After the Storm
Even months after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September, the island still faces major upheaval in its wake. A new paper published in Frontiers in Communication suggests that while the storm may have done the damage, the root of this disruption can be attributed to government policy and energy colonialism.
Author Dr. Catalina M. de Onis argues that Puerto Rico “has been exploited as a sacrifice zone for empire building and experimentation, corporate greed, and toxic energy projects.” She asserts that the current scenario is an “unnatural” disaster, because it comes as the result of decisions made throughout over a hundred years of Puerto Rico’s status as a US territory.
Energy colonialism refers to a situation where foreign countries or companies take up a region’s land or resources in order to generate energy for themselves. In Puerto Rico, the worst of the situation is outside interests using the island as a way to make more by cornering the energy market.
Around half of people in Puerto Rico are yet to regain their electric power. The only drinking water available to tens of thousands of residents may have been contaminated with raw sewage. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has said that the territory is too wealthy to receive further aid, according to a report from The Intercept, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has announced that they will “shut off” aid on the island by the end of January.
There are several different policies that factor into the current situation. One is the Merchant Marine Act, which mandates that all goods entering Puerto Rico must travel on US-built, US-staffed ships that fly the US flag. Another is Operation Bootstrap, a scheme intended to promote industrialization that made the island a target for the fossil fuel industry. The island relies on imported fossil fuels for 97 percent of its energy needs, making Puerto Ricans’ electric bills two to three times higher than that of the average US household.
There’s also the more recent Puerto Rico Oversight Management and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), which was introduced by the Obama administration, and gave debt crisis management authority to a control board that was not democratically elected.
“They affect people greatly, though individuals might not always realize it,” wrote Dr. Hilda Lloréns, a cultural anthropologist with the University of Rhode Island who grew up in Puerto Rico, in email correspondence with Futurism. “For instance, the austerity measures under PROMESA will affect the poorest people by continuing to defund an already defunded public sector.”
She also raised some more indirect consequences pertaining to energy – the Merchant Marine Act makes imported goods like solar panels more expensive, and the high price of electricity on the island makes something as simple as a carton of milk cost more due to the cost of refrigeration.
Energy colonialism isn’t something that’s unique to Puerto Rico. Yet it’s been allowed to thrive due to the island’s status as a US territory, and the policies it is subject to as a result. The solution being put forward is to put control over energy back in the hands of residents, rather than outside interests.
Initiatives like the Coquí Solar Project seek to address this problem, by building infrastructure that gives communities a clean, sustainable source of energy that also provides training, employment, and community engagement for locals. Because there’s an urgent need for a global transition away from fossil fuels, there’s a danger that major multinationals might step in to control the process, rather than smaller, more locally-focused programs.
“The danger with external entities is that they think they can give blanket solutions without needing to differentiate what each community needs or wants,” wrote Lloréns. “Part of what community led energy projects are trying to forge is self-determination, employment for local people, and control.”
She also noted that there was a threat that external entities would cater to the wealthy in order to make a profit. The result would “produce a kind of gentrified green landscape, while poor communities will likely continued to be burdened with dirty energy.”