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Unicellular megawatt independence

Our approach to Puerto Rico's Luis Munoz Marin International Airport took us over the mouth of San Juan Bay. The 43-metre high grey walls of the El Morro fortress on headlands facing out onto the Atlantic Ocean can not be mistaken even from 3,000 metres.

Our approach to Puerto Rico’s Luis Munoz Marin International Airport took us over the mouth of San Juan Bay. The 43-metre high grey walls of the El Morro fortress on headlands facing out onto the Atlantic Ocean can not be mistaken even from 3,000 metres. The round guard boxes with their knob-topped cupolas jutting from the stone walls have become a tourist icons for the island.

The Spanish fortress, whose construction began in 1539, sought to defend islanders against the predations of freebooters like Sir Francis Drake and the forces of rival colonial powers. Declared a United Nation’s World Heritage site in 1983 El Morro has long lost any military significance. The last time it faced off against an enemy was on May 12, 1898 when US Navy warships bombarded it during the Spanish American War. There is a Yukon connection here. General Nelson A. Miles who’s name has ended up on a canyon here, led the land invasion of the island on July 25, 1898.

The landing of our Jet Blue plane from Boston a few minutes later marked the first time that Eva and I had been back to the island for nearly 35 years. Much had obviously changed but much, we would find out, remained the same. Puerto Rico’s ambivalent political status as a ‘freely associated state’ of the United States still causes consternation. The island’s almost total dependency on the importation of the basic necessities of life mirrors our own.

When searching for a warm, quiet week away from Montreal’s cool, wet July and August this year we contacted old friends on the island for ideas. Jorge Gaskins and his wife Ana immediately offered their spare bedroom as a base. The fact that they were only a block and a half from the soft sands of Ocean Park beach sold my wife on the invitation. The opportunity to tag along with Jorge and learn about his current project sold me.

Jorge is a classic social entrepreneur. He has been involved in a host ecologically sustainable projects from setting up a small farmers union on the south coast of Puerto Rico to try to increase food self sufficiency on this potentially agriculturally rich tropical island to developing the 8th Sea Organic Seafood Company which markets tilapia from “a network of independent producers ... working to respect and preserve all of the associated ecosystems.”

His current project builds on his vast experience. Jorge is converting 49 ponds from a former shrimp farm into a micro-algae production facility. The .2 to two-hectare ponds will produce a salt water strain of this unicellular plant which is 60 per cent oil by weight. A single hectare pond has the potential to produce over 100,000 litres of bio-oil a year. Converted into bio-diesel this will be piped to a nearby plant of the Puerto Rican Electrical Energy Authority to produce megawatts.

An additional feature of this renewable energy project beyond lessening the carbon footprint of Puerto Ricans is that an additional 25 per cent of the micro-algae are solids. These in Jorge’s words, provide “an extraordinary feed ration for aquaculture relieving the over-fishing pressure on the oceans, lakes and rivers; and not competing with present food-related agriculture.” Tilapia and shrimp will benefit from the micro-algae largesse.

Both Puerto Rican energy and food independence will be addressed by this project. Its success could serve as a strong model and impetus to address other for forms of island dependency.

Jorge offered us the opportunity on our first full day on the island to accompany him on a trip to a waste-water treatment facility. He was showing around a micro-algae expert from the University of Georgia who is working on his project. On our arrival he regrettably informed us that he had to reschedule the visit. Sadly, Eva and I had to go to the beach instead.

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact

Namaste notes

Sunday, August 30 - 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time. A suggested reading is Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23.

Sunday, August 30 - International Day of the Disappeared urges action on behalf of the people subjected to enforced disappearances by the governments or their agents who then deny having them in custody or conceal what has happened to them.

Tuesday, September 1 - Christian Orthodox Ecclesiastical Year begins.