island ecologies, their quirks and idiosyncrasies, their particular beauty and their capacity to make us marvel.” Paravisini-Gebert concluded, “Caribbean societies’ resistance to the loss of the remaining parrots is an act of defiance, an effort to preserve what remains of the sacred in their natural habitats, in their contributions to biodiversity, their specific roles in island ecologies, their quirks and idiosyncrasies, their particular beauty and their capacity to make us marvel.”

Saving the Puerto Rican parrot is not just an act of desperation, but also courage and vision that unites in a unique fashion, such as in Jafet Veléz-Valentín, a wildlife biology/aviculturalist for the Iguaca Aviary, formerly the Luquillo Aviary in Puerto Rico. I worked with Jafet during the bleaker 1990's when a project veterinarian remarked as he looked in the eyes of the last chick in the last wild nest, "I am staring at extinction." I recently asked Jafet what he thought of the USA destruction of Puerto Rico, "It's water under the bridge. I won't focus on what happened 100 years ago. I need to be part of the people that will work for the progress of this island."

Jafet Veléz-Valentín of the Puerto Rican Parrot Recover Project

Conservation then begins with mourning because the past is riddled with human domination and violence. We have to hold that in our hearts while we also hold the future of a species in our hands. Let us join with Jafet and the many others of these lands to be part of the solution for the earth that will renew itself.

To be part of One Earth Conservation's efforts to be solidarity with the people and parrots of the Americas, learn more about our upcoming Freedom Project.

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