History’s Lasting Effects

The colonization of Puerto Rico begins with the name of a very famous sailor we are all familiar with, Christopher Columbus. In 1943, Columbus discovered the island of Puerto Rico and claimed it for Spain. Spanish settlement on the Caribbean island began soon after. Before the Spaniards came, the Taino Indians called the small island their home. However, the Europeans brought new diseases which wiped out much of the previous Indian population.

In 1815, the Royal Decree of Grace was issued, allowing all foreigners to be admitted to Puerto Rico and Islanders to trade with other nations. Around the same time, Puerto Rico exhausted the final riches of their meager gold supply. Due to this loss of economic activity from the small gold rush, the islanders began to try and establish an agricultural based economy. Cattle, sugar cane, tobacco and coffee were the core investments.

In 1898, the Spanish-American War, a conflict between the United States and Spain over colonial rule of Puerto Rico, had come to an end. The United Stated acquired the territory in the Treaty of Paris. Soon after, the Foaker Act of 1900 established a civil government for the territory govern itself.

As we can see, much of the current state of Puerto Rico has been shaped from historic events. The Spanish settlers brought over much of their culture to the island, including the Spanish language. This is evident because even though Puerto Rico is now a United States’ territory, much of the island speaks Spanish as their primary language. Secondly, the Royal Decree of Grace allowed Puerto Ricans to begin trading. This new law, along with running out of gold supply on the island, sparked a switch towards a more agricultural based society. Lastly, it is obvious the effect that American culture has had on the current culture of Puerto Rico. Many of the islands citizens can speak English, and they have also adapted many of our holidays and customs as well. According to forumbiodiversity, another one of the largest influences the United States has had is in the educational systems. The University of Puerto Rico was officially founded in 1903, shortly after the United States took over. Overall, it is very obvious to see that historical events in Puerto Rico’s history have made lasting impressions on the identity of the country today.

While the tropical island may seem like a great territory, it has its many problems as well. The Puerto Rican government currently has more than 70 billion dollars in outstanding debt, and the future does not look much brighter. The effects of their lackluster economy can be seen all across the island, as education systems are failing and unemployment rates continue to rise. It was also very obvious that the infrastructure of the island was a lot more worn down than what we are used to here in the United States. Congress is currently not helping out Puerto Rico at all, so there is very little hope from the future unless some changes are made effectively.

If the government can supply some money to the island, I’d advocate for it to be put toward the education and healthcare systems. Increasing education will have many major benefits. Unemployment will go down and the economy would flourish with more educated civilians working good jobs across the country. Another area the country can improve in is their agricultural production. As we’ve talked about over and over again, most of their food is imported. This is a lost opportunity to gain revenue for the people of Puerto Rico by not producing their own food, but by buying from other countries.

Solving these problems are not going to be easy, and will take years. However, by applying a systems approach and thinking about how all aspects effect each other, I hope one day these financial burdens can be lessened.


The infrastructure in Puerto Rico is very poor. Potholes covered nearly every road we traveled on.

The United States influence led to the University of Puerto Rico being founded in 1903

An Adventure in El Yunque

My whole life I’ve been rather adventurous. I grew up in a NW suburb or Chicago, but my family owns a large piece of land in Serena, Illinois. This area is full of hardwoods and open plains that I’ve been exploring my whole life alongside my siblings and cousins. From hunting and fishing to week long camping trips and making our own zipline, we’ve done it all on this special plot of land. The adventures I experienced there sparked my interest in traveling the world to discover the millions of other thrills that were out there just waiting for me. I’ve traveled a good amount with my family and friends, but every place is very unique in its own way. I’ve now added Puerto Rico to my list of adventures, and it has definitely been one of the best yet. I’ve really enjoyed every day here in on the island, and it’s difficult for me to pick out my favorite. However, the most unique and thrilling day had to be our hike through El Yunque, the only National Forest in the National Park system.
The day started off when we met for breakfast in the hotel lobby. We were served many native fruits such as mango and papaya which I really enjoyed. Soon after we began out descent down the mountain in search of the waterfalls that were said to run down the side of the nearest mountain. The terrain itself was not too challenging to maneuver around, but the slick rocks and mud led to many dangerous falls throughout the group. Only a mere ten or fifteen minutes into the hike, we began to hear a large waterfall. Once we reached the water it was a breathtaking view, as the water crashed among the rocks and rushed down the mountain. While the sight itself was very beautiful, there was nowhere to swim, so we moved on downstream to find a new water hole.
As we traveled across the rocks moving further downstream, it was a lot more dangerous than before. Each rock was a challenge in itself as they were slick from the recent rain. One wrong move could have led to a brutal injury in the middle of nowhere. As a group we helped each other over, through, and around each obstacle until we had finally found what we had been searching for, a calm pool of water. As we each began to jump in, the water was much colder than I had anticipated. Chills ran through my bones and I felt numb after a mere couple seconds as I swam through the clear water. It was rather easy to look past this though, as the scenic views around us were some of the most beautiful I had ever seen. Upstream there was a beautiful waterfall that fell into the area we swam in, providing our pool with fresh water. Above us were hundreds of trees of all shapes and sizes, providing us with some shade from the beating Puerto Rican sun.
Another aspect of the rain forest that puzzles me is the weather. One minute the sky can be bright blue without a cloud in sight, and just a couple minutes later it can be storming so badly you may think you were caught in a hurricane. This very situation occurred as we were enjoying our time swimming around the water hole. All of the sudden we heard some bustling wind and then soon after came an absolute downpour. We decided to stay in the water and wait out the quick storm, as it was like a scene out of a movie. It was freezing and my whole body was numb, but it was an adventure I may never get the opportunity to experience again.

Agricultural Systems Lead to Both Costs and Benefits

Just a couple hundred years ago agriculture dominated Puerto Rico’s economy. In 1930, sugar itself accounted for over 30% of the economic activity passing through the tropical island. High prices of sugar throughout the world markets, as well as countless large private investments of capital, led Puerto Rico to become an international power in the sugar trade. Although, sugar was not the only crop being produced, as coffee and tobacco production also thrived. These three crops combined to employ about 43% of the work force in 1940. However, the same agriculture dominance is no longer present on the island. Currently, agriculture makes up only 0.8% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product and employs a mere 1.6% of the work force. On the other hand, Illinois is currently one of the leading competitors in agriculture in the United States. Around 74,000 farms cover nearly 24 million acres of farmland, or about 75% of the total land area in Illinois. As agriculture is a growing portion of both Illinois’ and Puerto Rico’s economy, we must consider both the costs and benefits of the food systems on both economic and natural systems.
Although it is obvious that Puerto Rican agriculture has been declining for many years, there is hope for the future that it can start to benefit the economy in a more positive manner. Recent technology is allowing farmers to increase their yields and defeat the many pesticides hurting their crops. One example of this that we witnessed was while visiting the Café Gran Batey coffee plantation. Insects have recently taken over many of the coffee beans produced, and are obviously hurting the profitability of hundreds of coffee farmers. To combat this, coffee producers use a pesticide to try and diminish the amount of beans that the insects are able to destroy.
In Illinois, the benefits of the current agriculture system are much more apparent. The agriculture sector alone generates nearly $19 Billion each year to boost the state’s economy. Corn accounts for over half of this total, whole soybeans and dairy also play large roles. Adding to these astonishing numbers, billions of more revenue is collected through ag-related fields, such as manufacturing and agriculture real estate. Much of this success can be connected to the “prime soil” that Illinois is rich with. This soil, combined with a steady climate, will allow Illinois to continue its dominance in the agricultural field for many years to come.
While it is exciting that Puerto Rican agriculture is making a comeback, it can also have many drawbacks. It is obvious why many citizens want to increase the amount of production across the island in the future, as around 84% of the current food intake is imported from overseas. However, adding more agriculture would likely decrease other aspects that are currently fueling the economy, especially tourism. To increase the food production, large amounts of area would need to be converted into farmland. While this seems as if it is a trivial problem due to the massive amounts of forest area currently on the island, much of this area is on hilly terrain where it is nearly impossible to farm many crops. Some of the current land used for tourism would need to be converted into farmable property, lowering the revenue that is currently created in this booming sector of the current economy.
There are not many costs to the extremely valuable agriculture production in Illinois; however, some may point out that the massive amounts of chemical usage are damaging the ecosystem. Many fertilizers and pesticides can be dangerous to the water system, animals, and even humans if used improperly. For example, the chemical runoff has affected many of the lakes rivers and streams, causing harm to hundreds of aquatic species. As solutions to these problems continue to be produced, the agriculture fields in both Puerto Rico and Illinois are both heading in very positive directions.

The sun sets over a large cornfield in Serena, Illinois. The prime soil in these areas of the state lead agriculture to dominate the state's economy.

The sun sets over a large cornfield in Serena, Illinois. The prime soil in these areas of the state lead agriculture to dominate the state’s economy.

These citrus trees in Puerto Rico provide shade for one of the nations most profitable crops, coffee.

These citrus trees in Puerto Rico provide shade for one of the nations most profitable crops, coffee.

Puerto Rico’s Extensive Pollution Problems

A black plastic bag pollutes the beach

A black plastic bag pollutes the beach

Traveling to another country is basically jumping into the unknown. No matter how extensively you research the culture of your destination or believe you know what to expect, it’s impossible to fully prepare yourself for the challenges you will face ethically, socially, and environmentally. With little prior knowledge of Puerto Rico, I was standing in these shoes as I walked through the airport in San Juan. I’d previously traveled to Europe, the Bahamas, and been to almost every corner of the United States, but once again this was something drastically different. With each new trip, I have experienced not only the unique cultures that give each community its own identity, but also the challenges that each society faces on a local scale. Puerto Rico is no different, as it has many glaring challenges of its own.
One of the most apparent problems I have noticed in Puerto Rico over the last five days has been the extensive litter. As we drove across the country and walked along the beaches, the amount of litter was very eye opening. Cans, bottles, plastic bags, and more lined most of the areas along the beaches and roads of nearly everywhere we have traveled thus far. This environmental problem has many negative effects both locally and even globally. Puerto Rico has countless amounts of animals that will be affected by this trash. Lizards, iguanas, feral cats, and more will have to deal with the loads of pollution each and every day. One example of the problems faced by these animals is that discarded soda cans are tempting to many of the island’s small critters as they look for food and shade. These animals face danger as they can easily be cut and injured by the cans sharp edges. Plastic bags are another object that proves to be a huge threat. Curiosity and the need for food lead countless amounts of animals to crawl into these bags, and some may get trapped and suffocate. Not only are these discarded objects a huge threat to the land animals here in Puerto Rico, but also the animals living in the vast ocean surrounding the island. With so much trash on the local beaches surrounding the island, it is easy to assume a lot of trash gets sucked into the sea during high tide and storms. Fish and seabirds across the world suffer from these same problems as the land animals, as they also cannot escape the countless troubles caused by human trash. Even though this is a very obvious environmental problem on the island, it does not seem that people are trying to make a significant change. Trash cans have been very sparse on each of the beaches we have visited, even though the litter has been mind blowing.
Not only does the massive amounts of pollution on the island have an effect on the environment, but it also causes large social challenges. We have previously learned in this class that most of the Puerto Rican economy no longer relies on the agriculture harvest as it used to. Instead, Puerto Rico thrives on tourism, as we have seen by the large cruises that docked in San Juan and the hundreds of stores that sell souvenirs. Foreigners want to see the long, spotless beaches that they had seen on commercials and in advertisements begging citizens of first world countries to come explore the beaches of the Caribbean. If these travelers come and witness the extensive pollution it will dampen the excitement of their stay here on the island. A lot of tourism relies on friends talking about different trips they took, as they suggest exciting trips, and vacationers who take repeated trips to the same location. Neither of these would be positive if people were to dislike the beaches due to its trashy nature. Instead of coming to Puerto Rico again, they may choose a different tropical island for their next adventure. Locals may also be deterred from taking day trips to the beaches, which may ultimately lower the overall happiness of the island if this problem continues to take over.
Personally, I can take action on this problem by making sure I throw all my garbage into the trash cans. I can challenge my family and friends to do the same, both here in Puerto Rico and back home in Illinois. Even this small difference can help animals locally and globally. Another action I can attempt to take is talking to local environmental organizations on the island and suggesting they invest in more garbage cans to scattered around the many beaches on the island. Signs can also be added on the shorelines reminding people to throw their trash in garbage bins and of the troubles caused by their pollution. I believe the island is moving in the right direction, as they have stopped handing out plastic bags to start attacking this extreme problem. However, this will not be solved until each person, both locals and those visiting, takes a personal initiative to do their part in helping to stop the pollution of this beautiful island.