Thriving Amidst Struggle: an Islander’s Climate Story

I still remember when I got the call to be part of a COP26 delegation. I was wandering through the desert, experiencing for the first time a landscape completely opposite to what I knew.

I remember vividly the dry heat, the very blue sky, and me looking for shade to answer the call and fill out the paperwork from my cell phone.

I remember it because 2021 was a year of many firsts. Earlier that year I made the risky, but necessary, decision to take a leave of absence from my PhD. I had decided that, along with taking care of my health I was going to travel. One of the stops? The Grand Canyon, fulfilling a promise I made to myself almost 20 years before. Reconnected with nature and with free time on my hands, I also got fully involved with the coordination of the Citizens Assemblies aimed at having our own Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) of the Paris Agreement, made by the people and for the people of Puerto Rico.

But my climate story began way before that; even before I was aware of it. My mom tells everyone the story about how, at five years old, I wanted her to stop by the road to pick up the trash because I didn’t want us to live on “la isla basura” (“the garbage island”). Little did I know, nor my mom, that the worry of not becoming “garbage island” would transform into a battle cry for our islands not to become disposable and for our right as islanders to stay and thrive in our homeland not to be dismissed.

View of the Rainforest

I grew up in Rio Grande, a town in the northeastern part of the island of Puerto Rico. My town, which in English means Big River, is home and portal to one of our wonders: El Yunque National Rainforest. In fact, with 200 inches of rain a year, it is the only rainforest in the U.S. system. 20% of the island feeds off the rivers born within its mountains, which I could see each morning, enveloped in clouds, on my way to school.

I was living in paradise. But there’s a catch; we have hurricanes.

I was eight years old when I lived through my first hurricane. With 115 mph winds, the Category 3 Hurricane George crossed the island from east to west. I remember we had to leave our old wooden house to stay with our grandparents, not knowing if our home was going to be there when we got back. Thankfully, it was. Despite the winds, the house only sustained minor damages.

We visited the river a lot after the event. For me, it was just a playdate with cousins when in reality it was the only way to wash clothes as water and electricity didn’t come back for weeks. But resilient people as we are, we kept thriving, even in the struggle.

Grand Canyon

As I kept growing, always around rivers, I started falling in love with science and with understanding nature. I remember seeing pictures of the Grand Canyon, a whole landscape carved by water, then the Sahara Desert and the Amazon, and promising myself that one day I was going to visit all of those places. Entering middle school, I was certain, Planet Earth is an interconnected miracle, and to protect that miracle was to protect ourselves. But I wasn’t an activist yet.

It wasn’t until college that the activist in me bloomed. I became a college student in the midst of a profound economic crisis and the implementation of severe austerity measures that threatened our education, our jobs, our ecosystems, and our livelihoods. With plans for a pipeline construction already in place by the government, I needed to do something.

I was a sophomore when I participated in my first student strike and a junior for my first environmental protest against the pipeline. A few years later, I was conducting and facilitating meetings, organizing activities, mediating conflicts, navigating negotiations, giving speeches…skills that I still use today. The will of the people prevailed and the pipeline project was canceled.

The message was clear: activism works and together, not only can we defend ourselves, we can win.

When I started graduate studies, I was sure I wanted to work with communities. My experience taught me that, in community, we have the capacity to solve our problems, whether social or environmental. This became obvious during Hurricane Maria in 2017.

What I remember the most about the night of that hurricane was the sound. The whole house was vibrating and there was this howl — like a monster was trying to rip the house apart. I was more scared this time than when I was eight years old. It was followed by months, without electricity, eight-hour queues for gas, not knowing about my family for weeks. This time around it was definitely worse. We were again washing clothes and taking baths in the river. I remember looking at El Yunque from afar, not having the courage to go in. It looked burnt. I cried.

Despite that and despite the grim climate change projections for the Caribbean, with more frequent and more intense hurricanes and with sea-level rise already impacting our coastal life, I’m still hopeful. Seeing communities come together, establishing community kitchens, clearing streets, and fixing each other’s houses was a true display of resiliency and strength.

Today, communities organized around the cleaning of their neighboring river are writing proposals to transition to solar energy. Communities that started maintaining their recreational areas now have reforestation programs. When our governments failed us, we identified what we needed, and we made it happen, even in the worst of circumstances. I was even more convinced; communities need to be in the forefront of climate action and they need to be supported in that process.

I’m going to SB56, the U.N. climate change conference ahead of COP27, with the same conviction and the same message: communities are and need to be in the forefront of climate action, and governments should follow. Our ecosystems, our homes, and our lives depend on it.

Monica Flores-HernandezBorn in San Juan and raised on the banks of the Herrera River in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico, Mónica is completing her doctorate in Environmental Sciences from the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras. Her studies focus on Watershed Management from a socio-environmental perspective. She has worked on various research projects in different water bodies, as well as multiple community initiatives throughout the island. Founding member of Jovenes Socioambientales and part of Climate Trace PR, she’s committed to organizing communities and facilitating climate empowerment processes and environmental justice seeking efforts, as well as raising awareness on islanders’ issues in the international arena.

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