By Catalina M. de Onís, author of Energy Islands: Metaphors of Power, Extractivism, and Justice in Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico’s electric energy problems are widely recognized as one of the most pressing issues facing residents. There are two competing visions for the archipelago’s energy future: ongoing and increasing reliance on imported methane gas with some solar farms or distributed rooftop solar that is designed, implemented, and maintained by local communities. To transform the unsustainable electric system and dependency on centralized generating structures, as well as the vulnerable transmission and distribution lines, a technical shift to solar energy is insufficient. Power must be transformed in all forms. This transformation includes ensuring that the local power utility rejects privatization to encourage power sharing among stakeholders, especially for its employees and ratepayers.
Widespread May Day 2021 and other demonstrations protested a corrupt privatization deal involving the local electric power utility. Enabled by Puerto Rican Governor Pedro Pierluisi and the U.S. Congress-approved fiscal control board, LUMA Energy will take command of the utility’s transmission and distribution system, customer service, and billing, among other key functions, on June 1, 2021 —the start of the next hurricane season.
In response to increasing and intensifying devastation caused by climate-related disasters, major political forces, such as the Biden administration and the US Department of Energy are naming environmental, climate, and energy justice major priorities. In doing so, governmental officials pledge to address the disproportionate impacts caused by regional and global climate disruption, environmental degradation, and environmental racism. In late March, the Biden administration announced the members of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, one of whom is Puerto Rican attorney and environmental justice advocate Ruth Santiago, who has been a vocal opponent of LUMA. The federal government’s recognition of the importance of addressing socio-ecological inequities and injustices necessitates critical attention, given that inclusionary efforts by the state tend to leave dominant structures and oppressive relations unchanged, while continuing to centralize power.
This reality urges the question: how can researchers contribute to progressive or radical transformations, rather than perpetuate the status quo?
First and foremost, scholars can play a key role in examining how frontline/coastline communities are impacted by political agenda setting that appropriates environmental, climate, and energy justice movement frames and discourses. However, this work must be approached ethically, so that research practices do not become the latest iteration of harmful relations that constitute extractivism, dispossession, and domination.
Over the years, including during the pandemic, I have reflected frequently on how to bridge the distance separating me from the local, everyday experiences of residents in southeastern Puerto Rico. As an activist teacher-researcher who lives in the United States and studies and contributes to coalitional social justice struggles in Puerto Rico, I have tried to work in this liminal space by engaging in public-facing initiatives in collaboration with frontline/coastline grassroots organizations in Puerto Rico. Since 2014, I have collaborated with the Iniciativa de Ecodesarrollo de Bahía de Jobos (IDEBAJO, Ecodevelopment Initiative of Jobos Bay). This network consists of groups and projects that exemplify community care rooted in mutual support (apoyo mutuo).
These interactions inform and inspire the content for my book: Energy Islands: Metaphors of Power, Extractivism, and Justice in Puerto Rico. This text studies the importance of decentralizing electric power and people power via the concepts of energy coloniality, energy privilege, energy actors, and energy justice. The book blends historical and ethnographic research to discuss enactments of apoyo mutuo among communities in southeastern Puerto Rico that face the disproportionate cruelties and lethal consequences of racial capitalism, colonialism, and extractivism—all while community members work to live good lives and imagine alternative futures in grassroots, horizontal, and coalitional mobilizations.
Seeking to resonate with and reach beyond audiences interested in Energy Islands, I also coauthored Environmental Justice Is for You and Me, a Spanish-English-language bilingual children’s book that introduces young readers to the concept of justicia ambiental (environmental justice). The text describes how this movement discourse and frame takes shape in Puerto Rico-based struggles against one of the largest island’s two most polluting power facilities: the AES-owned carbonera (coal plant). The book also includes selections from the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice. Members of the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit drafted these priorities in October 1991 in Washington, D.C. Thirty years since their writing, these principles continue to guide many aspects of the environmental justice movement and discourse, which extends well outside U.S. continental borders. Given the imperative of justicia ambiental, amid worsening environmental degradation and climate disruption and their disproportionate impacts, authors confront the challenge of addressing youth in accessible ways, such as communicating the complicated topics of injustice and pollution in multiple languages.
This collaborative children’s book was an intergenerational project with anthropologist Dr. Hilda Lloréns, her child and middle schooler Khalil G. García-Lloréns, and college student artist-activist Mabette Colón Pérez. Mabette also created the book’s images that illustrate various locations in the Jobos Bay region of southeastern Puerto Rico. In addition to Puerto Rican publisher Editora Educación Emergente offering a free download of the e-book, my coauthors and I are working with the press to produce physical copies of the book for purchase online. All royalties will be donated to the Comité Diálogo Ambiental (Environmental Dialogue Committee), a grassroots group affiliated with IDEBAJO that coordinates an annual environmental justice camp for youth in Jobos Bay. In consultation with members of the organization, I created the El poder del pueblo (Power of the People) website, to provide a shared resource hub. The website features a forthcoming documentary about energy justice and distributed rooftop solar in Puerto Rico, virtual discussion panels and other event recordings, and much more.
These projects work to amplify consensually the local, everyday experiences and stories of residents in Puerto Rico. While various circumstances—ranging from COVID-19 physical distancing restrictions to reducing driving and flying because of greenhouse gas emissions—can create gulfs between researchers and research sites, there also are possibilities for engaging in long-distance collaborations that can carry important applied contributions to struggles for more livable, equitable, and sustainable relations.
More information about Energy Islands and other related projects is available at catalinadeonis.com.
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