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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,