This is how Women Environmentalists are Fighting against Climate Change in Puerto Rico

Madres de la Tierra is a series that shows feminine leadership and self-governance six years after Hurricane María

Camille Padilla Dalmau
Published in
March 25, 2024
Climate Justice

A longer version of this story was originally co-published on October 3rd, 2023 on Refinery29, with an abridged version published on the same day with TodasPR. This photo essay series was made possible thanks to the support of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. See all of the profiles on

A block away from an unused fishing village, Anabela Fuentes García found the ideal place to start a community center to teach sustainable fishing practices to children in Loíza. The structure was an abandoned, white-walled building. Piles of dry leaves filled its interior because there was no roof to protect it from the wind or rain. Although surrounded by deterioration, all Fuentes saw was potential, a resource to nurture the next generation of marine biologists, lifeguards, divers, fishermen, and captains.

(Photo: Mari B. Robles López / @mediapersona.)

In the summer of 2022, we met Fuentes underneath the shady tropical almond tree in front of her house. From her ears hung a silver turtle and starfish, representing her love and connection to the Atlantic Ocean. She wore her braids tied in a bun, and donned a black T-shirt that read: “You can do anything.”

After she and her neighbors gathered at the building to get rid of the leftover debris from Hurricane María, which caused destruction in Puerto Rico in September 2017, the wheels started turning. The eyesore she had walked by so many times could house Taller Escuela Pescantil (Fishery School and Workshop), a project she started developing with her daughter, to rescue the fishing trade in Loíza.

Once again, the community came together and purchased the building. Construction started recently. Now, a sign announces the three organizations that will take residence there in the near future.

(Photo: Mari B. Robles López / @mediapersona.)
(Photo: Mari B. Robles López / @mediapersona.)

Fuentes is a community leader in Medianía Alta, a region of Loíza heavily impacted by coastal erosion. Loíza has a population of about 22,657 people and a higher poverty level than the average for all of Puerto Rico, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“We need prosperity in our town of Loíza,” says the 58-year-old grandmother. “And if we have the resources, why not make it into an economic incentive for ourselves?”

Access to capital is one of the main challenges for women leading environmental justice initiatives around the world. For example, according to Oxfam, 58 million women in Latin America live in the countryside; however, only 30% of them own agricultural land, and only 5% have access to technical assistance.

Moreover, racial discrimination creates another layer of economic inequality in these environmental protection and conservation projects. Green 2.0, a nonprofit organization that advocates for increasing racial diversity in environmental groups’ leadership, states that typically, in the United States, “foundations are funding white-led organizations at nearly 40% more annually than POC-led organizations.” The discrepancy is even higher for operational budgets, which cover staffing and unrestricted operating costs. The Green 2.0 report found that organizations with executives who identify as white receive nearly twice as much operational funding as organizations led by people of color, which includes Black, Latin American, Asian, Native American, Hawaiian, and Middle Eastern communities.

And still for others, funding isn’t even the biggest hurdle; it’s bureaucracy. As Mariangelie Ortiz, who organized her community after Hurricane María, explains, community groups could not obtain the proper business permits, such as a 501(c)(3) status, so they could not seek help from municipalities or other organizations who asked them to register as tax-exempt organizations. As the community liaison at La Maraña, a local nonprofit that financially supports communities in designing the spaces they inhabit, Ortiz sees their frustration first-hand.

(Photo: Mari B. Robles López / @mediapersona.)
“So how do communities receive money?” Ortiz says. “They don’t if not through community organizations… the diaspora… [and] people who believe in the communities.”

Community-based groups in Puerto Rico denounce the lack of government support in post-disaster recovery. La Maraña’s work to strengthen community participation is not something the local government assumes as public policy. Instead, the government continues to perpetuate colonial practices through its lack of autonomy and its unwillingness to make room for citizen participation.  

In August 2023, Fuentes received some of the funding she needed to open her school. La Maraña, through the Participatory Design Lab, offered $17,000 in seed money to Taller Escuela Pescantil and 20 other Puerto Rican communities. Fuentes indicates that the funds will not only help renovate the space but also make it possible to expand and include a community kitchen and a gastronomic tour to promote economic development. The second floor of the building will be a tsunami escape tower, given its proximity to the coast.

In Puerto Rico, environmental organizations represent 1.3% of all nonprofits, and as the archipelago faces the disproportionate effects of climate change, these groups are necessary. Through her work, Ortiz has met many women who are leading climate justice solutions.

“This very powerful movement that is now emerging around climate change represents women and certainly represents poor women, Black women, who live in the areas that are being affected right now, such as the coasts,” she emphasizes.

This photo essay and oral history project highlights women like Fuentes, who are cultivating and nurturing innovative projects that address environmental and climate injustices throughout Puerto Rico.

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