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The Civilian Conservation Corps in Puerto Rico: A Conversation with Dr. Manuel Valdés Pizzini
Dr. Manuel Valdes Pizzini is a scholar, author, and professor at The University of Puerto Rico. Through writing his book La Transformación del Paisaje Puertorriqueño y la Disciplina del Cuerpo Civil de Conservación 1933-1942 (The Transformation of Puerto Rican Landscape and the Discipline of the Civilian Conservation Corps 1933-1942), Dr. Pizzini studied the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the program’s impact on El Yunque National Forest and Puerto Rico as a whole. We spoke with Dr. Pizzini to gain a deeper understanding of the influence and legacy of the CCC in Puerto Rico.
Covering over 28,400 acres on the eastern side of Puerto Rico, El Yunque National Forest is the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Forest System. While Dr. Pizzini’s book touches on other forests in which the CCC operated in Puerto Rico, it is the only book about El Yunque written in Spanish.
This interview is part of The Corps Network’s Moving Forward Initiative blog series. Supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Moving Forward Initiative seeks to expand career exposure and increase employment in conservation and resource management for youth and young adults of color. Through this initiative, The Corps Network aims to explore unconscious bias and structural racism within The Corps Network, our member Corps, and America’s land management agencies.
In the 1990s, you were invited by archaeologist Jeff Walker to join an existing research project on the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in Puerto Rico. Prior to this project, what did you know about the CCC in Puerto Rico?
Prior to that invitation, I was working with the Forest Service on contract through the [University of Puerto Rico] and was studying visitors [at El Yunque National Forest]. I spent almost two years working every weekend at El Yunque interviewing [visitors] with a large team of students from the university. We were studying patterns of visitors [because] they wanted to build a large visitor center. They also recruited me and my team to do a qualitative study about what people thought about El Yunque and their experience, the spiritual aspect of El Yunque and so forth.
During that time, I had several conversations with an archaeologist who was hired by El Yunque (which was then known as the Caribbean National Forest). He explained to me what the CCC was and the scale of their impact in the Puerto Rican Forest [El Yunque]. I didn’t know much about the CCC and then I started reading about it. So then Jeff Walker came to me and spoke about doing a study about the CCC. I had some ideas already; I knew all those trails and roads I was using to access the Puerto Rican Forest were actually built by the CCC. That really sparked my interest in the program, so when Jeff made the invitation, I already had some knowledge of [the CCC], and I started learning more about the program and its role in the United States.
We are intrigued by the spiritual aspects of El Yunque. Can you tell us about some of the ways El Yunque is thought about in Puerto Rico?
There are a handful of books that touch on that. In the book we wrote, I delve into that in some depth. El Yunque originally was a site of strong colonization by the Spaniards and it was [associated with] warfare between the Spanish and the Indians. Later on, African-born people [who were] enslaved in Puerto Rico moved into El Yunque to build community. That was in the sixteenth-century.
El Yunque was the site of exploration and exploitation of gold minds by the Spanish. In that period, those who lived in the surrounding areas started to build a mythology of what El Yunque meant — that El Yunque was a mythical forest, that many spirits live there, that the Indians went there and sought protection from the hurricanes. [These beliefs] come from African and European traditions. [Records from] the nineteenth-century always mention El Yunque as a special place in Puerto Rican society. The thing is, if you were traveling far away or crossing the San Juan bay, you can see El Yunque from San Juan on a clear day. That lead to the idea that El Yunque Peak [Pico El Yunque] is the highest peak in Puerto Rico, which it isn’t, but that adds to the idea that it’s a sacred place.
Close to the 1920s, the United States Forest Service (USFS) appointed Morain Bruner as the Forest Supervisor. He did a survey of the resources of the Luquillo Mountains, which is a mountain range [by] El Yunque. He described at length some of the physical and biological characteristics of El Yunque, and one of the things he said in his report – and I mean this is 1917 or 1920 – [is] that the surrounding communities had all these ideas about Indians living there in the past, about spirits, about fairies who live in the forests by the waterfalls. He said that one day, if we decide to harvest this forest for timber, my guess is that the people will raise up their arms and we will suffer. Which is actually something that almost happened in the 1990s when the USFS said it was going to harvest some of the acres of land in the forest. That created a major uproar in the Puerto Rico population. The USFS was basically harvesting plots of land that they planted in the 1940s [for harvesting], but that’s in a nutshell. However, in our qualitative studies for the development of the visitor center, people spoke to us about the spiritual and cultural meaning of El Yunque. For the Puerto Rican people, it’s associated with our national culture and a sense of identity. I knew all of that, but I was surprised to see that in the numbers in the data we collected.
How was the CCC structured on the island of Puerto Rico?
It was structured a bit different than in the United States. Initially we didn’t have the money to have the CCC in Puerto Rico. The Forest Supervisor, who then was William Barbour, and the governor at the time, Robert Hayes Gore, requested that the United States government put the CCC in place. They requested 25,000 people, and eventually the United States government provided the Forest Service with [funding] to place 1,000 men in the camps.
The CCC loved working with the park service, but the USFS was the main entity in charge of the CCC in Puerto Rico. The Army, [which operated camps in the United States], didn’t have much of an impact on the Forest Service. Some military officers and some retired military men were recruited as stewards and supervisors in charge of the operations. It started in a very haphazard manner; the camps were not organized. They didn’t have pillows, beds, or even places to stay. They stayed in tents or they stayed in places in town during the first two years as they tried to develop the program. It wasn’t until 1936 – 1937 that it was actually organized in a way almost similar to in the United States. In the very beginning, they slept in bunks and they didn’t have uniforms. It was not until late in the program that they did have that and some vocational training and activities. So, it started in a very haphazard way — the director of the USFS sent a person to the program to report on [conditions] and all of this is in that report from 1934.
As you probably know, us scientists usually take a critical stance. [In] studying some of the literature on plantations and forests, we came [to] the idea that this program was operated as a plantation system. When we read the documents and we listened to the narratives of the participants, the program was trying to make them into a well-mannered, well-educated American citizens The CCC was actually a process of pacification of the Puerto Rican rural population at that time. Part of that pacification was training them to be good American citizens, learning about the Constitution, learning about good American values. The participants in the program, if they had some violence in those years, it was fights within the people and within the camps, not with anyone else. What happened is they would rather work in the CCC than in the sugarcane. These were two completely different worlds. One was hell, which was the sugarcane – literally. And the other was the CCC, in which they had access to cash.
You have to understand that the Mayor Strikes of 1932 – 1934 happened because the sugar plantations were not paying the workers in cash. They were paying them with a note that they could redeem in the plantation store for fish, rice, potatoes, and other items. When we spoke with the people, they said, “Do you know what the CCC means? The CCC means Cash, Comida (which means food), and Casa (which means shelter).” These people were living in hunger with very precarious housing and they didn’t have any cash, but the CCC completely changed that. Plus, the program gave them some education in how to drive, how to read, how to write, how to use machinery, how to use heavy equipment. However, it was a program that was trying to Americanize them; they were paid by officers of the United States Army under the flag which they would have to salute. Nevertheless, [the program] in fact helped them prepare for the industrial revolution that happened in Puerto Rico in the 1950s. They were prepared for the discipline of the factory and the workshops.
It seems like the CCC experience for the Puerto Rican people was perhaps reminiscent of that of Native Americans and African Americans in the CCC in the states. There were benefits, but also drawbacks. After their experience in the CCC, were the Puerto Rican participants likely to continue in conservation work?
Let me put that in context. It is my understanding that, in the United States, you went for a stint in the CCC and then you came out as a very well-trained man and you might be recruited once again. The idea was to have as many new people in the program as possible. In Puerto Rico, it didn’t exactly work out that way. Once they trained the people at the camps, they were reinstated in the program in a few months and it kept them working for the USFS. Many of them were very well trained at the end of the program and went into the Army because they were actively recruited by the United States Army. They were working on building up some military structure in Puerto Rico.
The federal government controlled El Yunque National Forest, and the other forests in Puerto Rico were controlled by a local government agency. It is my understanding from interviews that CCC people were recruited by the local agency and the Forest Service to be the core of their conservation workers. That is not that well documented, but we have evidence of that.
We would like to learn more about how CCC Members in Puerto Rico helped develop U.S. Forest Service land. How did the U.S. Forest Service acquire this land?
The land belonged to large land holders. During the nineteenth-century and the first three decades of the twentieth-century, there was a mass accumulation of land into a few hands. Throughout the island, there were large landholders and medium-sized landholders: 30, 40, 50 acres. Very few people had one or two acres to live on. If you had a coffee plantation in El Yunque, and you needed labor, what they did was they recruited people and said, “Listen, come work for me, and I’ll let you use two to three acres of land and you can build your small shack or house” — and they grew what are called minor crops, so plantains, yams, mangos, beans, rice. But this is all under the system of “you work for me in the coffee plantation.” So it was kind of a similar process to sharecropping.
When the United States came to Puerto Rico, they preferred the sugar market and set aside the coffee market. The coffee growers started to get into heavy debt with the banks and they couldn’t actually produce. And some of them – and I’m talking about some specific examples that were near El Yunque – decided to cut the big trees and process that as lumber and use that on their properties. When they couldn’t pay their debt, they actually were forced to sell their land to the U.S. Forest Service. That happened all around the island, not only with the Forest Service, but also with local agencies. They started buying acres from the large, medium, and eventually the small landholders.
What happens if I sell 200 acres of land to the Forest Service? Well it may be that 10 to 20 families that live on my property will no longer have a house. They were left landless and without houses. And these were the people who started to get recruited into the CCC.
One thing I have to mention is that coffee was also impacted at this time by hurricanes, especially in 1928 – there was a huge one. The United States government provided a relief program: Puerto Rico Emergency Relief Administration started in 1933, and then in 1936 they started a program called the Puerto Rico Emergency Reconstruction Administration to help with rebuilding. That program became fused with the U.S. Forest Service CCC. They received funds from the United States government and that’s how the CCC became a major force in Puerto Rico. They were able to provide land to those who became landless. So, every time you go to a forest in Puerto Rico you have to pass by some of these communities in which land was distributed to those who were left landless by those who sold their land.
What was the effect on the rural population? On those who lived on or owned this land?
The rural population became urbanized and eventually they abandoned agriculture because they were sent to live in these very compact communities with one acre at most. That was the beginning of the end for agricultural processes in the highlands, especially nearby the forest. But on the other hand, the U.S. Forest Service was recruiting people who were really happy to work in the forest. They would say “yo trabajo en la forestall,” or “I work in the forest” or the forest agency. So that was the major impact: rural people eventually abandoned the agricultural lifestyle. The Forest Service isn’t the only culprit of that; Puerto Rico decided to get on another road for development, but that’s another story.
Can you describe the types of work CCC members completed in Puerto Rico?
All the forests in Puerto Rico are largely re-constructed forests that the CCC worked on. Also, they opened roads that gave the public access to the forests. They also built almost all the recreational infrastructure that is there in the forest still today. Access to the beaches, access to different parts of the forest, trails, gazebos. Additionally, in El Yunque and other forests, they built pools for the recreation of the visitors. In the highlands, they also worked on dams to retain the water produced by the mountain ranges. One of the reasons for the conservation of the forest was to have water for the sugarcane industry and for the public. This eventually became a major resource for recreation because people go to this area to enjoy the water in the rivers and waterfalls and the like. The CCC members also worked in small military installations, like communication towers.
Puerto Ricans use the forest for meditation, recreation, and enjoyment with their families.; they owe that to the people of the CCC.
As you suggest in your book, the CCC replicated the colonial relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico. Can you explain what you mean by this?
It’s like what I said earlier about the officers, the use of the flag, things of that sort. In the 1930s, people were working for the independence of Puerto Rico, but there was less organization then. The CCC was one of the institutions that wanted to make Puerto Rico like United States citizens. The United States unions were very active in local politics at the time and were trying to do the same. I’m just giving the facts. If you read examples about the CCC, it was about education, how to be a good citizen, how to avoid corruption, how to engage in government offices. It was expected for the program to do that; it was paid for by the United States government, so there is not much else to that.
El Yunque is the only tropical rainforest under the U.S. Forest Service’s jurisdiction. It has immense biodiversity among native plants and animals. Do you want to talk about the importance of this biodiversity and how it relates to the work you do?
First of all, I want to make sure it is stated that the Spanish developed their own forest service in the nineteenth-century with foresters trained in Germany. These people came to the island and started protecting the forest but also allowing some people to use the forest for economic ventures, such as growing coffee. They restricted the harvest of timber because they didn’t have the workforce to enforce that.
When the U.S. Forest Service came, they were given thousands of acres of land that had already been protected. And they did their best to protect the peaks and some of the coastal forest. The sugarcane industry and the coffee plantations almost ate the land that was in the coastal areas and near the highlands. The Forest Service works desperately to protect those areas that still have the large trees, and areas with plants that absorb the water. They were also encouraged by Nathaniel Britton who used to work for the botanical garden. He and his wife were botanists and they pushed for a public policy for land protection in the highlands and for the Forest Service to buy the land. So, they decided to buy land, and some of this land was in pretty bad shape. Even prior to the CCC in the 1930s, they started an aggressive program to plant exotic species and developed local nurseries to try to cover the land that was ruined through deforestation and other activities. In the process of buying more land, they actually protected the highland system of the cloud forest. Giving credit to Nathaniel Britton, one of the big peaks is now called Mount Britton. There is a tower built by the CCC which is called the Mount Britton Tower. They protect the forest, but El Yunque is made up of different forests. That needs to be taken into consideration because that is not an easy task. At least that’s my version of the story.
What is the current state of El Yunque as a result of time itself as well as the 2018 hurricanes?
El Yunque is operating right now. I haven’t visited El Yunque since Hurricane Maria. I don’t have the heart or the guts to go there, especially after I saw some of the videos. Some of my colleagues do work there; they let me see some of the videos and El Yunque is recuperating. Many of the trails are closed to the public because they still have work to do, but El Yunque, as a tropical forest, as a whole, will come back. The tree population is coming back stronger than ever. It’s very lush in parts of the island. The forest is recuperating, fortunately. Eventually, it will be open to the public completely.
What is the legacy of the CCC in Puerto Rico?
The legacy of the CCC is that if I want to go to the forest right now, which is 45 minutes from my office, I go up road 333, and that road was built by the CCC. If I want to go to the coastal portion of the forest, I go on a road that was built by the CCC. If I want to travel through the forest, I will go by trails that were built by the CCC, and most of the land was acquired under the CCC. So, my own enjoyment on one typical day is by means of the work the CCC did in Puerto Rico. If you look at the forest and they look full of trees, most of those trees were actually worked on by the CCC. Their contribution is their legacy. It’s a great legacy in terms of infrastructure and covering the land with trees and plans. This is something that cannot be understated. Access to recreation is possibly one of the most important legacies of the CCC to the general public.
What other effects did the program have on its participants?
We spoke with the participants of the CCC and we saw the reports. Anything can go in a government report, but when we spoke with members, they told us they were very well fed, they were very well educated. The capacity-building — to be prepared for the labor market that eventually was prevalent in Puerto Rico — was one of the main impacts of the CCC. The CCC members also had the opportunity to share experiences with people from other communities and towns and learn about different places in Puerto Rico. Some were sent to camps that were far from their homes. They spoke about all of that. People learned how to read and write in the CCC. They would say things like “I could eat three meals a day.” For economic reasons they weren’t able to do that in their homes. They acknowledged that and they were still very thankful for the program.
The Moving Forward Initiative has allowed us to look at the lack of diversity within the land management agencies along with the broader environmental and conservation fields. What thoughts do you have about his lack of diversity? Do you have any ideas about what we can do to increase diversity within the resource management field?
I think we need more internships for minorities and people who aren’t represented in land management; my guess is there still is an issue of gender representation, too.
[By the way, the CCC in Puerto Rico was all male but, for purely demographic reasons, the program participants were otherwise varied and diverse. I will say there was a tendency for those in the Forest Service to recruit white males from the United States to come and work at the forest. When we started working with the U.S. Forest Service, the management was from the United States, mostly white, and although they had the intention of understanding cultural values, they didn’t have a thorough understanding. It took the United States three to four years to push for an agenda that had some appreciation for the cultural aspect of the forest].
We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We need to have internships that have some capacity-building for as many diverse people to get into the management of land resources in the United States. I know this is happening. I’m not saying it’s not happening. I just know it’s something I can recommend. It would be great if more people could get involved. I hardly heard about training and internship opportunities in El Yunque, we need people here to be training and have those experiences. There is much to learn from those who work in the forest.
- https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/elyunque/about-forest/?cid=fsbdev3_042959 – provides key historical information
- Think about a park or forest in your community. Was this parkland always there? What is the history of this space?
- When you think about your favorite park or other natural space, what do you feel or what words come to mind? Consider other ways in which people in your community may think or feel about this space. Historically, how have people used this space?
All sources cited in this piece can be found in the Moving Forward Initiative Resource Library.