A group of protesters, many dressed in butterfly costumes, gathered at the intersection of Stanford Drive and U.S. 1 Friday afternoon in a rally called “Buy it Back/Shame on U” to oppose the University of Miami’s treatment and sale of land that includes endangered pine rockland to Ram Realty Services (Ram) for about $22 million.
The goal of the rally was to encourage the university to buy the land back from Ram, a developer with plans to create establishments like apartments, a theme park and a Walmart on the land.
Miami-Dade resident and protester Donna Kalil explained that the protestors were dressed in butterfly costumes to represent the atala butterfly, a rare species. This butterfly eats the coontie plant, which is unique to the pine rocklands and will be threatened by development of the land.
“If they don’t have this, then they don’t have anywhere to live,” Kalil said. “It’s a death sentence to them.”
Pine rocklands are considered a globally imperiled habitat. The land sold by UM includes a rare pine rockland ecosystem only found in southern Florida and the Bahamas, and is home to more than 200 species. Many of these species are critically endangered, like the Florida bonneted bat.
“The pine rocklands are a unique and irreplaceable habitat, and losing it to Walmart would be egregious,” said sophomore John Wilshire, who joined the protest. “It would be a large sacrifice just for that.”
Grant Stern, creator of NoWalmartinMidtown.com, participated in the protest. He said that UM sold the land despite having knowledge of its rarity.
“UM claimed that it did not know what was going on in the pine rocklands tract that was sold,” he said. “But in fact, they did know that pine rockland was an endangered species habitat.”
Protesters also accused the university of improperly caring for the land prior to its sale.
“Just the mere fact that UM could enable this kind of trashing of the environment when they supposedly have a mission to serve the community – and in a sustainable fashion, too – it’s disheartening,” Stern said.
In an official university statement, UM said: “The University has always been committed to the protection and preservation of our community’s natural and historic resources. … The University acted in good faith and in compliance with all rules and regulations in its handling of the South Campus property.”
The university also stated that the Miami-Dade County Department of Environmental Resource Management (DERM) defined which areas are considered Natural Forest Community (NFC) and, “[b]ased on this delineation, the University executed a management plan that guarantees the preservation of the NFC in perpetuity.”
The protest was organized by the Miami Pine Rocklands Coalition, an organization dedicated to preserving the pine rockland habitat.
The group attempted to protest on-campus at the Rock with the help of Zachariah Cosner, a UM student and member of the coalition, but they were unsuccessful in reserving the space. Instead, they chose to rally near the university’s front entrance.
“We decided to move off-campus, but we still wanted to be proximal to UM,” Cosner said.
Protesters held signs with statements like “Shame on U Shalala” and “What are U thinking? No Walmart on Pine Rocklands.” They also chanted, “Shame on U, Shalala and her crew!”
Bill Peters, a lifelong Miami-Dade resident, also participated in the protest. He rallied to maintain the topography of his county.
“I’d like to see at least some of Dade county remain the way I remember it,” Peters said.
As for whether or not Friday’s rally will make an impact, Stern said he thinks the voice of protest is already being heard.
“We’ve protested twice and they’ve moved the date of the hearing twice,” he said. “So that means they’re listening.”