(Early December, 2012)
This morning it looked like the major project I’ve been working on for the last few months was going to fall through. I met with the rest of the committee for the co-management of the local protected area. There was the director of the Environmental School, the administrator of the park, a community representative, two technicians from the local office of the environmental ministry, me and a business mogul from town. Two decades ago the business mogul built the suspended foot-bridges that turned the Jimenoa waterfall into a viable tourist attraction. Let’s call him Mr. Monopoly. A few years ago the waterfall and the surrounding area was declared a National Monument. Right before I arrived in the Peace Corps a newly appointed and infamously righteous politician – son of one of the heroines that ignited the popular Dominican resistance against Trujillo—
was appointed the environmental minister. He decided that Mr. Monopoly should not be allowed to benefit singularly from the tourist potential of a nation’s protected area, so he appointed ownership of the waterfall attraction to the DR’s National Environmental School, which has a campus that borders the area. It was this move that prompted the director of the Environmental School to solicit a Peace Corps volunteer to build the community capacity necessary for the school to develop sustainable and legitimate ecotourism projects based around the waterfall attraction. A year and eight months later and the Peace Corps volunteer realizes that despite the formation of multiple community groups, numerous workshops, conferences and promises, in the end the project depends on the whimsy of a handful of individuals.
Two weeks ago I participated in a 3 hour meeting with a team from the environmental ministry with actual decision making power. Together we developed the Annual Operations Plan for the protected area. The community cooperative/ nature museum project that I designed was decided as the central piece of the next year’s work. The powers at be committed to making the project a reality (provided that I can find 75 % of the $ 50,000 U.S. that it’s going to take). However, we never put dates on when the project was going to begin. This worries me a bit because I know how easily things get pushed aside when it comes to work with the Dominican government. That’s why this morning as I met with the co-management committee I wanted to put together a proposal for a work calendar. However, when I saw Mr. Monopoly delicately take off his white brim hat, exposing his bald head, and dramatically thwack a copy of a contract on the table I decided to hold me tongue.
A lot of what Mr. Monopoly said made sense to me, despite the fact that I knew his complaints where going to place a major monkey wrench in the community cooperative project. He had been cheated. He built the bridges. The state took them away. At a previous meeting a higher up in the Environmental Ministry suggested that Mr. Monopoly’s original permission was not adequate. Another said that he would already have earned back the money he invested with interest in the years that he had receiving the benefits from the waterfall attraction (it pulls in 2-3,000 U.S. a month).
I’m skeptical of everything I hear. I whole heartedly believe in the value of protected areas. In a very basic kind of way it doesn’t seem right for one person to be receiving the large majority of the money entering the park. Then again, I’ve seen first hand the damage that government corruption in the DR can cause. Right now the former Dominican president is under serious investigation for fraud. Nepotism is everywhere. There are low wage government workers at the school and within the protected area that regularly wait 3 months to receive their pitiful paychecks. Qualified workers are laid off without a second thought if they don’t show their loyalties during political transitions. If the state has complete control of the area then the bureaucracy involved in soliciting the funding necessary to maintain the area almost certainly means that the area is going to be constantly dilapidated. Mr. Monopoly made some sweeping and dramatic statements about all of the good he will do when reinstated as the principal administrator of the park, including filling in all of the pot holes in the 5 KM of windy hills that lead from the principal highway in Jarabacoa to the protected area.
I’m going to try my best and be patient until the administrator of the park receives the environmental ministry’s response to the annual work plan we developed. I assume that if the community cooperative is approved in the annual plan then we will be able to go ahead with it, even if this turmoil is not sorted out.
In the mean time I can focus in on finishing up the ecotourism course that I’m teaching at the environmental school and on the community youth group that I work with. Last week I dropped off two 20 LB bags of organic fertilizer on a 16 year old Dominican girl’s doorstep. She has been an outstanding president of our Green Brigade group, but there are still moments when I can tell that some of the projects we take on are really challenging local gender roles. Best case scenario she will have convinced the other girls in the group (it turns out that pretty much only girls are interested in community groups where I work) to skip the Sunday salon session and they’ll have started mixing the fertilizer into the soil for the raised beds where working on. Worst-case scenario, I’ll show up on Tuesday for our meeting, the fertilizer will have been sold and the group won’t show up at all. I am expecting something in between.
This afternoon I went with my students on the second field trip to fulfill the practicum portion of the ecotourism course I’m teaching. For four Fridays in a row the students are doing interviews with local companies that are some how connected with ecotourism to analyze their operation and make suggestions for future projects. We’re working with the local ecotourism office supported by USAID on a proposed route connecting Jarabacoa to Constanza- a higher eleveation mountain town-, a small group of female artesans, an outfit of informal horseback tour guides, a local coffee company that has a tour of the coffee production process, a local art school that is involved with various projects, and two tourism ranches that specialize in white-water rafting and other adventure sports.
Despite the stress of this morning’s meeting, I couldn’t help but smile as my students and I cruised out of the gates of the school, bachatta blaring through the mediocre sound system of our rented junky bus. The teenage bus driver turned around to ask me where we were heading. In that moment I felt a bit like captain Kirk, our ship wasn’t going to take us to a new world, but we were certainly on a voyage into the unknown. It has been thrilling for me to watch ideas transform into realities. It’s also a bit nerve wracking once the pieces are in place to let the project start running its own course. As our bus gained momentum and made the turn into town I watched the first group of students prepare themselves for their afternoon ahead with one of the ecotourism companies. The kind of independent work that I was asking of them was new for the students, the position of responsibility I was placed in by independently taking on a project with the students outside of the school was new for me, we had unquestionably arrived in alien terrain.