KINGSTON, R.I. – Dec. 19, 2022 – Most anthropologists would refer to the ethnographic research that Hilda Lloréns did for her latest book as fieldwork. But that’s not what Lloréns calls it. For her, it’s “homework.”
That’s because the area she studies—the communities surrounding the Jobos Bay in southern Puerto Rico—is where she was born and where generations of her family have lived. In Making Livable Worlds: Afro-Puerto Rican Women Building Environmental Justice, Lloréns chronicles the lives of women in this region who draw on deep cultural knowledge to navigate myriad environmental challenges from industrial pollution to disasters like hurricanes Irma and Maria.
Lloréns, an associate professor of anthropology at URI, says her goal was to elevate the stories of women whose contributions to their community are often overlooked, or even erased entirely. If the book’s reception among her colleagues is any indication, she’s succeeded immensely.
In October, Lloréns won the Frank Bonilla Book Prize presented by the Puerto Rican Studies Association. In November, the Society for Cultural Anthropology awarded Lloréns the Gregory Bateson Book Prize, recognizing “significant, ethnographically rich, and beautifully written books that address the urgent issues” in the discipline.
Lloréns says she’s appreciative of the recognition, but what’s more important to her is being an advocate for those living around Jobos Bay.
“My academic tradition is advocacy anthropology, so I like to be involved in community work,” she said. “I didn’t write this book just to write a book; I’m really hoping to help change the reality of a place that needs advocacy.”
Jobos Bay is on the southeastern coast of Puerto Rico. In the late 19th century, the region was home to vast sugarcane plantations and processing mills, worked at first by enslaved people and later by low-wage workers. Today, the region is home to a disproportionate amount of the island’s industrial infrastructure. For example, the bay is flanked on either side by giant power plants that supply power to much of the island, including the urban and tourist center of San Juan to the north. But it’s the people of Jobos Bay who pay the ecological price for that power, as the plants pollute the air with toxic chemicals, the ground with coal ash, and the bay with hot water discharge.
Lloréns argues that the racial and ethnic makeup of the region and its environmental degradation by outside forces are tightly entwined.
“This was historically a Black and Afro-descendent region, and still is,” she said. “One of the more controversial claims in the book is that even in a place like Puerto Rico, race, ethnicity, and social class have a lot to do with how and why places are chosen for extraction.”
The environmental damage associated with industry has been compounded in recent years by powerful storms, supercharged by warming ocean waters, that have destroyed homes and left residents without power and water. But in the face of these challenges, an environmental movement—led largely by Afro-Puerto Rican women—works to preserve ecosystems, build sustainable communities, and fight for environmental justice.
Through community centers and activist groups, volunteers throughout the Jobos Bay area undertake environmental projects large and small. Youth camps teach children about the environmental riches of the region, and shows them traditional fishing, gardening, and food-making techniques. Another project aims to reduce dependence on fossil fuels by placing solar panels on every house in a Jobos Bay neighborhood. A community garden produces fresh vegetables, herbs, and honey, with the proceeds reinvested in other community projects.
The roles women play in the environmental justice movement are varied. Some volunteer in community gardens or plan community events. Some help to organize childcare to enable volunteers to spend more time in the community. Others, like Ruth Santiago, an attorney and member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, fight for justice in courts and lobby governments for policy change.
Lloréns says that the Black Puerto Ricans’ self-sufficient ethos and traditional knowledge was important in recovering from Hurricanes Irma and Maria, which battered Jobos bay in 2017.
“Abandoned in many ways by the federal and local governments, individuals in ‘faraway’ communities like those in the southeast have learned to be creative and fend for themselves,” Lloréns writes. “They work to solve problems even when they live on the frontline of environmental injustice and suffer the impacts of environmental degradation.”
As marginalized communities around the globe continue to bear a disproportionate burden of climate change and industrial-driven environmental degradation, Lloréns contends that practices like those of Black Puerto Ricans become ever more important.
“Local Black/Afro ecological knowledge is central to Black Puerto Rican cultural practices and lifeways, so it is no wonder that Black Puerto Ricans, particularly women, have long been at the forefront of demanding that the ecosphere they depend on for sustenance and cultural integrity is protected. If the archipelagic ecosystem is to survive the devastation of climate change, it is time to learn from Black Puerto Ricans.”