Community (dis)empowerment: the Cano Martin Pena project

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Author: Christine Letts
Date: Annual 2010
Publisher: President and Fellows of Harvard College, through the John F. Kennedy School of Government
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,484 words
Lexile Measure: 1440L

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The Cano Martin Pena was once a navigable waterway through the center of San Juan, Puerto Rico, connecting two lagoons. Impoverished squatters who migrated to San Juan from rural areas during the first half of the twentieth century settled along the cano (canal) and built their houses among mangroves. Over time, the cano closed in with debris and waste. More than 3,000 structures were located where there was no sewer system, contributing to environmental degradation and hazardous health conditions when flooding occurred every time it rained.

With a plan to dredge the Cano in the works, the Puerto Rico Highway Department embarked upon a new strategy to engage the poor communities that would be most affected. Department leaders did this as a result of very bad experiences with several projects in the past where community opposition effectively stopped progress.

Between 2002 and 2004, highway employees enlisted leadership among the eight poor communities (20,000 residents) that border the cano and engaged in more than 700 meetings and activities, which resulted in a comprehensive development plan and land use plan for the area. At a recent presentation, some community leaders were crystal clear about their motivation to participate: they wanted to protect their right to relocate within the area rather than allow gentrification to push them out of the 200 acres that would be upgraded as a result of the dredging. While the communities affected are among the poorest in Puerto Rico, their employment level is higher than the average.

In 2004, a law was passed creating two bodies that would implement the plans that were decided upon: the ENLACE Corporation (the administrative body) and the Cano Martin Pena Community Land Trust (CMP-CLT). The CMP-CLT was a new threshold in Puerto Rican public policy, transferring more than 200 acres of public land next to the "Golden Mile" (San Juan's financial district) to a trust held by the residents. The trust is a tool for economic development that benefits the residents as it provides for tenure on the land. Over the next two years another participatory process engaged all the residents in establishing the regulations that govern the land trust and the rights of the residents with regard to holding or transferring their property....

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A247530571