On a rainy day in the middle of May, one street in the mountainous Puerto Rican municipality of Adjuntas, almost two hours west from San Juan, offers a contrast in competing approaches to the island’s future.
Off to one side of the road, a purple flag proclaims the presence of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a base for U.S. relief workers meant to help the island in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Directly across the street from the looming green FEMA building is a smaller, pink building, filled with light, even in the midst of the fluctuating rain showers typical of this area.
Standing in front of the pink house’s doorway is the Puerto Rican flag, waving in spite of the rain. Less apparent to those on the ground are the solar panels lining the cheerful building’s roof, the lifeline of the entire organization, well known to locals as Casa Pueblo.
“Only one flag flies here,” says Arturo Massol-Deyá, pointedly. Having duly noted his allegiances to Puerto Rico’s autonomy, the biologist, who serves as one of the organization’s most prominent faces, smiles slightly.
Puerto Rico’s flag may fly alone here, but Casa Pueblo’s name recognition is growing as energy competitors on and off the island fight to play a role in Puerto Rico’s recovery. Tesla, the electric power company founded by Elon Musk, has been referenced repeatedly in conversations surrounding Puerto Rico’s renewable efforts, as have other outsiders.
But lost in the sea of people clamoring for a stake in the island’s recovery is the reality that renewable efforts led by Puerto Ricans were underway long before newcomers ever took an interest, not least of all at Casa Pueblo.
Inside the building, a small world buzzes. Off to the right of the entrance, one room doubles as a store, where honey and other local offerings are sold, including the Madre Isla Coffee the organization has produced since 1989 which sustains Casa Pueblo financially. Further along, at the back of the relatively small house, a large room offers a better idea of where you are: the center of an environmental watchdog group hell-bent on sustainably powering Puerto Rico.
Here, a solar-powered fridge stands against the right side of the room, near a spacious window providing ample sunshine regardless of the weather. Off to the left, a large grinder and other machinery gives some idea of how the organization’s popular coffee comes to be. There’s more outside, where a pathway leads to a bright blue building bordering a greenhouse and butterfly area. That in turn stands near a newer endeavor: a small cinema, filled with seats and a large screen.
On an island still struggling to recover from a devastating hurricane where locals feel largely let down by the federal government, Casa Pueblo’s placement right across the street from a post-storm FEMA base seems almost ironic to staffers. One woman at Casa Pueblo, when asked, says that the organization has only interacted with the agency once.
“They asked if we would be filing damage reports after the storm,” she recalls. “We said we would not.”
FEMA does not appear to know much about Casa Pueblo, per staffers, a trend consistent with mainland officials. Many activists, lawmakers, and others on the mainland have painted Puerto Rico’s recovery from Maria as an opportunity to test out various renewable power ideas.
“Puerto Rico can be an experimental workshop for solar and wind,” said Rep. Darren Soto (D-FL) in July during a congressional hearing.
For Casa Pueblo, that dream is far beyond the experimental stage.
A labor of love decades in the making
Inside the house, Massol-Deyá proudly points to a picture on the wall. It shows a lone protester, standing in opposition to an open-pit mining effort several decades ago. He then gestures at another picture on the wall, this one filled with seemingly hundreds to thousands of people, stretching beyond the frame’s constraints.
“That,” he says, motioning his finger back and forth between the images and ending on the second one, “started with one person showing up at the main square to protest open-pit mining.”
He slowly explains, recounting early environmental efforts in Puerto Rico where mining and development have been a source of controversy for decades. During the lone protester incident in question, Massol-Deyá says, activists sought to convince Puerto Ricans that a planned open-pit mine would be devastating for surrounding communities. They didn’t have much success at the time.
“So after going and telling people around [the area] that open-pit mining was going to be bad for agriculture, bad for the water, bad for biodiversity, for the environment, air quality and so forth, only one showed up at the main square,” he says, gesturing at the first picture before pointing to the second one crammed full of people. “And this is 15 years after, this same square.”
Casa Pueblo predates Massol-Deyá by some time. Founded by his father, Alexis Massol-González, 38 years ago, the organization has grown by leaps and bounds over the decades, evolving from anti-mining activism to wide-scale renewable efforts.
Beginning as a cultural workshop in the 1980s, the group quickly took an active stance against open-pit mining. The pink house came several years after the organization itself took shape and with it a series of dramatic advancements as it grew, introducing a radio station, along with the cinema and butterfly garden. Five years ago, an environmental school also opened, part of Casa Pueblo’s efforts to engage community members in sustainability.
As assistant executive director of Casa Pueblo, Massol-Deyá has largely come to be the face of the organization, even as his father remains a fixture — Massol-González famously won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2002 for his activism. The award is given annually to grassroots activists from each of six geographic locations globally.
Using both coffee profits and donated labor, Casa Pueblo thrives, broadcasting environmental and cultural programming through its radio station, in addition to promoting responsible use of Puerto Rico’s delicate, lush ecosystem. For years, the organization has advocated for conservation and immersed itself in environmental justice issues. Casa Pueblo’s work is well-known on the island — something that became a lifeline last fall.
In the wake of Maria
When Hurricane Maria roared ashore as a Category 4 storm on September 20, 2017, Puerto Rico faltered in the face of its force. Electricity went out, as did water access. Hospitals, schools, and other institutions shuttered. For weeks, Puerto Ricans lived without basic necessities, enduring conditions that horrified mainland U.S. citizens, even as the Trump administration came under fire for its slow and flippant response.
While much of the island lived in darkness, others provided a beacon. Buoyed by solar energy, Casa Pueblo sustained power. People came from miles around seeking aid in the form of water, food, and above all, energy — in addition to charging electric devices in general, those reliant on oxygen machines came to stay alive.
For months, Casa Pueblo would serve as a source of comfort for desperate islanders. And the organization’s critical role in post-hurricane relief was no secret. Aid workers that arrived in the weeks following Maria scrambled to forge local connections. Several that succeeded told ThinkProgress that Massol-Deyá’s organization proved to be a vital resource as they took in the extent of the storm’s damage.
“So much depends on a sustainable power system,” says Martha Thompson, who manages Puerto Rico recovery efforts for the aid organization Oxfam. Reflecting on a trip to the island earlier this year, she recalls numerous families reliant on generators and unable to depend on the island’s destroyed electrical grid.
“We’re trying to bring solar power to a hundred community clinics,” she offers, emphasizing the appeal of renewables before mentioning Casa Pueblo. Massol-Deyá, she says, “is a real solar-power advocate.” Praising his work, Thompson says that Casa Pueblo’s pre-existing infrastructure has proven invaluable for recovery efforts.
Others say the same. Noah Steinberg-Di Stefano works with Lutheran World Relief (LWR), an international non-profit that focuses largely on both sustainable development and disaster recovery. Like Oxfam, the organization rarely focuses on domestic crises. But Puerto Rico quickly proved different.
“We found that most of the help was arriving in San Juan [after the storm],” Steinberg-Di Stefano says. “A lot of the rural areas were not getting the help that they needed.”
When LWR workers headed to Adjuntas last October, they found an area deeply impacted by Maria. Traumatized residents experienced anxiety with each gust of wind; many had no water and almost none had power apart from generators. Eager to help and looking for local partners, workers like Steinberg-Di Stefano quickly found Casa Pueblo.
“Casa Pueblo has really strong ties in the community,” he says. Better yet, they had pre-existing resources.
“They were already doing a lot of interesting work with solar lanterns, they had satellite phones,” Steinberg-Di Stefano recalls. “Part of their office is powered by solar power, so people could get power from them.”
Conservative lawmakers in Washington have sought to assert their authority over the island’s recovery process. House Natural Resources Committee Rob Bishop (R-UT) has pushed for fossil fuels in Puerto Rico, in an effort to make the island “the energy hub of the entire Caribbean area.”
During a press conference in May, Bishop said that he would “love to see more natural gas ports” on the island, noting that energy would need to be imported.
Two months later, Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA) similarly centered fossil fuels in another hearing focused on the future of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA). In response to comments favoring renewable energy, McClintock aggressively dismissed such solutions as “expensive” and unreliable, despite pushback from other officials, who argued the opposite.
The power of lawmakers thousands of miles away weighs heavily on the minds of people like Massol-Deyá.
“They don’t believe, none of them believe, in renewable energy sources,” he says. “They want to keep Puerto Rico as a market for fossil fuels.”
PREPA, Puerto Rico’s power company, has been in distress for years. Despite heavy opposition, many government officials want to privatize PREPA and Gov. Ricardo Rosselló signed a bill partially doing just that in June. Privatizing the company will seemingly keep it dependent on fossil fuels, according to advocates and residents.
Casa Pueblo’s story has an appeal for many who want a different future for Puerto Rico. “The Battle for Paradise”, a nearly 18-minute documentary published in early 2018 by the Intercept, juxtaposes the organization’s work and those of other environmental activists on the island with the “disaster capitalists” some have accused of exploiting the island’s recovery process in an effort to gain financially.
For Massol-Deyá, the controversy over both disaster capitalism and PREPA is another argument in favor of renewable energy. Puerto Rico’s faulty electrical grid failed the island after Maria, while solar power sustained Casa Pueblo. Although the environmental activist doesn’t think a complete shift is possible at the moment, he feels that reducing dependence on an unreliable grid should be a priority.
“Instead of thinking how to build PREPA, [we need to think] how to reduce PREPA,” he explains.
Right now, he says, PREPA is most helpful when the sun’s rays are gone. “They’re burning [oil] continuously… it’s not like I can tell them, ‘no,'” he says. So in the meantime, the company has its uses.
“I’m producing energy from the sun, I need [PREPA] at night,” he shrugs.
While transitioning to renewables won’t happen immediately, that doesn’t mean Casa Pueblo isn’t trying. In town, the organization has installed solar panels on at least two hardware stores, in addition to a small barber shop whose grinning owner, Wilfredo Perez, speaks happily about the extended hours and profit the shift in power source has brought him.
That’s far from all — Steinberg-Di Stefano, the aid worker, says that LWR is partnering with Casa Pueblo to help equip local grocery stores with solar power. Those efforts, he says, “contribute to food security” in addition to providing local communities with a place to go during terrible storms like Maria.
“People can come and know that there will be power,” he offers.
At Casa Pueblo, Massol-Deyá himself notes that the organization has set up dozens of solar-powered refrigerators around the area, with the intent of prioritizing medication that must be kept cold as much as food.
“You’re thinking about food security, but food security is also related to health care,” he says. “And that’s part of the response that we have launched after the hurricane. Because we’re organized, we’re ready, and we have a clear mission on the energy issue that we have to break dependency.”
Shaking off the shackles of external financial and resource reliance — be it on the mainland United States or internal forces and interests — remains at the core of Casa Pueblo’s mission.
That won’t change any time soon. A year after Maria’s deadly rampage, with mainland interest waning and many aid workers long since departed, Casa Pueblo remains unfazed and focused on the future. Looking at his toes but speaking with force, Massol-Deyá asserts again that his organization will continue to expand, fighting fossil fuel efforts on the island.
The “colonial relationship” that shapes Puerto Rico’s modern existence endures, he acknowledges, but its current structure is keeping the island dependent on outdated and harmful systems, including fossil fuels. So long as that remains the case, Casa Pueblo will be hard at work trying to change things.
“This is a set-up from the last century,” he says, with a tone of exasperation, contrasting Puerto Rico’s past with its present. “I think we have to move forward. I mean this is 2018, it’s not 2001.”