Vieques - Historical Perspective (II)

CORALations corals at
Sat Dec 4 17:39:16 EST 1999

We would like to provide some historical perspective based on a similar situation to Vieques which took place on the Puerto Rico island of Culebra. The U.S. Navy also conducted live fire target practice on this biologically diverse and inhabited island of Puerto Rico. Navy was forced out by the people of Culebra in 1976 because Culebra was considered spoils of the Spanish-American war - a land treaty technicality. (The Navy did not leave for ethical reasons). The National Security arguments stated by the military for Culebra in the late 60's are very similar to those being stated today for Vieques. (See Culebra y la Marina de Estados Unidos by Carmelo Delgado Cintrón, Appendix XX)   

At the turn of the Century, the Navy was attracted to Culebra because of its large harbor, Ensenada Honda, which the Navy considered the most hurricane safe harbor in the Caribbean. At this time President Theodore Roosevelt set part of this island aside for the Atlantic Fleet's weapons training area and part of the island aside for a Federal Refuge. After the Navy left, more areas including offshore cays littered with unexploded ordnance from the target practice were included under the Federal Refuge status. 
    Around 600 people lived on Culebra at the beginning of the 1900's. Their main town of San Ildefonso (a Taino Indian village 1,000 years earlier) was relocated by the Navy, and renamed Dewey, after the famous Admiral. The Navy left for Cuba to establish a base at Guantanamo, so Culebra was fairly quiet until things began to heat up in Europe in the late 1930's. The Navy returned and began concentrated live fire target practice now on the outskirts of a much larger population on Culebra. Many of the "Old Timers" on Culebra speak English, because they had to learn to deal with the Navy personnel. Many locals have not so flattering stories of the behavior of military personnel when they would come into town binge drinking and assaulting family members. Others to this day are really friendly to gringos and share stories about famous Navy admirals they met, etc... Many Culebrenses have served in the U.S. military and many still do.
    Locals have also shared stories about how Navy ordnance would drift a considerable distance from the target areas and lodge in their tin roofs in the center of the town of Dewey. They told me how they used to go down to the beaches at night and watch the tracers flying in the sky like fire works displays. A few residents have shell casings in their yards to this day, some white washed, as decorations or possibly memorials of days gone by. Two Sherman tanks stand rusting surreally posed to the backdrop of beautiful Flamenco Beach...once heavily targeted by U.S. Navy warships.
    The central peninsula of Flamenco was repeatedly napalmed. I was told, (but am not sure it is true), that this altered the vegetation which ironically turned it into ideal nesting habitat for endangered tern colonies. Some 55,000 endangered sea birds return to Culebra and offshore cays every year to nest. Hopefully this does not encourage Audubon Society members to begin napalming hillsides. 
    Only three years ago did the Army Corps of Engineers begin scanning terrestrial areas for unexploded ordnance, outside of the Federal Refuge areas. When the Navy left Culebra, ordnance clean up was not part of the agreement. I have been told by an x-military person, now turned conservationist, that they used to pile up the bombs on the most impressive coral heads and then explode them periodically as part of the clean up. I asked why the most impressive corals and he made for a more spectacular explosion to watch from shore. I have also heard that there used to be "fly over" populations of pink flamingos that would run on Flamenco Beach and feed in the neighboring salt pond. People have said they were shot for target practice by Navy personnel.(I believe this is true as it was confirmed a similar fate happened to the nesting population on Anegada, only it was the locals who shot them. Now local descendants have successfully started and are caring for a new breeding population on Anegada).
    It is true that some of the best coral reefs remaining in Puerto Rico are found around Culebra. The Navy presence may or may not have halted development on this island for a while. I don't think from this you can conclude that the Navy presence actually "conserved" these resources, even if you are callous enough to take out the human factor of these practices on this small inhabited island. Current coral coverage may rather be a testament to the population of coral which existed 50 years ago, water quality of healthy coral larval source areas, greater and diverse reef fish populations, a fairly disease free environment and less frequent and intense storms. Also the reason Culebra for so long escaped the development juggernaut (I love saying juggernaut) may have more to do with its isolation and changing climate. Fresh water is now limited on Culebra. Two centuries of deforestation, agriculture and now extensive land clearing for development is altering the entire island into a stressed desert ecosystem where once creeks supported crawdads or crayfish (anecdotal evidence). Pending developments are now being approved after the recent completion of an underwater water pipeline, (which based on interoffice government communications - will have no water coming out of it.) 
The coral reef situation is clearly different for Vieques today.
In Culebra there are still giant craters left in some reef areas and unexploded ordnance left in the water. It may have been a blessing the Navy left without cleaning the underwater ordnance, given that their only method for cleaning is piling up the ordnance and exploding.  In 1996,  for example, the Navy clean up of underwater unexploded WWII bombs off the Pacific island of Rota did an estimated 80 million dollars worth of damage at the Coral Gardens dive site (University of Guam). Terrestrial ordnance accidents have injured several people on Culebra since the Navy left. (anecdotal evidence).

    Puerto Rico is complicated. For obvious reasons imperialistic approaches attached to anything from economic reform policies to environmental management planning are resisted...and based on PR history, I find this understandable.
    Today Puerto Rico is asking for your help as coral reef experts, managers and conservationists. If you have not already done so please fax President Clinton and tell him no more live or inert U.S. Navy target practice on Vieques. 

White House Fax Line: 202-456-2461


Mary Ann Lucking
Project Coordinator
PMB 222
5900 Isla Verde Ave. L2
Carolina, PR  00979-4901
corals at

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