11 March 2014

The charcoal war

by Jake Kheel


“Before, the sound of the river could be heard from the village. It sounded like a cannon shooting by the amount of water coming down from the hill. Today it is nothing more than a stream, where the water level does not even reach the knees of bathers. The cutting down of trees in the hills has dried the river.” My friend Quico told me this in 1999 on the banks of the Bahoruco river.

Wishing to find and follow this worrying situation, I had the opportunity to again visit the Bahoruco Sierra in 2001 with a group of experts from the Dominican Republic’s National Botanic Garden. This time we visited the Cachote community which has a community ecotourism project. Upon ascending the hill of Bahoruco, one enjoys spectacular views and feels the change in temperature. These mountains are deep green from the amount of trees that thrive there. A gradual change in vegetation is observed as we approach the cloud forests of the high mountains.

Unfortunately, I also noticed patches of deforestation in almost all the hills and ridges of the Sierra, even in the more sloping mountains where the rain had completely washed away deforested areas, leaving in plain sight rocky spots devoid of vegetation.

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Deforestation, especially in the high mountains, has serious consequences: it causes soil erosion, which affects hydrological cycles and threatens the quality and availability of drinking water. It also causes longer periods of intense drought and has even been linked to rising levels of malaria incidence. Another effect is the destruction of the habitat of species endemic to the country and, more dangerously, makes the Dominican Republic more prone and vulnerable to natural disasters like those seen in Haiti.

Today, deforestation in the Sierra de Bahoruco and the Dominican border has reached alarming levels, threatening the national security of the Dominican Republic.

Much of the pressure comes from Haiti, where 98% of the country is already deforested and where charcoal from trees represents 60% of domestic energy production. According to the New York Times,

“the Dominican Republic long ago banned the production of charcoal to protect its forests and began subsidizing propane to wean its population from fuel wood. But that has not stopped desperate Haitians from risking their lives for more charcoal, which provides more than 60 percent of their nation’s energy.”

This has created an illegal market for coal that is dramatically accelerating deforestation in the Dominican Sierra.

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Conservative estimates calculate the movement of 115 tons of charcoal per week from the Dominican Republic to Haiti. Dominican officials estimate that at least 10 trucks per week are crossing the border loaded with charcoal.

With few government resources to combat charcoal cartels and limited economic opportunities for Haitians at the border, the threat to Dominican forests is very real and serious.

A few years ago, I was talking to Tom Lovejoy, the world-renowned scientist and conservationist, who asked me about Dominican deforestation. Tom is part of a committee of the United States government and major multilateral institutions that are currently developing a strategy to combat deforestation in Haiti.

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“The Dominican Republic is the new frontier of Haitian deforestation,” he explained. The famous satellite image of the island of Hispaniola shows a marked line between the two countries—Haiti almost completely barren while across the border the Dominican Republic is lush with forests and green vegetation. Al Gore used this illustration in his famous film on climate change. Despite laws banning the production of charcoal along the international border, deforestation is already in full swing and heading towards the Dominican side of the island.

Combating deforestation will be a great challenge for the Dominican Republic and require more than agreements and memoranda but instead the implementation of economic alternatives and concrete examples of solutions. Several Dominican and international institutions are working on the border to fight poverty and create alternative sources of labor.

Already there are small examples of sustainable forest management, as is the case Cachote, where the local community promotes ecotourism as an alternative to the indiscriminate felling of forests. In addition, several local businesses and projects are promoting a new vision of development for the area, including responsible tourism as a source of economic development that protects natural resources.

To reverse the advance of Dominican deforestation takes action from the Dominican people to join forces with the people of Haiti and organize a grassroots movement in the Sierra de Bahoruco to create a firm and lasting commitment to this Caribbean forest.

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Jake Kheel has been intimately involved in the area of environmental protection in the Dominican Republic for over fifteen years. Kheel has directed research and educational programs all around the country, including the Sierra de Bahoruco where he competed his master’s degree from Cornell University. It was also here that he developed a profound concern about the deforestation he was seeing along the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Kheel is currently the environmental director of the Puntacana group and the not-for-profit Puntacana Ecological Foundation. Both of the organizations he heads have won numerous awards and praise under his leadership. Kheel has an M.A. in environmental administration from Cornell University and an undergraduate degree in Spanish and Latin American Literature from Wesleyan University.

Also published with more photos up on Medium.