Disappearing Cities: San Juan, Santo Domingo, Cartagena, and the rising Caribbean Sea

Lisa Paravisini-Gebert, Vassar College, uses the arts to discuss the stark reality of climate change in the Caribbean.

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"It is in this task of articulation that I find a crucial role for scholarship, literature and the art"

By Mallory Adragna, LAI

UCLA Latin American Institute- February 26, 2018, - Lisa Paravisini- Gebert, a Professor on the Sarah Tod Fitz Randolph Distinguished Professor Chair, of Multidisciplinary Programs and Department of Hispanic Studies at Vassar College, gave a lecture about the stark reality of climate change on the coastlines of the Caribbean region.

Professor Paravisini's opening statement proceeded to contextualize the "sobering" reality of the Caribbean region. She stated that continuing into the 21st century, the Caribbean region will face the effects of climate change, and impacts of intense offshore development that has depleted its natural defense mechanisms. Moreover, Professor Paravisini predicts there will be more intense hurricanes due to global warming and these trends are likely to be exacerbated by rising sea levels and a growing population along coastlines. In addition, a recent report by the U.S. National Commission on Environmental Justice on the Gulf Coast draws attention for seeking environmental justice stating that “too often politically and economically powerless residents bear the disproportionate burden of environmental hazards”.

(Photo by Mallory Adragna, LAI) 

Professor Paravisini shifted focus to the three Caribbean urban cities, Cartagena de Indias, Santo Domingo, and San Juan. These cities are highly threatened by rising sea levels and expected to experience a transformation by 2050 due to climate change. The response to climate threats differ greatly between government and environmental actors. Therefore, Professor Paravisini highlighted the role of writers, artists, and scholars addressing climate change and environmental equality that have often been overlooked and neglected by government.

Cartagena de Indias

The walled city of Cartagena de Indias is located at the center of intense tourism development in Colombia. It is also one of Latin America’s most vulnerable urban center susceptible to the effects of climate change and faces severe ecological changes such as intensification of mosquito borne diseases or a decline in fishing stocks. As a result, the city of Cartagena has responded to its environmental threats by conducting a multi year study, outlining threats and solutions to climate change. The solutions proposed by the report, such as building walls along the coastal stretch to combat erosion has hindered the ability of local fisherman to fish, while pushing others working informally into the tourism sector. These issues outline the unresolved problem of environmental justice in Cartagena (traditional employment versus coastal tourism development). Professor Paravisini turns to the region’s literature, where writers like Garcia Márquez address social and ecological geographies that express environmental justice narratives. The opening chapter of Love in the Time of Cholera, describes a community, Ciénaga, of former slaves forced into an environmentally vulnerable space, subject to flooding and exposure to diseases with homes built around human waste. Furthermore, Professor Paravishi states these “exile” communities have their roots within the historical context of slavery and racial economic oppression whose lives and livelihood are most threatened by climate change.

 Santo Domingo

To understand the impacts of climate change on islands and populations, the city of Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, is a prime example. It experiences frequent flooding, coastal erosion from storm surges, and face severe salt water infiltration into its freshwater supply. The poorest marginalized populations have been pushed by rapid urbanization to the most vulnerable riverside land, exposed to polluted waters due to persistent flooding. The bed of the Ozama is below sea level, and tidal flooding and coastal erosion are stronger now due to climate change and salt water that infiltrates Ozama’s watershed.

Tony Capellán focuses on the plight of the impoverished communities along the Ozama River. His installations, Mar Caribe (see fig.1) to Flotando (see fig.2), are debris he recovered from beaches of Santo Domingo and the Ozama River. Professor Paravishi discussed how these plastic objects represents the embodiment of the loss and sorrow of poverty and economic marginalization. For Capellán, the accumulation of plastic debris on the beaches of Santo Domingo are messages to the viewers about environmental pollution and environmental vulnerability of a population that has been displaced. These objects were not typical disposable objects, but rather as Professor Paravisni said, "these useful objects [are] dragged away by the floods-perhaps beloved objects whose loss could be felt, objects perhaps missed, mourned”. She further states that these “eloquent materials” become visions of these people's reality, but these visions transcended beyond the borders of the Dominican Republic to other countries in the same geographical area.


(Photo by Mallory Adragna, LAI)

 San Juan

The devastation of Hurricane Maria has led to the discussion of climate change and hurricanes in the Caribbean. Nearly all of Puerto Rico’s essential infrastructure is located on the coast and more than half of the island’s population live along its 800 miles coastline. The shore is important as it attract the multi million dollar tourism industry. Puerto Rico’s government has been slow in responding to the recommendations of climate change adaptation; therefore, the lack of preparation appeared evident during the onset and aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Thus, Professor Paravisihi turned to writers and artists to comprehend the problems linked with climate change and the survival of the city.

The vulnerabilities of climate change have been the subjects of projects and installations by a number of Puerto Rican artists dating back to the 1990s. More specifically, artists such as Dhara Rivera constructed a collaborative piece Homage al Pterocarpus (2009) that consisted of 165 glass spheres, containing a small piece of a trunk of a Pterocarpus trees (a highly endangered species) (see fig. 3). Rivera’s piece River and Breath (2014) used similar glass spheres as containers for testimonies from the displaced (see fig. 4). Professor Paravishi states that Rivera’s work focused on the silence from Puerto Rico's government about climate change and brings forth nature and aims of community organization and action as political acts channeled through participatory art installation/performances.

Professor Paravisihi closing statement offers an opportunity to rethink the role for scholarship, literature, and the arts as a form of articulation that allows for communities to tap into the history, literature and culture of their community.