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Military pollution and natural purity: seeing nature and knowing contamination in Vieques, Puerto Rico

Abstract

Military activities have produced contaminated environments at many sites around the world. This contamination and the associated health risks play a large role in how these places can be redeveloped after military use. In this essay we focus on the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico which was used as a bombing range by the US military for six decades until 2003. We examine the ways different groups of people perceive this formerly militarized landscape and the ways that these perceptions legitimatize certain redevelopment options over others. Through participant observation, semi-structured interviews and an analysis of textual materials we found that many local residents view the island as suffering from severe contamination while the large number of visitors, tourism promoters and North Americans now flocking to the post-militarized Vieques view it quite differently. These perceptions of purity and contamination, affected by different knowledges of the island’s history, have led to differing valuation of the landscape and contentious economic, political, and cultural battles over an island often labeled “natural” despite a history of military use and social exclusion.

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Notes

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    Vieques is, of course, not the only site where military training and weapons testing has resulted in widespread contamination. There are hundreds of sites across the US and the world which have been affected. The Military Toxics Project is an excellent source of information on the various sites and the specifics of military contamination. http://www.militarytoxproj.org

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Correspondence to Jeffrey Sasha Davis.

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Davis, J.S., Hayes-Conroy, J.S. & Jones, V.M. Military pollution and natural purity: seeing nature and knowing contamination in Vieques, Puerto Rico. GeoJournal 69, 165–179 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10708-007-9095-7

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Keywords

  • Militarism
  • Contamination
  • US fish and wildlife
  • Landscape
  • Risk
  • Political ecology