Creating Power, Creating Demand: The Caño Martín Peña Project

February 19, 2010

The development of a community land trust (CLT) in Puerto Rico might be a pretty good story by itself. What makes it an extraordinary story is that the organizing activity that led to the formation of the Caño Martín Peña Land Trust was started by the Puerto Rico Highway Department.
Caño Martín Peña was once a navigable waterway through the center of San Juan, connecting two lagoons. Impoverished squatters who migrated to San Juan from rural areas during the first half of the 20th century settled along the Caño and built their houses among mangroves. Over time, the Caño (canal) closed in with debris and waste. Over 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 Caño in the works, the 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 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 Caño and engaged in over 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. The CLT is a tool for economic development that benefits the residents as it provides for tenure on the land.
In 2004, a law was passed creating two bodies that would implement the plans: ENLACE Corporation (the administrative body) and the Caño Martín Peña Community Land Trust (CMP-CLT). The CMP-CLT was a new threshold in Puerto Rican public policy, transferring over 200 acres of public land next to the “Golden Mile” (San Juan's financial district) to a trust held by the residents. 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.
Despite support voiced by the newly elected governor during the electoral process, in 2009 the mayor of San Juan and the governor got legislation passed that transferred the land back to the municipality of San Juan and enables the municipality to grant individual land ownership to the residents, eliminating the Land Trust and creating divisive incentives within the community. This action was consistent with the potential for gentrification, as individuals will have incentive to sell to the highest bidders, which the Land Trust had prevented. The CMP-CLT, backed by the G-8 (group of eight communities), sued the government, and the government has countersued.
The latest political events notwithstanding, this effort is another chapter in a strong history of the success of community organizing in the development of land trusts. The transfer of power to enable poor communities to manage their own destiny is a change that we should all support. This change takes work, dedication, and most of all time, and the tenacity to stick with the process until communities are prepared to take over.
I hope I’ve inspired some funders out there to think about how they might include more community organizing and initiative in their discussions and investments. For those who may be willing to build some capacity, I encourage them to support organizing and advocacy training for community and nonprofit leaders.
Monday's post: Striking a Balance Between Supply and Demand.
Tuesday's post: Perhaps Change Starts at Home: University Outreach Programs.

Thursday's post: From Service to Organizing: The Story of Sapientis.

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Rip Rapson
President and CEO
The Kresge Foundation