THE PUERTO RICAN AND HIS ENVIRONMENT
AS IT RELATES TO TIME
THE HUMAN-ENVIRONMENT RELATIONSHIP
Human life occurs in the context of a particular time in
a particular space. As such, it is necessary not only to
look at a specific time of human activity proposed for study,
but also take into consideration the place where the activity
is realized. Therefore, geography can be utilized as the
setting for historical analysis. Geography may then be conceptualized
as the stage where people act.
In line with this principle, this chapter presents the relationship
of Puerto Ricans with their environment during different
periods of time historically. Factors such as geological
evolution and the shape and location of the Island of Puerto
Rico in the Archipelago Antilles and the American continent
are essential for understanding the actions of the Puerto
Rican community. Themes such as topography, climate, hydrography,
precipitation and hurricanes, natural resources and the
soil, will also be presented.
Notwithstanding that physical geography will point out a
few relatively stable characteristics for a particular area,
they have different significance for the persons living
in those environments at distinct times. The human-environment
relationship varies across time. For example, a mountain
range does not always have the same significance for those
who dwell in its slopes. For the indigenous villages of
Puerto Rico, the mountains were symbols of the mystery of
nature and constituted a natural barrier between the political
groups which existed. The Spaniards of the XVII Century
continually saw the mountains as obstacles to free communication
between north and south. While at the same time their land
served as an indispensable source of subsistence. In the
XX century we have shorten the physical distance with technological
improvements in communication.
An individual transforms their means of coping with their
environment at the same time that the environment significantly
influences their way of life. Neither geography nor the
social environment will determine exactly how an individual
may act, since members of the human race have the capability
of making decisions. However, although the environment does
not dictate the steps to any action, it does establish limits
accordingly. For example, the fact that Puerto Rico is situated
in the tropical cyclone zone influences the manner in which
houses are built and the agriculture is organized; nevertheless,
the geographic location and the condition of the island,
which appear to be very determining conditions, have been
understood in different ways throughout time. These conditions
may appear to be advantageous for some individuals, while
for others to be the opposite.
Individuals, for their part, continuously modify their environment
creating different conditions with the passage of time.
It is known that with the arrival of the Spaniards to Boriquen
(Puerto Rico), a good part of the land was covered with
forest. The rainfalls, vegetation, humidity and landscape
were different. With the passing of years, a good part of
this forest has been destroyed with the consequence of changes
in the precipitation, flora and wildlife. Urban expansion,
the intensive commercial use of agriculture, mineral exploitation
and the channeling of rivers are some examples of drastic
changes in the environment. The construction of living complexes,
the excavation of the land and the disposition of waste
are other means of altering the environment.
The human-environment interaction process is continual.
It may change its rhythm, but cannot disappear. We must
always understand that as human beings, we take action and
make decisions in a physical and social setting. The environment,
without the individual, would be empty, as it would not
have its main ingredient. Therefore, in this chapter we
will consider how at different times in history, Puerto
Ricans have related to the world surrounding them.
GEOLOGICAL EVOLUTION OF PUERTO RICO
In order to understand the origin and geological evolution
of Puerto Rico, it is important to know the existing classes
of rocks on the island, their placement and age of formation.
Three great groups of rock are found in the earth's crust:
the igneous, which have been formed from magma, as they
erupt volcanically in the form of lava and cool into rock;
the sedimentary, formed by sediment or matter deposited
by water, wind or ice, and the metamorphic, which are formed
by pressure and heat on existing matter changing it into
a hard crystalline rock.
The volcanic rocks, forming the dorsal spine of the island
of Puerto Rico, constitute the island's central mountain
chain. This chain is comprised of the Cordillera Central,
which rises almost directly out of the sea on the west coast
of the island and extends eastward finally terminating in
the Sierra de Luquillo in the northeast and the Sierra de
Cayey in the southeast. This rugged terrain covers about
70% of the island's land mass.
The more abundant sedimentary rocks in Puerto Rico are calcareous.
These are comprised of calcium carbonate deposited by sea
water in the precipitation or, more frequently, extracted
from the water by animals and plants. The principle calcareous
belt extends from Loiza to Aguadilla in the north and from
Juana Diaz to Yauco in the south.
The metamorphic rocks are not very abundant in Puerto Rico.
The more common type is marble.
The geological history of Puerto Rico dates back to the
Cretaceous period of the Mesozoic era, characterized by
the following stages:
First: Volcanic and Cretaceous Sedimentation Stage. - In
the beginning of the Cretaceous period crevices opened in
the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean and great amounts of lava,
powder, ash and gases poured through. These deposits grew
into submersed mountains forming volcanic islands.
Second: Antilles revolution. - The terrestrial crust deformed
at the end of the Cretaceous period, resulting in an arch
shape mountainous chain, direct predecessor to the actual
Third: Calcareous sedimentary stage. - During the first
period of the third stage the mountains in Puerto Rico suffered
extensive erosion, until they were reduced to a peneplain.
During the last period of this stage the erosion culminated
in the formation of what is known as the Saint John Peneplain.
Fourth: Stage of elevation, erosion and formation of an
additional peneplain. - Following the Miocene Epoch of the
Tertiary period in the Cenozoic era, orogenic forces elevated
Puerto Rico to a height of 800 feet, followed by a new period
of erosion resulting in the destruction of the borders of
the Caguaian peneplains.
Fifth stage: Stage of faulting, elevation and glaciations.
- During the end of the Pliocene Epoch, the Island was elevated
further, forming faults at its borders and remaining close
to its present day contour. This last elevation dates back
only one million years and continues at an extremely decelerated
The geological development of Puerto Rico demonstrates the
process in which the Island developed into the form and
location it enjoys today. It has been a slow and gradual
process which still has not ended.
LOCATION AND FORM
In relationship to the map of America, Puerto Rico is located
in the group of islands known as the Antilles, separating
the Greater Antilles - consisting of Cuba, la Espanola (Haiti
and Santo Domingo) and Jamaica - with the Lesser Antilles.
Its position in the Caribbean Sea has been very important,
as much for its relationship with the other areas in the
same region, as for its relationship with the world surrounding
it. Puerto Rico has occasionally been referred to as “the
gateway to the Caribbean", due to its central position
and its dominance of the northeastern Caribbean boundary
and setting as a place of union for diverse cultures. The
island facilitated the interchange between Taino and Caribe
Indians since pre-Columbian times. Additionally, the Island
served as a point of defense and harbor for Spanish ships
and passengers, as they traveled through their empire in
the Americas, and served as treasure bounty for foreign
corsairs and pirates. Furthermore, the Island became a prosperous
market of foreign products and a place of encounter, not
always free of tension, between diverse cultures.
The Puerto Rican territory is formed by a group of islands,
of which Puerto Rico is the principal one. To the north
of Puerto Rico you'll find the Islet of San Juan; to the
west, the islands of Mona, Monito and Desecheo; to the south,
the island of Caja de Muertos; and to the east, Vieques
and Culebra. Its limit to the west is the Dominican Republic,
which is separated by the Canal de Mona (Mona Passage);
to the east is the Virgin Islands; while to the north and
south, respectively, are the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean
Puerto Rico is nearly triangular with a length from east
to west of 113 miles and a width of 40 miles. Its area is
3,315 square miles (3,435 including adjacent islands). Puerto
Rico may be divided into three geographical regions, using
as the principal criteria the contrasting altitudes.
1. Lowlands and Coastal Plains. - Geographers have calculated
that 27% of the island's land can be classified as flat
or gently rolling lowlands. With one or two minor exceptions
offered by small inland valleys, one near Caguas and the
other near Cayey, this region is comprised primarily of
land along the coastal fringe of the island. Depending upon
the availability of water, the flat or rolling coastal lands
are the most fertile areas in Puerto Rico. The abundant
rainfall on the north coast assures production, but on the
south coast and particularly in the southwest corner, in
the Lajas valley sector, the flat rolling land needs irrigation.
In the Lajas valley the insular government built an extensive
and costly irrigation project which collects in artificial
lakes the heavy rain that falls on the nearby highlands,
brings the water down over hydroelectric dams and channels
the distribution into the previously arid valley.
For the most part the coastal plains produce the bulk of
the islands sugar crop. About 30 sugar mills, or centrales,
located in this region produce more than 90% of the island's
sugar. More than 20% of this sugar is produced on the north
coast and about 30% is produced on the irrigated plains
of the south coast. Some coastal land lacking in rainfall
or fertility is used as pasture. Prior to the completion
of the irrigation project, the Lajas valley was used primarily
in this way. On the north coast about 50 miles west of San
Juan, near the port of Arecibo, pineapple production has
been expanding. The coastal area has some unproductive land
in mangrove swamps and in limited areas where sand dunes
have moved inland. By far the best of the island's beaches
can be found on the sheltered west coast. The north coast
also has excellent beaches wherever offshore reefs serve
to break the heavy Atlantic serf. The Luquillo beach east
of San Juan is perhaps the most popular and widely known.
2. Highlands. - In contrast to the coastal plains is the
markedly mountainous terrain of the central part of the
island, which accounts for about 36% of the land area. This
extensive area is marked by high local relief with little
flat land. Most of the slopes range from 30% to over 60%
grade. This region, comprised of the Cordillera Central,
the Sierra de Cayey and the Sierra de Luquillo, includes
the highest peaks of the island’s drainage divide.
Heavy rainfall and fertile soil permit extensive cultivation
of this region in spite of the sharp slopes. Coffee is the
main crop in the area which extends from near the west coast
to the centre of the island. The shrub which produces the
coffee bean is very sensitive to temperature variations
and grows best in the shaded areas between 1,000-ft. and
3,000-ft. altitude; orange and grapefruit trees and the
broad-leaf banana plants are utilized for shade. As a result
of the cultivation of coffee in the western mountain area,
the impression is given of a cleared, well-gardened forest.
Two insular forest reserves, Maricao and Toro Negro, with
picnic facilities and lookout towers, can be found in the
western and central mountain areas.
The eastern mountainous section, with the exception of the
Sierra de Luquillo, receives less rain than the western
highlands and the vegetation is less thick, with the land
unprotected by a lack of covering forest. Tobacco is the
principal commercial crop. Small farms produce subsistence
crops, and extensive pasture areas can be found. The Sierra
de Luquillo, where the tropical rain forest (El Yunque)
is located, has a recreation park with trails, swimming
pools and lookout towers.
3. Rolling Hill Land. - The area of the island which lies
between the two extremes of the flat coastal plains and
the markedly mountain terrain can be described as rolling
hill land; it comprises the remaining 37% of the land surface.
Foothills adjacent to the central core of the mountains
are included in this area. Unique limestone belts of the
North eastern and north central sections of Puerto Rico
are found in this region. This area is of less geological
age than the rest of the island, having been formed during
the Tertiary period. The limestone plateau, at one time
under the sea, once lifted and exposed to rain and wind
erosion, was slowly converted into striking karstic topography.
The area is characterized by precipitous cliffs, caves and
large caverns, deep depressions or sinkholes and solidified
limestone remnants, which resemble conical haystacks. In
this area rivers such as the Tanama or Camuy disappear suddenly
and, running underground, appear just as unexpectedly miles
away. In spite of the rugged terrain, the irregular valleys
among the limestone remnants and precipices are cultivated
with the same success by the small farmer. Subsistence crops,
vegetables and fruits are the main products.
TEMPERATURE: While Puerto Rico lies just within the tropics,
its climate is usually agreeable. The average annual temperature
is 76.3 F. and the island is without sunshine, on the average,
for only five days a year. On the coast the winter monthly
average is 75; for the summer months it is 80. In the interior
at an altitude of 1,500 ft. the average winter temperature
is 70; during the summer it is 75. The absolute minimum
temperature recorded in Puerto Rico was 39 at an altitude
of 3,000 ft. Frost may occur at higher altitudes but has
never been officially recorded. The maximum recorded temperature
in San Juan is 94. Cool, invigorating sea breezes, constantly
brought by the trade winds which bathe the islands of the
West Indies, help to soften the effect of the hot sun. During
the summer months these winds come directly from the east,
or slightly southeast. During the winter they shift and
come from the northeast. At night, gentle land breezes coming
down from the mountainous interior bring cool and refreshing
air to the coastal areas, causing a drop of 6 or 7 from
the day temperature.
RAINFALL: The trade winds also bring abundant rainfall,
which for the island averages 74.4 in. annually. It rarely
rains for more than a few hours at a time, even during the
rainy season, which lasts from May to November. The coastal
areas are cooled in the late morning or afternoon by light
showers during the warmer months of the year. The variation
in rainfall recorded in different parts of the island is
much greater than the temperature variation. The rain forest
of the Sierra de Luquillo (El Yunque) which receives the
trade wind first, has recorded an average annual rainfall
of 184 in. over a ten year period. In the southwest corner
of Puerto Rico annual rainfall drops to about 30 in. The
island is subject to occasional tropical storms. The winds,
which reach a velocity of 150-200 mph, are usually accompanied
by torrential rains. The storms, which rarely last more
than a day, occur from July to October.
HUMIDITY: The amount of humidity or water vapor in the air,
combined with the temperature, has a direct effect on individuals.
In the event that both temperature and humidity are high,
the effect is a feeling of personal discomfort which at
times makes physical activity difficult. In the summer the
humidity is slightly higher, as the result of the east winds,
loaded with water vapor.
VEGETATION: The erosive effect of a heavy rainfall on the
precipitous slopes of the central mountain range of the
island is counteracted by a particularly tenacious soil
bound together by clinging and abundant vegetation. The
wide variation of rainfall, a fairly rich soil and different
altitudes produce a great variety of plant life. Because
of the extensive cultivation of the land, the vegetation
in a relatively natural state is limited to the insular
and national forest reserves located at higher altitudes
in the western, central and eastern sections of the island.
The tropical rain forest El Yunque, located at the eastern
end of the island, is composed of a great variety of trees,
clinging and hanging vines and a thick undergrowth of shrubs,
ferns and thickets. The jungle like density is almost impenetrable
without the aid of a machete, a sharp, long broad-bladed
knife. In this area wild orchids can be found. Trees include
bamboo, palm, cedar, ebony, calabash, whitewood, lancewood,
boxwood and logwood.
Along the coastal plains, which probably were covered once
with a thick forest growth, sugar cane and pineapples are
grown. In the northwest corner of the island and in the
mountain areas tropical fruit of all varieties are produced.
Together with the coffee bush, a great variety of citrus
fruits can be found in the western highlands. In addition
to the common fruits such as bananas and oranges, the island
produces papayas, pomegranates, avocados, guavas, mangoes,
breadfruit, passion fruit and guanabana. Spices such as
ginger, pepper, vanilla and chicory are also grown, in addition
to roots and tubers such as yuca, yautia and batata (sweet
WILDLIFE: Physically isolated at an early geological age
and densely populated, Puerto Rico has very little wild
animal life. Bats, birds, a scarce and harmless species
of snake and several varieties of harmless lizards, together
with the mongoose and rat, comprise most of Puerto Rican
wildlife. For the patient bird watcher the island offers
a wide variety of species of birds, nesting or in transit.
About 190 species have been identified, and of these 89
are known to nest. Some 36 birds are endemic to Puerto Rico.
Thrushes, tanagers, bullfinches, flycatchers, warblers,
plovers, terns and sandpipers are the birds most commonly
The waters around the island are excellent for sport fishing.
Yellow-fin tuna, white marlin, sailfish, dolphins, kingfish
and wahoo are only a few of the commoner varieties which
can be found 2 to 5 mi. from the coast. There are also fine
black bass in the fresh-water reservoirs of the island.
MINERALS: Since the times of Spanish rule there have been
attempts to evaluate, with some degree of certainty, the
types and quantities of minerals found in Puerto Rico. The
result of prior efforts were based on studies lacking a
system of precision and failed to cover the entire island.
In 1970 Professor of geography, Jose F. Cadilla completed
a comprehensive inventory of the existing minerals to date,
in which he indicated in great detail, the location and
availability of the minerals. Although the long list compiled
by Pofessor Cadilla cannot be presented here, those minerals
which had or have more commercial or industrial value will
1. Non-metallic. In terms of products utilized locally,
non metallic minerals are of extreme importance. Some are
found in abundance, such as calcium, marble, silica and
argil sands, and others which are very limited and difficult
to extract, such as gypsum, guano and natural oil. Water,
sand and gravel are also of great value to the construction
industry. Although these resources exist in abundance, they
should be carefully conserved, being that they have a generalized
effect on the balance of the ecology. For example, the destruction
of sand dunes along the beach to extract sand, removes the
natural barrier which protects the interior against the
liberal entry of the sea.
Water resources, such as rivers, lagoons and artificial
lakes (rain pools), should serve to be sufficient if used
adequately. Nevertheless, the unequal distribution of water
across the island and its poor use, frequently results in
the determination that in some areas there is an insufficient
amount. Due to a growing population and the increased number
of industries, satisfying the necessity for this resource
is becoming more difficult.
There is an abundance of calcium in Puerto Rico. As much
of this mineral's vast reserves is found in the south, as
is in the north, which in the form of stone is used by the
construction industry. There is also a variety of marble
concentrated in the southern part of the island. Although
it is exploited in a limited manner, there is still a need
to explore its industrial possibilities further.
Puerto Rico relies on a variety of argils (clay) which are
frequently classified by color. Although the red variety
is found along the length of the entire island, it is predominantly
found in the regions of Mayaguez-Maricao-San German, Barranquitas-Orocovis,
Naranjito-Corozal, Caguas-Cayey and Rio Piedras-Trujillo
Alto. The red argil is used in ceramics and for the production
of bricks, blocks and tubing. The yellow toned type is commonly
found in the mid-eastern region, where it is utilized for
the production of cardboard, paper and soap or as a filling.
2. Metallic. In contrast to the non-metallic minerals,
metallic minerals have to be extracted from rocks or mined.
Puerto Rico has magnesium, tin, mercury, manganese, silver,
zinc, lead, cobalt, gold, copper, iron, nickel, molybdenum,
chromium and titanium, however, not all are found in sufficient
quantities for commercial use.
As of the XVI century, when the Spaniards conquered Puerto
Rico, the search for metals has been an important element
in the life of Puerto Ricans. In that epoch, since the control
of the metals served as the basis for the acquisition of
power, the Spaniards immersed themselves in the struggle
of extracting gold out of the sands of the rivers, to the
point of exhausting those reserves.
Iron, copper and nickel are the metals with the greatest
possibility of commercial extraction. Nevertheless, the
best manner in which the exploitation of these metals benefits
the Puerto Rican community should be cautiously studied.
Perhaps, together with its exploitation, an industry of
locally manufactured products may be established, which
would prevent the exporting of these materials without elaboration.
Copper is the most abundant metal, with the greatest probabilities
of exploitation. Although deposits are found in Ciales,
San German, Aguada and the Sierra de Luquillo, the deposits
of greatest importance are found in the Utuado-Jayuya-Adjuntas-Lares
zone, where approximately 300 tons of 70% copper mineral
In addition, iron can be found in the east (Juncos-Las Piedras),
in the west (Mayaguez) and in the central region (Adjuntas-Jayuya).
However, not all of it can be utilized commercially, since
for example, in the Cerro las Mesas in Mayaguez, the deposits
are too close to urban areas.
MEAT AND POULTRY PRODUCTS: Another activity related to
the land is the production of meat, milk, eggs and fowls.
From 1940 to 1980 these agricultural trades grew slowly
in Puerto Rico during this period. The milk industry has
been the one with the quickest growth, which due to the
best technology, has been able to triple its productivity.
Statistics demonstrate that for the year 1978-79 the increment
in the production of milk reached 8.3 million dollars. Although
at a lesser pace, the production of meat increased for the
same year (1978-79), registering an increment equivalent
to 7.7 million dollars. The poultry industry has also grown.
Although it suffers from competition due to the poultry
and eggs brought in by the United States, it has been able
to almost triple its production since 1951. In this trade,
for the year 1978-79, the registered increment was 8.4 million