Martin Pena Community Land Trust

"When individuals join in a cooperative venture, the power generated far exceeds what they could have accomplished acting individually." –R. Buckminster Fuller

The Martín Peña Channel is an environmentally degraded 3.5-mile-long tidal channel within the San Juan Bay Estuary in Puerto Rico. Despite its privileged location in the capital, San Juan, next to the financial district, the channel is currently clogged with sediments and waste. The eight originally “informal” communities bordering the channel have a history of poverty, overcrowding, unsafe living conditions, exposure to environmental and health hazards, marginalization, blight, social invisibility, and governmental neglect. Most of the community’s 25,260 residents are descendants of impoverished peasants who migrated to the city from the early-1900s to the 1950s as the sugar cane monoculture collapsed. Migrants informally settled in lands perceived as marginal and unsafe, filling the surrounding wetlands with organic and household waste. By 2004, approximately 2,000 families living in communities along the Martín Peña Channel did not have titles or property rights to lands many had inhabited for generations.

The environmental conditions of the Martín Peña Channel have been studied extensively, and dredging has been widely recommended, but previous rehabilitation initiatives overlooked the symbiosis between environmental degradation and poverty. The systemic failures that gave rise to the critical needs of the communities along the channel include: governmental neglect; lack of an appropriate legal framework that fits the critical housing and land tenure needs of informal settlements; political corruption; disregard for the environment; land-value speculation; and the threat of gentrification and eviction once a community becomes more desirable.

Fideicomiso de la Tierra del Caño Martín Peña (in English, Martín Peña Channel Community Land Trust) has designed the ENLACE project to address a variety of pressing needs in this poor, underserved, historically disenfranchised “informal” community near the center of San Juan. The project takes on the environmental restoration of the channel while simultaneously working to prevent gentrification and provide affordable housing and access to critical infrastructure for the inhabitants.

The project’s leaders decided to use a Community Land Trust (CLT) as a vehicle for community empowerment. They secured collective legal tenure of 200 contiguous acres of land in perpetuity, something truly historic and almost unheard of in such urban contexts. By tackling land rights, environmental restoration, and social justice in a multi-pronged approach, the CLT has launched an unprecedented comprehensive development model.

The CLT has kickstarted 65 social and economic development initiatives, engaged 1,600 community youth, and successfully relocated over 600 families to allow for suitable infrastructure development. The novel application of the CLT’s collective ownership model to an informal settlement is a truly revolutionary model, already being referenced for replication by communities in Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, and South Africa.

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