Efrain Diaz Figueroa, right, walks by his sister's home destroyed in the passing of Hurricane Maria, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The 70-year-old is waiting for a sister to come take him to stay with family in Boston. “I’m going to the U.S. I’ll live better there,” he said. (Ramon Espinosa/AP)

Longtime environmental justice activist Elizabeth Yeampierre is helping spearhead a national day of action on creating a “just recovery” for Puerto Rico. Here’s what that means.

The Climate Justice Alliance has declared Wednesday “A National Day of Action,” on behalf of Puerto Rico, which was nearly devastated by Hurricane Maria last month. Millions of people are still without power and have limited access to food, water, and many have even lost their homes. The alliance is calling for people to hold marches, rallies, and events in cities across the U.S. to build support for a “just recovery and transition” for Puerto Rico—meaning a rebuilding effort that won’t lead to the involuntary displacement of millions of Puerto Ricans from their homes.

Helping spearhead this effort is the environmental justice organization UPROSE, which is based in Brooklyn, and is led by executive director Elizabeth Yeampierre, a Puerto Rican-American who’s been at the forefront of climate justice campaigns for years. You may have spotted Yeampierre drum-majoring the mega-voluminous People’s Climate March in 2014, Leonardo DiCaprio marching near her—a protest for which she was a lead organizer, as she was for the follow-up People’s Climate March earlier this year.

But those marches weren’t just for photo-ops. Yeampierre and thousands of other grassroots environmental justice activists were trying to awaken the public, and the federal government, to the fact that disastrous weather extremities would be worsened by climate change, and that the nation’s most vulnerable communities would be most devastated by this. Their warning was also that the nation wasn’t prepared to handle such extremities, and would be weakened financially by that lack of preparation. She experienced this in her advocacy work after Hurricane Katrina, and when her own New York City communities were hit directly by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

And her forecast was correct. The economic damage of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma from this year alone is as much as $65 billion, or .3 percent of the nation’s GDP, ranking the storms “among the most destructive U.S. natural disasters in the post-WWII period,” according to the Congressional Research Service. That was before Hurricane Maria came in just weeks later, causing billions more in damage, destruction, and displacement. But it’s not just about the hurricane—Puerto Rico’s “devastation is the culmination of centuries of colonialism, extraction, and repression,” says Yeampierre.

Citylab caught up with Yeampierre to discuss the National Day of Action and UPROSE’s efforts to help make sure Puerto Rico is rebuilt in a just fashion.

Puerto Rico will recover with new infrastructure and a refreshed built environment. Developers and green builders will say this is an opportunity to provide Puerto Rico with what it needed all along . How would you respond to that?

Well, their green solutions often result in our displacement. So my response to that is just transition. There is a way of making investments and working with communities so that they don't become the victims of [developers’] need to to make money or to bring what [developers] think the solutions are. And so we're calling this a path to just relief. There is a place for relationship-building. There is a place for investments and there is a place for doing this in a way that doesn't result in our displacement.

We're worried that people who are being evacuated from Puerto Rico may never be brought back, and that that land is going to be privatized. We saw what happened in New Orleans, where entire black communities are being used by developers to promote gentrification, and that could happen in Puerto Rico.

You once served as chair of NEJAC, the civilian committee that advises EPA on environmental justice issues, and that has produced several reports on not only how to do green rebuilding without gentrification, but also on how to do an environmental justice-guided recovery after natural disasters. What’s been your experience in terms of having EPA actually utilize these advisory reports?

One of the things that I had asked for [from EPA] before Sandy happened in New York was for a working group to put together a study on toxic exposure for industrial waterfront communities in the event of an extreme weather event. And that was a big fight. I had to keep asking [EPA] and then finally Sandy had to happen in order for us to get that working group going. And then we finally put out the report, but then the report just sat there. But now you see what happened in Houston, which is really the poster child for what that report was predicting could happen in our community.  

EPA was moving at a pace that was kinda conventional and traditional and what we were dealing with was an unconventional situation. It wasn't prepared bureaucratically or systematically to respond to [disasters] so unpredictable and vast. There was this division [in EPA] between environmental justice and climate change issues, but, to me, you couldn't divide those. The communities that were going to be the most impacted by climate change were the environmental justice communities. And that was an administration that actually cared about us, with people like Lisa Jackson and other assistant administrators who deeply cared authentically for our community. But EPA was really being slowed down by a lot of people who had been working there for their entire life, who didn't share our vision, and who really were in the pockets of these industries. So I was very frustrated because I saw [Sandy] coming. A lot of us saw it coming. And now it's just happening more repetitively, in Florida, in Houston, and now we see it happening in Puerto Rico.

UPROSE has been helping to deliver needed items to Puerto Rico, such as solar panels, bicycles, and food. What challenges have you all encountered in that mission?

So, one of the challenges is capacity on the ground. These grassroots organizations were always small to begin with and underfunded and under-supported. Now they're taking on the huge challenge of trying to coordinate efforts throughout the island, from the frontlines to the grassroots. So this is really an opportunity to build their capacity so that they can drive what a just transition looks like. One of the issues we’re hearing is super important to them is food sovereignty. Before [Hurricane Maria] happened, 80 percent of the food came from outside of Puerto Rico. So this has basically knocked down what little agricultural land that was in the hands of the Puerto Rican people.

Food sovereignty has become a real issue, for identifying spaces throughout the island where they could grow their own food and and not have to depend on the United States for that. This is what happens when these places are neglected, and when the folks coming in to solve environmental justice problems are not supporting the people on the ground. There are organizations that won't support the people on the ground unless their name is all over it, or unless it supports their larger mission. So we we think that that has to flip. If people are following the Jemez principles for democratic organizing then a different power structure needs to be available in Puerto Rico.

(UPROSE)

Talk about the role Puerto Rico, and Puerto Ricans such as yourself have played in developing the environmental justice movement from the beginning.

Well, you know, years ago in New York City my son was going to protests on a regular basis to stop the bombing in Vieques because it was creating an ecological disaster. There were people in Vieques who not only lost their homes but developed cancer. Now there are 23 Superfund sites in Puerto Rico that have swelled up and spilled all over the place because of the storm. When I was the NEJAC chair, I called a meeting with the heads of a bunch of [federal] agencies because they were planning a pipeline to traverse across the entire island. Puerto Ricans here have been fighting an ash plant on the island and there have been a number of Puerto Ricans in New York City leading that fight.

Civil rights leader Reverend Al Sharpton with politicians Jose Rivera and Roberto Ramirez of New York after being arrested for entering U.S. Navy lands on Tuesday, May 1, 2001, on the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico.  (Tomas van HoutryveAP)

But Puerto Ricans here, you know, we came here because of U.S. policies on the island. A lot of us weren't born here by choice. We came because the United States basically turned an agricultural economy into an economy for the petrochemical industry and other U.S.-based industries. And I know my grandfather could not find any work. Half of my grandmother's children died from hunger and disease in Puerto Rico. And so that's how we ended up here.

So whenever we can try to make a difference there we're willing to do it. One thing that’s interesting is they could drop bombs on Vieques, but they can't drop food on the island. I do think all the bureaucratic stuff is keeping people from accessing the resources. Folks in Miami and Connecticut and Boston and Chicago and New York City— you should see the looks on the people's faces that are doing all this work, giving up all their weekends to send food because our people are in trauma right now. There are feelings that they're trying to basically push us out of the island so that they can privatize it. Puerto Rico is literally at the mercy of a government who has over and over again let folks know that people of color are not their priority.  

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