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Puerto Rico's oral history is even more important after hurricane, UNC professor says

puerto rico damage

Damage from Hurricane Maria in Morovis, Puerto Rico on Nov. 4, 2017. Mainland U.S. universities are offering education assistance to Puerto Rican students displaced by the hurricane.

Three months after Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc across Puerto Rico, UNC professor Javier Arce Nazario visited the island's mountain communities to speak with residents about their water systems.

This occurred a month after more than 80 percent of the country’s residents were without power, and a third of households were without reliable drinking water. When Arce Nazario revisited, most of the country was still reeling from the effects of Maria.

The visit was a part of Arce Nazario’s ongoing research on the biophysical and social components of Puerto Rican landscapes. As an associate professor of geography, Arce Nazario has been examining how oral histories of Puerto Rican residents inform evidence about water quality and system adaptability to extreme natural events.

Arce Nazario’s seminar, titled “Water Quality and Environmental Justice,” is a component of the “Tell About the South” series sponsored by The Center for the Study of the American South.

In his lecture, Arce Nazario stressed the importance of integrating oral history into a comprehensive understanding of landscapes.

“You cannot disentangle the cultural aspects of the processes that are happening in the environment, and just think about the very particular physical and biological measurements,” Arce Nazario said. “The landscape is not only plants and rocks and water – they’re people. People interact with the landscape, and they don’t only see trees. They see histories of their family – they see nationality.”

Through his seminar, Arce Nazario examined the structure and function on the non-PRASA communities in Puerto Rico, those who lived beyond the limits of the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority. The authority operates around the coastal cities of the island, leaving mountain communities to operate their own diverse, small scale water systems.

Due to the high prevalence of non-compliance with federal standards, health departments previously disapproved of these small-scale systems, claiming rural people have no technological, organizational or financial skills to operate independent systems.

But these surface water systems were up and running a few days after Maria, while some centralized water systems took months to recover. Following the hurricane, authorities began paying closer attention to the water systems of rural communities and began financing initiatives to make these systems more sustainable.

Residents of these areas are proud of their water systems. Rural Puerto Ricans often pay single digit fees for their water intake, a fraction of the baseline cost for PRASA. These surface water systems are less contaminated than industrial sources and the water comes from the community.

Throughout his lecture, Arce Nazario followed the oral history of one community member, Hector Martinez, a resident who grew up using the local water system and witnessed the changing landscape of the Puerto Rican mountains.

“What I’m trying to achieve is that my children, who live here in this community, see that what we have as a water system is not a water system,” Martinez said. “It’s, as we say, a grain of gold.”

Still, water access remains a critical issue across most of Puerto Rico. But the community agency of operating an independent water system reflects the meaning of environmental justice, Arce Nazario said, which includes self-determination.

“There’s a fundamental connection between the principles of environmental justice and the method of oral history. It’s only by knowing their stories that we can get to what people want,” said Rachel Seidman, associate director of the Southern Oral History Program. “Oral history allows people self-determination as a way for them to participate as equals.”

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