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El Bienestar Común

Or how Puerto Rico is taking care of itself

The world’s oceans have historically been seen by humans as a resource to be exploited rather than as the awesome, mysterious force from which all of terrestrial life was birthed some 3.5 billion years ago. But this perception is much more nuanced for island or coastal territories whose fate and prosperity are inextricably tied to the fickle bounty of the bodies of water that woo them.

While the World Economic Forum’s Nature Risk Rising report warns that more than half of global GDP is “moderately or highly dependent” on nature, human activities and global warming have accelerated, applying mounting pressure specifically to water-related resources. This, in turn, has led to far-ranging and multi-dimensional challenges. Challenges that require systemic mindsets and collaborative approaches.

For Puerto Rico, recently pummeled by two tropical storms and a pandemic, the reality of this interdependence with nature has created large-scale environmental, human, and economic devastation as well as an unprecedented opportunity to emerge as a leader, specifically in the creative and blue economies.

Juan Bauzá, the US Economic Development Administration (EDA)’s representative in Puerto Rico, offers that the recent recovery plan presents “a unique opportunity to blend creative economies with the blue economy and the resilience industry.”

So what does this mean? And can Puerto Rico do it on its own?

Has anything changed?

“That’s what feels similar to Hurricane María. That daily uncertainty. Two years later. Still.”

Two women sit outside together in the dark, their faces bathed in the flickering glow of a mobile, the neon city below. A video plays on the phone’s screen as they narrate what they witnessed that day in July 2019, when they took part in protests that eventually prompted the resignation of then-Governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo A. Rosselló.

This scene is captured in Cecilia Aldarondo’s subtle 2021 documentary Landfall, which explores the immediate aftermath of the storm and the interwoven circumstances that have made it so deeply and lastingly damaging to the islands’ people.

When María hit in 2017, Puerto Rico was $72 billion in debt. In March 2022, after years of austerity measures that took their toll on the territory’s infrastructure, economy, and social fabric, a federal court approved a plan that reduced the debt by 80%, forging a path to greater economic stability.

Meanwhile, however, the disbursement of funds from reconstruction projects managed by FEMA had made slower-than-expected progress. The impacts of the storms on structures already weakened by budget cuts, or neglect, were catastrophic: 100% of the power grid was affected, 95% of Puerto Ricans were without drinking water, 90% of households applied for assistance. Almost 3,000 people lost their lives.

https://www.weforum.org/reports/nature-risk-rising-why-the-crisis-engulfing-nature-matters-for-business-and-the-economy/

In response, on 20 September 2017, FEMA extended eligibility for both Public Assistance and Individual Assistance (IA) — which provides relief for immediate needs and housing restoration — to all 78 of Puerto Rico’s municipalities. It also stipulated that the majority of reconstruction projects should follow its aid processes under section 428.

Despite these handicaps, Puerto Rico has stayed on track in pursuing its newly-defined ambitions.

Section 428 allows for the rebuilding of structures in their pre-existing state (in usage and capacity), and targets critical facilities such as those that provide emergency medical care, emergency services, electricity, water, wastewater treatment, communications, and education. Under section 406, the “usual” FEMA process, money is allocated based on actual costs, while under section 428 it is allocated based on fixed cost estimates.

These estimates, it turns out, could vary wildly, and if costs increased after estimates were approved, municipal governments were responsible for the extra expenses. This explains in part why, to date, only a fraction of funds have been disbursed and many projects have yet to see the light of day, leaving Puerto Ricans with perennially inadequate essential services.

Puerto Rico Reconstruction GraphicUnreliable delivery of power and potable water, damaged supply chains, rising costs of living, and limited access to capital all shackle the sustained efforts necessary for full social and economic recovery.

Tackling old challenges with new tools

Despite these handicaps, Puerto Rico has stayed on track in pursuing its newly-defined ambitions. As entrepreneurship continues to surge worldwide, its dual impact as a driver of economic mobility and of commercial and technological innovation has made it an essential component of the territory’s strategy.

For example, the Foundation for Puerto Rico has spearheaded several community-led economic initiatives considering the constraints and opportunities present in Puerto Rico’s topography, culture, crafts, and resources, to build more resilient and prosperous coastal municipalities. Applications are now open for the second cohort of its 5-Stage PULSO program. The initiative targets small businesses in northern regions and is delivered in partnership with other ecosystem partners, further increasing chances of success through merging capacity.

Earlier this year, accelerator Creative Startups with the EDA, Wovenware, a AI consulting company, the Titín Foundation, and Bluetide Puerto Rico, launched a free cohort-driven program to bolster the post-pandemic recovery and growth of 31 local creative companies along with eight non-profits.

In parallel, the government stepped up to support small and medium businesses (SMBs), first through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) — enabling existing employers to keep their staff on the payroll in the wake of the pandemic — second through the COVID economic injury disaster loan (EIDL) which injected over $2 billion in approved loans (as of April 28, 2022).

Josué E. Rivera, District Director for Puerto Rico & U.S. Virgin Islands at the U.S. Small Business Administration, witnessed the impact of this multi-sector influx of support: “It’s really significant from my standpoint of being in charge of rural development, and now in charge of small business administration. We’re being provided with tools from the federal government to assist small businesses, to rebuild the ecosystem of entrepreneurs — building capacity, but also improving access to capital, which is the number one need for businesses at the moment.”

Working Together

Getting a full picture of both the potential and pitfalls inherent in developing the blue and creative economies is akin to assembling a puzzle. The variety of stakeholders and interests calls for a robust approach founded on consultation, trust, and the explicit aim of creating shared value.

Dr. Laura Jean Palmer-Moloney is a research scientist, hydro geographer, and educator focused on coastal resources management and the water-food-energy-climate nexus: “I believe that cross-sector conversations are challenging because everyone is watching their siloed budget, and it’s going be a question of how we really honestly have these conversations about how collaborative and how cross-sector the work needs to be right now.”

With this in mind, Bluetide Puerto Rico was created to steward a concerted approach to complementary scientific and commercial initiatives that take people, planet, and profit into consideration, and also to act as a bridge between the private, public, and third sectors.

Getting a full picture of both the potential and pitfalls inherent in developing the blue and creative economies is akin to assembling a puzzle.

“It’s the interplay of the goals that matters most,” Laura Jean explains, “whether they are the built environment, the business side, or the economic side of things. It’s tied to food. It’s tied to humans. It’s tied to infrastructure. It’s tied to industry. And it’s also tied to biodiversity and habitat because I believe that, sometimes, the imbalance of those factors leads to second- and third-order consequences that were not being planned for.”

Whom might we become?

The recent recovery plan aims to leverage the talent and technology of startups to tackle issues that have long plagued Puerto Rico. Can their ingenuity birth a more inclusive, regenerative economy that values its interconnectedness with nature?

The immediacy of short-term growth is often favored over a stakeholder approach and this juncture holds the seemingly ever-present risk of reverting to extractive practices. While there are inherent complexities in building ventures that seek win-win-win scenarios, the case has long been made that resolving these complexities, even iteratively, is worth the effort. But it is an effort.

And as another protagonist in Landfall explains, the socio-economic uncertainty that so many Puerto Ricans have had to face for so long has had crippling consequences: “The hurricane took so much out of us. First, because you’re in such a hurry and then because you don’t have energy and the process of recovery is so tiring.”

Yet, now is the time to ask hard questions. How do we avoid repeating the errors of the past? How do we rebuild for resilience and for sustained, sustainable, collective well-being? How do we trust enough to know we can do better together?

For Laura Jean, “that’s where the optimism comes in. That’s where working with very early-stage startups comes in. There are innovative ways to move forward, but sometimes we have to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. Maybe part of our work with startups is to ask: what’s your plan for the worst-case scenario? What’s your plan for when the sea rises? How do you tackle corruption?”

For Josué, the tough questions extend beyond business. “I am really passionate about helping others and rebuilding our economy. I am also concerned about Puerto Rico’s future, not only in terms of the economy but also in terms of our aspirations as a society. We have been citizens of the United States for over a hundred years and that’s something that needs to be resolved in a way that provides economic certainty for others to look at Puerto Rico on equal footing and to truly provide equal opportunities for all. The economy is not the only thing, right?”

This article is Part Six of a series produced by Impact Entrepreneur about current and planned “blue economy” and resilience initiatives in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and broader Caribbean. This series is an outreach effort to communicate the Blue Economy Course of Action ECN 10 found in the Economic and Disaster Recovery Plan for Puerto Rico and bluetidepr.org. Other articles in the series are listed below as they appear.

I. A New Framework for Economic Revitalization in Puerto Rico

II. Measuring Impact in Puerto Rico’s Emerging Blue Economy

III. Resilience: Two experts discuss its importance to the impact economy

IV. Restoring Coral Reefs Is One Key to Puerto Rico’s Economic Future

V. Technology and Sustainability: A Way Forward for Puerto Rico?

Isabelle Swiderski founded her design-for-impact agency Seven25 in 2007 to help values-driven organizations leverage the power of design. Marrying an MBA and MA in Design, Isabelle facilitates systems change and social justice and innovation work in partnership with NGOs, universities, governments, entrepreneurs, and ecosystem builders globally.

This article was produced in collaboration with the Magazine's Content Partners.

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