Planting Hope on Hispaniola

In a country whose national symbol could be a motorcycle with a blown- out muffler, the Dominican Republic's Armando Bermúdez National Park is an oasis of tranquility.

Not much has changed in the park since its founding over half a century ago by Rafael Trujillo, a dictator whose cold-blooded rule lasted for more than 30 years. Punctuated by three 3,000-meter peaks (the Caribbean's highest), draped in stands of Hispaniolan pine, and criss-crossed by streams and waterfalls, the park covers more than 1,000 square kilometers in the Cordillera Central, the central mountain range of the Dominican Republic. By one count, the uninhabited park receives only a few hundred paying visitors a year.

But although much has remained the same inside Armando Bermúdez, changes are taking place in the way people living outside the park-indeed, across the entire island-think about the environmental treasures it represents. It's been a slow shift, arguably tracing its roots back to the 1970s when Joaquin Balaguer (Trujillo's one-time protégé) set aside 10 percent of the country's land area as parks or scientific reserves. Awareness is rising about crucial environmental themes like the roles healthy forests play in everything from agriculture to water purification. Dovetailing with this increasing awareness is the government's growing desire to address some of the same issues. For evidence of this shift, look no further than the country's new environment and natural resources secretariat, a far cry from Balaguer's draconian anti-logging laws that were enforced by soldiers with machine guns. The spirit of the law is largely the same today (no cutting is allowed without a permit), but the agents charged with enforcing it now answer to the civilian bureaucracy.

These changes are taking place in a crit­ical location. The island of Hispaniola, which the Dominican Republic (the DR) shares with Haiti, extends over 78,000 square kilometers-large enough to be home to a dazzling array of endemic biodiversity, but small enough for that same biodiversity to be wiped out in the evolutionary blink of an eye.

But do changes in attitude-both of the government and the governed-ensure that changes are taking place on the ground? The answer, like the problems facing the island's ecosystems, is complex.

Good Intentions, Some Progress

Directly to the south of Armando Bermúdez is another protected area of about the same size called José del Carmen Ramírez National Park, whose extensive cloud forests host wild orchids and bromeliads and the source of the Río Yaque del Sur. Taken together, the Yaque del Sur's watershed and that of the longer Río Yaque del Norte, rising in the same mountain range, cover more than 25 percent of the country's land area. Much of it is prime agricultural land.

The two parks are the cornerstone of the Dominican national park system, a vast network of more than 60 parks, reserves, refuges, and sanctuaries overseen by the seven-year-old Secretariat of the Environment and Natural Resources. The endemism of the mountain range in which they lie is astonishing: the Nature Conservancy reports that more than 90 percent of the amphibians and reptiles there exist nowhere else in the world. The same goes for half the area's butterflies, more than 40 percent of its plant species, and 35 percent of its birds.

Armando Bermúdez and José del Carmen Ramírez are symbols of what can happen when things are done correctly. The government's commitment to the area is evident in the sign­age, easily accessed entrances, and well-staffed park ranger stations. This official air, in turn, means laws are followed and boundaries respected. It's amid this environment that the Cordillera Central has become a center for ecotourism in the Caribbean, with several outfits in Jarabacoa, Constanza, and other towns offering whitewater rafting, horseback riding, mountain biking, and guided hikes up 3,087-meter Pico Duarte.

Off to the west, in the mountains just southeast of the Dominican city of Dajabón, lies Nalga de Maco National Park. Like Armando Bermúdez and José del Carmen Ramírez, it has towering peaks, thundering waterfalls, and stunning biodiversity.

But there are some key differences. For one, the river it helps to feed doesn't exist solely in the DR; the Río Artibonito flows westward into Haiti (where it is called the Rivière Arti­bonite) after forming at the confluence of the Río Libón and Río Joca. No river on Hispaniola is longer than the Artibonito, and none more important to Haiti's farmers. The valley through which it runs is that nation's principal rice-growing region; thanks to the Peligre Dam constructed in 1950, the river irrigates more than 35,000 hectares of land.

Nalga de Maco also differs from those other parks in that it only loosely resembles a protected area. There are no grand entrance gates, no signs, nothing to suggest that it's a federally administered national park except a one-room office in Rio Limpio, a tiny mountain town at the park's northwestern edge. More often than not, a visitor to that office will find it empty, as I did on weekly visits to Rio Limpio toward the end of my Peace Corps service in early 2007. The environment secretariat's website lists the park staff as an administrator, three rangers, and three forest extensionists. In a 280-square-kilometer park, that's one staff person for every 40 square kilometers. (Armando Bermúdez and José del Carmen Ramírez, in contrast, feature 26 ranger stations and 6 observation towers and combine to average one staffer per 24 square kilometers.)

No formal guiding groups exist for visitors who want to enter the park, as I found out in March 2006. A friend and I spent four hours finding someone who knew the path to the summit of Nalga de Maco, the 1,991-meter peak from which the park gets its name. That someone was Jairo, a 22-year-old Rio Limpio resident who told us he learned the trails as a boy while walking them with his father. In the early part of our trek, in the foothills at the mountain's base, we passed more than a few farmers and laborers with hoes and axes slung over their shoulders. On our way down a day later, we saw the same men standing in clearings where just a day before had been lush growth. Embers could still be seen smoldering in parts of the new clearings. Jairo told me it was illegal to clear land there because it was within park boundaries. "But who's going to enforce it? The law does not reach [the residents] here," he said.

This episode illustrates a stark truth of developing-world environmental policy, according to Bill Kaschak, who spent eight years working for the International Resources Group directing a USAID-funded project that advised the Dominican government as it developed new environmental policies. Decisions may be made at high levels of government, but those decisions don't always affect what happens on the ground. In 2000, when the Dominican government resolved to protect its environment and use its natural resources in sustainable ways, the result was the creation of the environment secretariat. Seven years later, the framework remains incomplete.

In some cases, Kaschak says, the money just isn't available for implementation, a fact reflected in the lax enforcement in Nalga de Maco. But a more pressing concern is the culture question. "It's about attitude, knowledge, behavior-what people perceive and how they interpret that," he says. The creation of the policy framework was helpful in that it established, in Kaschak's terms, a "body of technicians" to enforce the legal dimensions of the policies. The difficulty now is not in establishing whether the will to erect the framework exists-it does, at least in the DR-but in the time it may take the culture to become comfortable acting within that framework.

Green and Peasant Land?

In the Dominican Republic the fact that the environment is facing any number of threats has been recognized, and a partial framework has been created for doing something about it. Laws are on the books now to regulate everything from carbon emissions to whalewatching, a big-time tourism draw on the Saman Peninsula in the country's northeast. But what about places where such a framework doesn't exist? What about Haiti?

Since 1988, four coups and/or U.S. military interventions have wracked the nation, robbing it of the stability needed to set up strategies to address pressing issues like the state of the environment. Development agencies that might fill the void find tough sledding too. The Peace Corps, for instance, long a driver of environmental awareness during 46 consecutive years on the Dominican side of the island, has suspended its Haiti program four times since 1987, including twice since 2004.

So if government doesn't exist, and if workers from other countries are ordered to leave (as non-essential employees of the U.S. State Department were in May 2005), who remains to safeguard the Haitian environment?

Haitian peasants, decided Chavannes Jean-Baptiste.

In 1972, the young Catholic-layman-turned-agronomist began work on what would become the Peasant Movement of Papaye (MPP), with the goal of teaching sustainable agriculture to impoverished farmers in the Haitian countryside. In the 35 years since, Haiti's population has grown from 5.5 million to more than 8.7 million, half of whom earn less than $60 per year, according to globalsecurity.org. As the population has grown, trees have disappeared. Forests cover less than 2 percent of Haiti's land mass, and Jean-Baptiste says conservative estimates suggest 20 million trees are felled for charcoal production each year.

That's led to the erosion problems Jean-Baptiste has placed at the center of his efforts. In a healthy system, according to Jean-Baptiste, erosion can be expected to result in 1 metric ton of soil loss per hectare per year. Current estimates put soil loss in Haiti at 1,600 metric tons per hectare per year. In a situation that extreme, erosion ceases to be merely an agricultural or environmental issue and becomes an acute humanitarian problem as well: since 2004, flooding caused in part by erosion and deforestation has killed or displaced several thousand Haitians. "I can say that the country will go from catastrophe to catastrophe if nothing is done to change the situation," Jean-Baptiste says.

For almost four decades, Jean-Baptiste has been working to do just that. In 2005, he received a Goldman Environmental Prize for his work with MPP, whose members have planted more than 20 million trees. Perhaps more important to Jean-Baptiste, the number of rural Haitians taking part in MPP projects has topped 60,000 to date.

"You cannot save the environment without  the formal engagement of peasant organizations," Jean-Baptiste argues. "They must be the principal actors." If anything positive came out of the floods of the past decade, he believes, it's that they have increased public awareness among Haitians of the degradation of the country's environment: "The problems one encounters working on environmental protection in Haiti are diverse, but in my opinion the biggest problem is one of education and information."

The new awareness is a first step toward a resolution of the problems, but ultimately what's needed is a national strategy, though it may be slow in coming. Jean-Baptiste serves as the chair of the federal government's new council on peasant issues, and he's frank about how close such a strategy currently is to reality: "It demands a degree of political will that doesn't exist in Haiti at the moment."

Nursing the Forests

Almost a year after my first visit, I returned to Nalga de Maco with Chris Bright, a former senior researcher at Worldwatch, and Gaspar Pérez, the manager of a nearby agroforestry nursery started by Bright's nonprofit group, Earth Sangha. Bright was in country to see the latest progress at the nursery, but he also wanted to see some virgin tropical moist forest.

We approached the mountain on a different trail than the one I had used with Jairo a year earlier, but the lack of regulation was just as evident. To our left as we climbed was a plantation of Honduran pine, the exotic softwood of choice for entrepreneurs trying to make some money in the timber trade. To our right was a slope overtaken by thickets of an invasive shrub the Dominicans call calliandra. Banana plantations and bean fields were also visible.

When we finally found the stand Pérez had in mind, we saw the type of ecosystem that once dominated the island: ferns, mosses, palms, and trickling streams that ran through an eternally damp forest floor. Just beyond the parcel's vine-entangled border, however, lay a huge hillside expanse of felled trees, charred brush, and smoldering ash. Interplanted among the piles of debris: more banana trees.

Pérez would later say he felt embarrassed that Bright and I had seen it. "It isn't supposed to be like that. It wasn't like that when I was younger."

Unfortunately, the same can be said for much of the mountainous region in the country's northwest. Logging has become big business in places like the Dajabón province. Flatbed trucks descend from the hills daily, loaded with huge trunks of mature native Hispaniolan pine and younger logs of Honduran pine. There are more of the former these days, but that might not be true in a few years: Hispaniolan pine is on the World Conservation Union's (IUCN) "red list" of threatened species, while the most popular selection for replanting programs sponsored by the Dominican forestry department is the faster-growing Honduran species, introduced solely for low-grade timber production.

The forestry department, an arm of the environment secretariat, has small regional nurseries throughout the country, including two in Restauracin, a section of Dajabón province labeled the nation's "leading forestry municipality" by environment secretary Max Puig. The secretariat's commitment to reforestation is such that planting trees is touted as though it were a civic duty. Posters in many of the agency's field offices depict Dominican President Leonel Fernández with his sleeves rolled up planting a sapling, and public-service announcements on afternoon radio urge families to plant trees near their houses. In many instances, though, those posters and radio spots are the closest any Dominican can get to entering the process. A gap exists between rhetoric and action.

Closing this gap became the focus of my Peace Corps service. Despite living in the DR's "leading forestry municipality," families in Los Cerezos, the community in which I served as a volunteer, simply couldn't get their hands on any trees to plant. The government nurseries, while a boon for the absentee owners of the area's vast timber plantations, offered little to the small family farms that in many respects are on the leading edge of deforestation.

When I arrived in May 2005, two farmers, in a community of roughly 500 people, had contracted with the forestry office to introduce managed plantings on their land. A handful of others had received trees from the forestry nurseries through a now-defunct local NGO. Those who hadn't been included in any sort of planting program or tree giveaway asked for a Peace Corps volunteer to help get them involved. They had seen the posters and heard the ads. Many had even attended day-long, government-administered workshops on concepts like agroforestry, soil structure, and the dangers of deforestation. They knew the virtues of forest renewal and wanted desperately to help promote it.

But over time it became apparent that the government, whatever its intentions, couldn't possibly accommodate every Dominican farmer who wanted to reforest his land. Moreover, there were no other options. In response, a small association of farmers in Los Cerezos formed a Peace Corps-facilitated partnership with Bright's non-profit and built their own nursery. It's located right inside their community and is producing around 6,000 trees per year.

"The project is designed to create opportunities for local people while also strengthening farm culture and preserving the landscape," Bright says. "The farmers there know very well that they shouldn't clear forest, but they've never had any other options that they can afford. With their nursery and our program, now they do."

Bright hopes to expand his group's program into Haiti once the Los Cerezos project begins to produce lasting results. Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, for his part, doesn't place much faith in projects that attempt such expansions. Arrangements like that are too simple, he says, especially for a place where the problems are so complex. "Today, there's a lot of talk about binational projects," says Jean-Baptiste. "The European Union, for example, encourages them. But I think they're poorly conceived because they don't take into account the characteristics of each area. I get a lot of people who come in with great intentions during planning stages, but when the time comes to start doing some work, they're nowhere to be seen."

The majority of these projects fail, he says, because they violate basic principles of development work, including longterm planning and integrated approaches to problems.

But if Bright and Jean-Baptiste differ on the value of cross-border projects on Hispaniola, they share the conviction that more options must be created for the island's residents. Jean-Baptiste sees job creation through public-works projects in the Haitian countryside as a way to relieve pressure to cut trees, but he also wants to introduce environmental education to the peasant class. For him, the makings of a solution lie in awareness.

Gaspar Pérez and his counterparts in the DR already have varying degrees of that awareness; what they need are avenues through which to act on it. Whether those avenues are created by a slowly evolving policy framework or by something else doesn't matter. What matters is that people have a chance to act.

And that's the common thread that runs through Hispaniola. There, as anywhere, real change will only begin at the grassroots, where attitudes meet action. Attitudes have begun to change, perhaps spurred by the creation of a national park more than five decades ago. With luck it won't take another five decades for action to have caught up.

 

Tommy Ventre works for the Fairfax, Virginia-based environmental nonprofit Earth Sangha. He was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic from 2005 to 2007.