29 Nov 2016

Adding fuel to a fire

Dominican charcoal is transported to the main road leading to Port-au-Prince in makeshift sailboats across Lake Azuei © Juan Carlos Castañeda
Dominican charcoal is transported to the main road leading to Port-au-Prince in makeshift sailboats across Lake Azuei © Juan Carlos Castañeda
By Bryna Griffin

They called him Melaneo,” the Park Ranger explains. “He felt the park in his heart.” So begins a story of love and family, of poverty and revenge, of a forest and its destruction.

This is a story of the Sierra de Bahoruco National Park, in the Dominican Republic, told in the new feature-length documentary Death By A Thousand Cuts. The award-winning film, co-directed by Juan Mejia Botero and Jake Kheel, winds its way through the Park’s misty mountains and dry forest slopes. It takes us into the homes and hearts of people who protect the forest, people who live by cutting it, and people caught in the middle.

Spanning over 1,100 km2, Sierra de Bahoruco is the Dominican Republic’s largest terrestrial park. As a core zone of UNESCO’s Jaragua-Bahoruco-Enriquillo Biosphere Reserve, its forests protect at least 50 Globally Threatened species of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds and plants for which it has been identified as a Key Biodiversity Area and Alliance for Zero Extinction site.

These species include the Black-capped Petrel Pterodroma hasitata, La Selle Thrush Turdus swalesi, Bicknell’s Thrush Catharus bicknelli and Hispaniolan Crossbill Loxia megaplaga, six Critically Endangered frogs and two Endangered endemic land mammals: the Hispaniolan solenodon Solenodon paradoxus and the hutia Plagiodontia aedium. Yet so dire are the problems of illegal cutting for charcoal and agricultural expansion that the Sierra de Bahoruco has been declared an Important Bird & Biodiversity Area (IBA) in Danger by BirdLife International.

The La Selle Thrush is one of 32 birds endemic to Hispaniola found within Sierra de Bahoruco National Park © Rafy Rodriguez

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The Park’s forests stand in stark contrast to the bare mountains and hills just across the border in Haiti. In the 1970s, the Dominican Republic put in place policies to safeguard natural resources and incentivise cooking alternatives to firewood and charcoal. Unfortunately, neighbouring Haiti did not.

Over the decades, Haiti’s forests were slowly cleared, leaving much of the land and rivers parched and lifeless. Today, much of Haiti’s rapidly growing still depends on charcoal for cooking, yet virtually no forest remains to source it. Many Haitians must now buy Dominican charcoal smuggled across the border to prepare their daily meals.

On the Dominican side of the park, where the forests still protect critical watersheds supplying power, drinking water and crop irrigation, tensions run high over this important resource. These forests and their unique biodiversity are threatened by the charcoal trade, as well as illegal farming inside the park by Dominicans who employ impoverished, landless Haitians as cheap labour or lease park land for sharecropping.

While some Dominicans resent the illegal destruction of their forest, others stand to profit from the situation, seeing “black gold” in the green hills. Long-standing distrust and ethnic prejudices between these neighbouring countries adds fuel to this already smouldering fire.

The charcoal market in Croix-des-Bouquets, in the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, receives the majority of charcoal smuggled illegally from the Dominican Republic © Jake Kheel


In the small, poor border communities, where the rangers and illegal charcoal producers and farmers know each other by name, tensions can escalate quickly. Melaneo, born Eligio Eloy Vargas, had been named Park Ranger of the Year in Sierra de Bahoruco National Park. One day in 2012, however, he went into the forest and did not return. His body was found covered in machete wounds, and quickly a suspect emerged: a Haitian man from just across the border, known to many in the area as a smallscale share-cropper.

Months later, this Haitian man’s son and cousin were found murdered as well, and to date no-one has been brought to justice for any of these deaths. Layer by layer, the tragic implications and interconnectedness of both the ecological and the personal tragedies playing out on the Haitian-Dominican border are revealed in the film.

And yet day by day the cutting of the forest continues. One Haitian employed as a Forest Guard explains, “We work for the Dominican Republic, but we’re Haitians. We’re destroying two [charcoal] ovens here and two ovens there. Sometimes my countrymen tell me ‘Since you’re working and getting paid, it’s easy for you to tell us not to do it. And it’s true, you’re eating and he’s not because you destroyed his oven. You leave with an aching heart.”

Dr. Yolanda León, President of Grupo Jaragua (BirdLife in the Dominican Republic) took the filmmakers to see the impact of the charcoal cleaning first-hand. She describes the “industrial-scale” production and mass deforestation in parts of the landscape, some of which is happening under the cover of corrupt officials.

Standing in a patch of cleared dry forest she explains,“We’re in a zone overrun by charcoal ovens. And we can’t find even one area where the forest is doing well. Unfortunately this is going to turn into a total desert soon.”

Grupo Jaragua has been deeply involved in the conservation of Sierra de Bahoruco for over 10 years. The team maps and monitors the forest and biodiversity, has identified major threats, and is actively advocating an action plan to preserve what is left of these unique montane forests.

Communities have been empowered to better understand and share their views about the benefits they receive from the forest, and have been engaged in sustainable agroforestry outside the park as an alternative to destructive practices.

Grupo Jaragua’s advocacy through social and conventional media has leveraged support from Dominican civil society. Its work with Diario Libre, the country’s leading newspaper, exposed high-level local government complicity in illegal deforestation and collaborations on investigative journalism have led to some reduction in the charcoal making in northern Sierra de Bahoruco.

Gains are tenuous, however, and Grupo Jaragua is working to better understand and document the value chain and key players in this trade in order to act more strategically and effectively. Rather than simply arresting poor, small-scale charcoal producers, the web of politics and power that enables the trade must also be dismantled from the top.

The new documentary film delves deep into the complexity of the issues Grupo Jaragua has been working tirelessly to address, and illustrates the nuances of their work. From the big picture to the intimately personal, Death By A Thousand Cuts asks more questions than it answers.

When the forests and ecosystems on which we depend begin to disappear, to what lengths will people go to survive? Will diverse communities be able to work together in the face of hardships or will we be torn apart? Will there ever be justice for Melaneo and the others killed in this conflict?

While it may not be able to answer these questions, the film gives us a richer understanding of the challenges ahead. As the credits role, one is also left with a deeper respect for those on the front lines of such conflicts as well as those who seek to find the solutions to end them.