The spirit of los Haitises

  • 14/08/1994

The spirit of los Haitises "I CAME to Los Haitises in 1951 when I was abruptly evicted from my farm by the government to make way for a sugarcane plantation. One day I was in my farm, the next day I had to leave. I established a farm in the area the logging companies had deforested and planted coffee, cocoa, grapefruit, potatoes and vegetables in my piece of land. And now the government wants to expel us from here. They accuse us of deforesting but we had done the opposite! We have planted trees and have established reforestation committees even before the government threatened with displacement 10 years ago. They are killing us slowly. It would be better if they just throw a bomb here and kill us all at once."

Meet Joaquin Hernandez, a 65-year-old farmer who reflects the spirit of Los Limones, a pioneer settlement in the Los Haitises region of the Dominican Republic, a small country tucked away in the island of La Hispaniola, between Cuba and Puerto Rico. For a blood-hungry neighbour, it has the republic of Haiti, notorious for the environmental degradation that has left a bare 3 per cent of the country"s land under forest cover. Today, the tiny republic is caught in the grip of resource overexploitation by an impoverished peasantry.

The Dominican forests have been converted into cash crop plantations like sugarcane, cotton and banana, into pastures and into a maze of small plots used for subsistence farming. The government took several measures to halt the deforestation caused by small farmers. In 1967, it banned felling of trees and handed over the custody of the forests to the armed forces. In 1973, it established national parks, sanctuaries and forest reserves. Despite these measures, by 1989, only 14 per cent of the country retained forest cover.

State conservation efforts were focused on the Los Haitises region in the northeast part of the country. The region (1,600 sq km) is, in fact, the largest remaining tropical forest, covering a unique land formation of extremely steep hills and narrow valleys. It records the highest rainfall in the country (2,400 mm a year) and has its largest underground aquifer.

Los Haitises was uninhabited before 1950 -- the Tainos, the original inhabitants of the area, were exterminated during the Spanish occupation. Modern settlers arrived in the region in 1951 when their lands in the fertile valleys of Sabana Grande De Boya were confiscated by the dictator, Rafael Trujillo, to establish sugarcane plantations. The logging companies had already worked in the area and opened up roads. They were eagerly followed by land-hungry farmers.

Today, 60 per cent of the adult population of Los Haitises has come from other parts of the country. These farmers, totalling 40,000 in 1981, converted the forest into conucos (small agricultural plots). Over the last decade, large cattle ranchers have also converted forests into pastures. By 1989, aerial photographs showed that only 15 per cent of Los Haitises was still forested.

The dramatic situation alarmed President Jaoquin Balaguer, who issued a presidential order on May 30, 1992, forbidding all agricultural and grazing activities in the region. Armed troops were sent and thousands of cattle were removed in 3 frenetic days.

Widespread protests led by farmers associations, local catholic priests and media coverage led the president to amend his decision and form a commission to oversee the implementation of a resettlement plan to provide 2.5 ha of land and a house for each of the 8,000 families already displaced.

The government claimed that farmers were destroying the forest and should therefore be moved out. According to the local coordinator of the Land Reform Agency, "The peasants are not aware of the importance of the Los Haitises forests at the national level. Besides, they do not know the benefits of the forest and the damage they are causing." His view was substantiated by Joaquin Rodas, an agricultural extension worker from Sabana Grande De Boya: "The peasants have inappropriate agricultural practices. They just clear the forest, obtain a couple of harvests and move on to the next plot." Given this perspective, the idea of relocating these families and compensating them seems to be the only option.

The oft-flouted image exaggerates the dramatic environmental degradation of Los Haitises. It does not, however, explain the conditions under which the local people live, driving them to overexploit their resources. It does not consider the social costs of displacement and the farmers" assessment of the situation.

The case of Los Limones, one of the first settlements in the area, is a case in point. The village lacks all services except an elementary school. A joint study was conducted in Los Limones in the summer of 1992 by the local Pedro H Urena University and the Cornell University of the US. The study found that the stereotypes held by outsiders about farmers" ignorance and lack of awareness were baseless. In a survey conducted in October 1992 by the team, of which this correspondent was a member, 98 per cent of the farmers were able to identify concrete benefits provided by the forests and recognised the importance of preserving them.

When leaves fall and not
Francisco Herrera, a Los Limones farmer and neighbour of Hernandez, explained, "When leaves of trees fall and rot, they fertilise the soil. Moreover, the forest cover in the top of the hills protects the soil and conserves the humidity for the crops below. The air is fresher and the soil does not dry up as in other areas." Herrera"s land, in fact, had the tops of the hills covered with a mix of fruit trees and local species and the lower part of the hills were planted with tuber crops.

While walking through a mixed landscape of pasture, patches of forests and conucos, Pedro Arias, one of the few farmers born in Los Limones, is clear in his views: "We have to take care of the forests. If we destroy them, the land will become a time bomb out to destroy us."

During my stay in Los Limones, I lived with Agustina Herrera, president of the mothers" club and actively involved in the church. She explained her concept of the inter-relationship between humans and trees: "I am not telling you that we should keep a tree or that a tree should cease to exist, but similarly, a human being should not cease to exist. Both humans and trees should exist. It should not be that one disappears so that the other can exist." She said this quietly, while armed officials patrolled the village. I was expelled from the area 2 days later.

Farmers from Los Limones and neighbouring Majagual are aware of the damage from uncontrolled fires, raising cattle in large areas and planting tubers and thus exposing the soil to erosion. Los Limones farmers established a firefighting brigade in 1991. Francisco Ciriaco, president of the brigade, explained, "Every time that a farmer wants to clear an area, he calls us. We organise a cadre that helps him to make a ditch and control the fire."

Farmers in the region have also developed several agricultural techniques geared to conservation. They plant tubers like sweet potatoes and cassava in the first year along with seedlings of grapefruit, orange and coconut trees. Arias explained, "After 2 years, we plant grass. Trees are planted about 7 metres apart, allowing enough sun to reach the grass. Cattle can graze after a year when the trees have grown tall enough. The animals help to clear the area of weeds and fertilise the soil with their excrements."

During my stay in Los Haitises I found a variety of local organisations actively working in their respective communities. Every community I visited had at least a farmers" association, a mothers" club and a Catholic group called Pastoral Social that focused on social issues. In the 2 communities of Los Limones and Majagual, where I conducted a more in-depth study, these groups were actually involved in conservation measures through different means.

The San Francisco Farmers" Association of Los Limones formed reforestation committees as far back as 1978 and bought more than 1,20,000 seedling in 1983. The association collapsed in 1984, but another was formed in 1992 by the Pastoral Social. The Esfuerzos Unidos Association Service, another local organisation, conducts awareness campaigns among villagers to prevent forest fires. The local people even tried to establish a community nursery. A farmer donated the land and all collaborated in its preparation. But the forest service never provided the promised seedlings and technical assistance.

After the presidential decree of May 1992, in all the 7 villages that I visited, local groups joined hands to defend community rights and formed a new group called the Defense Committee. Initially, the organisations acted separately and some of them proposed a series of resource management measures to be implemented in Los Haitises.

However, the actual behaviour of the farmers is not consistent with their concepts, knowledge and awareness. They continue to clear forests for agriculture and hack trees for fuelwood in apparent contradiction of declared attitudes. Cattle ranchers continue to buy land from small farmers and convert large tracks of forest into pastures.

Obviously, the farmers" concept of a balanced relationship between human needs and nature has been disrupted. Grassroots conservation activities had but a limited effect on deforestation and the appropriate agricultural practices of a few have been nullified by the greater transformation of the forest into pastures and fields cultivating tubers. The causes of environmental degradation transcend local knowledge and must be looked at in the broader political and ecological context. It is a fact that farmers and local organisations face severe constraints that have driven them to degrade their natural resources. One of the devastating constraints is that of unequal enforcement of the law and unequal treatment and services provided by the government. Given that the land in Los Haitises is not appropriate for agriculture, farmers have requested land in other areas but the Land Reform Agency has done nothing. Meanwhile, smalltime farmers observe how large areas of land in the neighbouring Sabana Grande de Boya area are given out at ridiculous rents to big corporations for pineapple plantations and shrimp production.

An open letter from the La Esperanza Farmers" Association sent to the press indicated how the Dominican government has favoured powerful interests against the rural poor: "When the owners of an African palm plantation cut down all the trees along the Sano, Guarua, Jaguera, Manacla and La Tercia rivers, nobody heard our complaints because the owners are millionaires. Today, those companies pollute those rivers and El Valle and Sabana de la Mar communities suffer."

Credit has also been manipulated and its distribution has been very limited as far as small farmers are concerned. Tomas Soto, a community leader from Pilancon, alleges, "It was in 1978 or 1980 when the millionaires from Santo Domingo and Sanchez took over the forest in the north of Los Haitises. The ministry of agriculture and forests supported instead of stopping them and realised the problem too late. They should had never let them clear all that area.

"When we ask for loans, we have to visit the bank at least 3 to 4 times. But the millionaires receive their money right away. Moreover, they have 4 years to pay it back, while we have to pay back the next season. I really do not understand why we, who have worked hard to green this area, have to be displaced."

Threats of displacement
The farmers" opposition to the government"s conservation measures is not merely from a lack of awareness or knowledge. The farmers do not have legal titles to their lands. Instead, property is recognised among them by customary laws, subject to frequent changes or nullifications. This problem has been compounded in the region from the continuous threats of displacement in the past 10 years. The situation has driven farmers to exploit their resources and land at a much faster and harmful pace. This overexploitation in turn has given the government the justification to relocate the farmers.

The local farmers must use resources at their disposal to feed themselves and their families. Sophie Jakowska, prominent Dominican educator, put it succinctly: "Their individual and collective resources are being wasted away in the daily struggle for survival." Their present behaviour -- continuing degradation of the local resource base and opposition to government conservation measures -- cannot be explained merely by environmental illiteracy and inappropriate practices.

Instead, the causes of all environmental predicaments are embedded in the socioeconomic and political systems. The processes of capitalist land use and export-oriented growth are among the roots causes of the destruction of the natural ecosystem in the Dominican Republic. The farmers have no choice but to do what the government wanted to avoid -- overexploit resources due to the official threats of displacement.

Fernando Secaira, a Guatemalan associated with the International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development at the Cornell University in the US, worked in the Los Limones region before being expelled by the authorities