The 150-Year Mission to Reforest Puerto Rico

One year after Hurricane Maria, community efforts to replace trees downed by the storm reflect optimism about the island’s future and a focus on sustainability.

An aerial photo of trees along a coast
A coastal forest near the village of Boquerón, Puerto Rico (NASA)

RÍO PIEDRAS, Puerto Rico—There was a time when all the lushness around here did not exist. The University of Puerto Rico’s botanical garden is arrayed just south of the metropolitan core of San Juan, nestled between the city and a state forest. The variety of plants is stunning—but still far from complete. Just 80 years ago, a moment in the life of forests, only 6 percent of Puerto Rico was covered in trees. Like much of the rest of the Caribbean, colonial deforestation had reshaped and denuded the island, with massive plantations and the timber trade converting almost every square inch of Puerto Rico. Only the decree of the Spanish Crown preserved any of the old-growth forest, a sylvan remnant of El Yunque in the east, that once covered the island. The gradual return of trees to the island has been a growing but still fragile trend.

That trend was put on hold by Hurricane Maria. Even the ancient rainforest of El Yunque faced severe damage from that storm, and smaller secondary forests fared no better. The 155-mile-an-hour winds of the Category 4 hurricane devastated homes, power lines, and tree cover alike. The defoliation was so thorough that it could be measured by aerial photographs taken by NASA, the deep green replaced by the ugly brown of mud and bare bark. The millions of pounds of rotting vegetation that sloughed off into streets and waterways was so thick that it limited travel, overwhelmed municipal trash services, and created public-health problems. A year later, the green has crept back, but the experiment of reforestation is still finding its footing, and the environment is only beginning its recovery.

In a tiny lot adjacent to the botanical gardens in Río Piedras, the seeds of that recovery are being sown. A tree nursery run by the nonprofit Para la Naturaleza features shaded greenhouses full of aspirant seedlings that will one day dominate the canopy, and rows of saplings placed outside to expose them to the elements. One hundred and ninety species of trees representing endemic and native species are on display in boxes and pots throughout the lot, which is one of five nurseries representing different climes across the island. The seedlings are still wispy, and many of the younger saplings might be mistaken for bushes. But the organization’s plan is that these will one day be the mighty anchors of old forests, markers of a new post-Maria order in Puerto Rico.

Manuel Sepúlveda Vázquez, a coordinator at Para la Naturaleza, says the full process could take anywhere from a century to 150 years. “With the native and endemic species in the Caribbean, they’re slow growers,” Sepulveda says. “Probably, whatever we’re doing here, we won’t see it. My kids won’t see it. My grandkids might see it.”

The “native” species Sepúlveda Vázquez refers to are those that existed in Puerto Rico’s premodern ecosystems—a somewhat tricky designation given the extensive history of Caribbean exploration and conquest well before Europeans arrived. “Endemic” species refer to those that only grow in specific areas in Puerto Rico. When the first of Para la Naturaleza’s nurseries was founded after Hurricane Hugo brought destruction to the island in 1989, it focused on trees of every variety—including invasive species brought over by Europeans. But over the years, the focus has been tightened: Puerto Rican trees for Puerto Rico.

Together, the native and endemic species that are being grown in the Río Piedras nursery will form the hearts of new forests that won’t just be replacements for what Hurricanes Irma and Maria destroyed in 2017, but will look like the woods that covered the entire island before Puerto Rico became a colony. Sepúlveda Vázquez intends to plant trees like the ausubo, which grows at a glacial pace but is famed for spectacularly strong wood that sinks in water. The amapola tree and its distinctive red flowers, unique to Puerto Rico, will be both a symbol and an ecological anchor. And the revitalized and restored forests won’t be random collections of trees, or neatly planned gardens with nice rows of distinct species. Rather, workers here have created methods that will mimic both the apparent chaos and the carefully ordered natural structures inside forests.

The project has a certain romanticism to it, one that’s attractive to many seeking to reestablish a connection with the island. That’s an important point, according to Andrew Ferenczi, a project coordinator with the organization. Ferenczi, like many other Puerto Ricans working across different recovery and revitalization projects, was actually living on the mainland when Maria hit. A manager for a utilities-analytics firm in New York until the fall of 2017, Ferenczi followed a reverse exodus of many younger Puerto Ricans back to pitch in after Maria, which he describes as “the most important event in generations.” Volunteer work with Para la Naturaleza became full-time work, and that full-time work has taken on more than just ecological significance. “It used to be kind of a craft, artisanal thing, more so because of the genetics and all of the benefits they also give to the ecosystems,” Ferenczi told me. “But a lot of it is going past that to the cultural and history aspect. How do we protect what it is to have that Puerto Rican flair?”

In a post-Maria world, that identity has increasingly come to be associated with a focus on sustainability, environmental justice, and resilience, bringing the two missions of the nurseries into complete alignment. On the one hand, forest cover is a valuable protector against flooding and erosion from storms and hurricanes, and promoting biodiversity represented most vividly by tropical forests is a proximal goal of a global long-term strategy to alleviate climate change and reduce the likelihood of catastrophic storms. On the other, trees are a natural resource in a place long derided by mainland officials as being unproductive, and forests and their flora and fauna—like the coquí frog—are points of pride, and now symbols of progress.

In all, with the federal government continually indifferent, with the president declaring that the estimate of the death toll “was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible,” and with no end in sight to the island’s financial, political, and infrastructure woes, the only surefire way for Puerto Ricans on the island to recover is to do so themselves.

That’s why a new and growing network of community groups dedicated to sustainability has emerged in Puerto Rico. When Maria devastated the island and destroyed its power grid, it also exposed how deeply unsustainable and fragile most pieces of Puerto Rican infrastructure were, and how those flaws were connected to major power vacuums at the municipal level. In the wake of the storm, individuals, community groups, and NGOs led the push to equip more houses with solar panels and water-filtration systems. Para la Naturaleza is one of those NGOs. “Necessity is the mother of invention, ultimately,” Ferenczi said. “How can we give them tools and resources? The commitment we have to communities is for 10 years. They’re calling the shots and we’re facilitating.”

Intertwined with these efforts are those to more carefully steward Puerto Rico’s ecology. Across the island, various projects I’ve seen have included cleaning up freshwater rivers and streams, preserving the rich coral reefs off the shore, scrubbing the air of pollutants from generators and fossil fuels, and dealing with the clash between invasive animal species, pets, and indigenous species that has dominated the story of Puerto Rico’s postcolonial fauna.

These efforts will take time, perhaps on the scale of generations. The ideas of planting trees and restoring fauna might seem trivial next to the human costs of disaster, costs we now know to be more tragic than just about anything in recent American history. But Puerto Rico is more than just a collection of people, and the deep webs of home, belonging, and the possibility of the future for many are tied in the state of the land and its bounty. Forests aren’t just collections of trees, either. They are distinct, independent, unfathomably complex networks of life, made all the more resilient through adversity. Among the community volunteers who planted and tended, dipping their hands in dark native dirt as lizards darted and looked on inquisitively, there was a sense of a deeper metaphor at work. The forests are coming back, and Puerto Rico can, too.