Groundwater Disaster in Puerto Rico - the Need for Environmental Education

By Skanavis, Constantina | Journal of Environmental Health, September 1999 | Go to article overview
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Groundwater Disaster in Puerto Rico - the Need for Environmental Education


Skanavis, Constantina, Journal of Environmental Health


The Cultural Matrix of Puerto Rico

The precise cause and the severity of Puerto Rico's groundwater contamination problem have been the subjects of many arguments. The debate, which has been intense, has spilled into the scientific community. Regardless of who or what caused the problem, groundwater contamination has taken place, and the very people who may be most affected are oblivious to it. Furthermore, without support and pressure from the public, government policies are resistant to change. Thus, it is important that the Puerto Rican people know about the ineffectiveness of actions taken to safeguard the quality of the water supplies that are necessary to life. Ironically, as the quality of the environment rapidly diminishes, so does the public awareness of the dangers. In North America, it has been found that bombarding the public with too much information can create a sense of apathy (1). The issue that once caused fervor and tumult quickly becomes an uneventful part of life.

The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is a Caribbean island located 1,000 miles southeast of Florida. It became a territory of the United States in 1898, at the end of the Spanish-American War. Thus, residents of Puerto Rico are considered U.S. citizens, although they may not vote in national elections and are not required to pay federal taxes. Population density on the island is high, with about 3.5 million people occupying 8,700 square kilometers (2).

The people of Puerto Rico represent a cultural mix of French, Spanish, Indian, and African descent, with African heritage most prominent on the coasts and Indian heritage most prominent in the mountains. Nevertheless, the predominant culture of Puerto Rico is Latin American, and Spanish is the primary language. Since 1898, language has been a central issue in Puerto Rican education and culture, with everyone fighting over what the official language should be (3). The most important newspapers, El Mundo, El Nuevo Dia, and El Vocero, are published in Spanish. The only English newspaper is the San Juan Star. Although the U.S. Bureau of Census reports that a significant portion of Puerto Ricans do not understand English, it is the second official language on the island and a required subject in Puerto Rico's public schools (2,3).

Regardless of language, Puerto Rico boasts a 90 percent literacy rate among its citizens (2). Education has always been highly valued in the Puerto Rican culture, as can be seen in the dozen or more colleges and universities on the island. The Puerto Rico Department of Education even runs radio and television stations devoted only to educational and cultural concerns (4).

Another important aspect of the Puerto Rican culture is religion. The Roman Catholic Church claims 85 percent of Puerto Ricans as members; most of the remaining 15 percent belong to other Christian churches (5). Catholic traditions and customs prevail. Identity as a Catholic can represent identity with a community (4). Because religion is so deeply imbedded in the culture as a set of folk beliefs and practices, common values provide a sense of solidarity among all classes.

For centuries, the island's society has been divided into two classes. There are a small but relatively well-off upper class and a large, poverty-stricken lower class that has developed its own cultural traits within the restrictions of poverty (3). Dramatically poor in natural resources, Puerto Rico is overpopulated relative to the ability of its economy to support people adequately. Although the life expectancy in Puerto Rico is high (79 years for women and 72 years for men), standards of living are low, with most Puerto Ricans living in rural villages and towns. The unemployment rate is high throughout the island, and the mean income is half that of Mississippi, the poorest state in the United States (6). Only recently has the island begun to diminish the chronic poverty and destitution of its people.

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