A group of Minnesotans composed of environmental and social advocates and some elected officials recently traveled to Puerto Rico with the hopes of learning different ways to support communities going through the effects of climate change.
The organization that led the trip, COPAL, aims to create opportunities for Minnesota’s Latine community and engage people in taking civic and communal action. They organized this trip because they wanted “to build an understanding of climate migration for people to Minnesota, the climate impacts there, as well as the resilience and grassroots leadership on the island and how folks are envisioning a better environmental future for themselves,” said Ryan Pérez, an organizing director with the group.
The group was at the island for a week, visiting places of environmental and climate importance. The first day was spent at El Yunque National Forest, a tropical rainforest, known to draw in carbon dioxide and release out oxygen.
“That was really important to start off in a place that is one of the lungs of the world and to say, ‘Look at what is being threatened, this place that is biologically necessary for the environment, for humanity,’” Pérez said.
Other members of the trip included Richfield city council member Simon Trautmann (Ward 1) and Minnesota State Representative María Isa Pérez-Vega (District 65B).
“The trip was important to me because as a Puerto Rican elected, that was close to home metaphorically and actually. Also the fact that it was really focusing on the impacts of climate change and migration and what that means for Minnesota,” Trautmann said.
The experience for COPAL members was funded by the organization’s foundation partners, and the elected officials payed their own expenses for the trip, according to Pérez.
Response to climate events
In 2017, Puerto Rico experienced two major hurricanes; Irma and Maria. On the trip, the group visited the town of Comerío, one of the many places impacted by Hurricane Maria.
Cecilia Calvo, the director of advocacy and inclusion at Minnesota Environmental Partnership said the progress made since then is attributed to the people in local communities, not the government. While the U.S. Congress allocated $42.5 billion to disaster relief for Puerto Rico, the island received less than $14 billion through May 2019. Portions of that aid, including $20 billion were not made available for use until 2021.
“We saw how there was a lack of support from the U. S. government and from the local government there and that essentially communities were left on their own in terms of how to rebuild and respond,” Calvo said. “We saw both the impacts and also inspiring ways that communities have organized to respond to those challenges, particularly when there is a lack of government support.”
Extreme climate events are a big factor when people consider migrating. Where do people go when their livelihood is threatened?
“Much of the island went without electricity for a year. You can imagine being in any other part of America, there’s no electricity, those are the consequences that will lead people to leave their homes, leave the island, migrate elsewhere, migrate to Minnesota,” Trautmann said.
Around 19% of the Richfield’s population are Hispanic or Latino, according to Minnesota Compass. Trautmann feels that within the state, people don’t fully understand how climate change contributes to those immigration patterns.
“A lot of times I think when we have the climate change conversation, it’s forward looking like, ‘This is what we can expect to happen by 2050 or somewhere beyond the horizon.’ It’s been helpful to me to say ‘these are the consequences of climate change that our state is experiencing right now that other parts of the world are experiencing right now,’” he said.
In Puerto Rico, community members responded to the ongoing and immediate climate effects by crowdsourcing. Pérez thinks that while in Minnesota, there are funds for these projects, community-based responses need to hold more weight.
“Look at all the amazing leadership and impactful work communities are doing with little to no governmental funding, little to no governmental support. In contrast with the wealth that Minnesota has, the tax base that Minnesota has, if we can reach the same level of creativity and vision for solutions that work for communities on the ground that are led by the people in towns and impacted neighborhoods, we could be approaching the vision that a lot of folks have there,” Pérez said.
While on the trip, the group visited Casa Pueblo, a non-profit that began with protesting mining in the region, and in 1999 experimented with solar panels. By 2017 they achieved energy independence for the town’s roughly 18,000 residents.
“The barbershop is solar powered, the library is solar powered; they have a little theater that’s solar powered. This is an entire solar powered community,” Pérez said. “When a hurricane strikes, they’re prepared to continue to be a hub, a resource hub, a hospital space, a safety space, in the case of natural disaster.”
Calvo recalled the organization’s founder explaining how they initially struggled to engage the community in their work. However, that changed when they started using art, like music and folkloric dances, to bring people together.
Calvo observed that the solutions to climate effects came from a bottom-up approach that values the knowledge of communities directly impacted.
“Communities who most feel the effects of climate change, whether it’s these communities that lost power during the hurricanes and have rebuilt on their own, the communities that most feel the effects of the impacts of climate change or air pollution or environmental injustice; they also hold the ideas and the solutions,” Calvo said.
She wants Minnesota to keep that perspective when it comes to shaping policy.
“When we are working together in Minnesota to shape with environmental policies and with an environmental justice lens, how are we inviting community participation? How are we respecting the ideas and the knowledge of communities and also holding them as experts in the process?” Calvo said.
To do so, Pérez thinks policymakers and organizations need to build trust with those communities. He noticed in Puerto Rico, people felt the U.S. and local government had failed its constituents – and as a result they took things into their own hands.
“We have problems in Minnesota with communities not wanting to engage civically because of a distrust in government. That is magnified by tens of thousands times on the island,” Pérez said. “We were talking with leaders and saying, ‘Well, you have the respect of this town. You’re doing this amazing work, and you say the mayor is not working and not serving the interests of the community. Why don’t you run for mayor?’ There would be laughing moments and applause.”
The Minnesota delegation also wanted to see how the arts, like music and muralism can be used for social change. Pérez found the use of art on the island as a vehicle for health very uplifting – an approach Minnesota could benefit from using more.
“If the state and local communities took investment in the arts much more seriously, as something that is essential for the development of our children, for trauma healing,” said Pérez. “I think there’s a lot of brilliant people that are embracing that here in Minnesota, but the scale of it and the cultural normality of understanding arts as healing and arts as health, I think we can learn a lot from communities on the ground in Puerto Rico.”