The Land Is Ours

Vulnerabilization and resistance in informal settlements in Puerto Rico: Lessons from the Caño Martín Peña Community Land Trust

Line Algoed and María E. Hernández Torrales

Published in Issue 1.1 // The Long Read

Keywords: Community Land Trusts; informal settlements; political ecology; vulnerability; land rights


Between 2002 and 2004, residents from seven informal settlements located along the Caño Martín Peña, a highly polluted channel in San Juan, Puerto Rico, established a community land trust to regularize land tenure and protect the historically marginalized barrios against the threat of displacement, as an unintended consequence of the ecological restoration of the channel. This article looks at the Fideicomiso de la Tierra del Caño Martín Peña (the Caño Martín Peña Community Land Trust or Caño CLT) from a political ecological perspective, as it aims to identify how the interests, policies and discourse of political and economic elites function to perpetuate the vulnerability of residents in unplanned settlements, and how the Caño CLT is an effective instrument to counter this process. The Caño CLT supports on-site rehabilitation by taking land out of a hostile market, reinforcing solidarity networks and democratizing sustainable planning through ongoing participatory planning-action-reflection processes. It is a critical piece of the wider comprehensive development ENLACE Caño Martín Peña Project, whose benefits include reducing the risk of flooding and restoring the environmental qualities of the mangrove channel. The article considers that informal settlements like those in the Martín Peña area are often located in a city’s most environmentally vulnerable, yet ecologically and geographically valuable areas, prone to land grabs after disasters. By looking at public discourse in Puerto Rico and the U.S. in the aftermath of the devastating hurricanes that struck the island in 2017, we analyze the assumed links between informality and vulnerability and how these assumptions are used to spur public support for displacements. The article argues that documenting and theorizing the knowledges produced by the enduring resistance of the Martín Peña communities can support residents in unplanned settlements in the Global South to come together and create mechanisms that protect land and counter vulnerabilization.

Line Algoed is a PhD Researcher at VUB.

María Hernández Torrales is Master of Laws in Environmental Law, Adjunct Professor at the Legal Aid Clinic at the University of Puerto Rico Law School and Former Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Fideicomiso de la Tierra del Caño Martín Peña.

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