dominican republic

Reforesting The Dominican Republic by Art Zaratsyan

It is estimated that the original forest cover in the territory of the Dominican Republic was about 40,000 sq. km at the start of the last century. Since then clearing of land for farming and agriculture, commercial logging, mining and other human activity have been reducing the Dominican forests at an increasing pace, resulting in only about 5,000 sq. km of forest left toward the end of the 1980s. But then, starting in the early 1990s, thanks in part to new protection laws passed by the government but mainly due to the reforestation efforts of various environmentally minded organizations, this alarming trend slowly reversed and the forests began regrowing. As of today, the forest coverage of the country has stabilized at the 13,000 sq. km mark, nearly 28% of the land. 

Not long ago I visited one of these organizations, Asociacíon para el Desarrollo de San José de Ocoa, or ADESJO for short, which is the leading development organization in the province of San José De Ocoa. In more than 50 years of its existence, ADESJO has helped more than 80 communities in San José De Ocoa with roads, housing, hydro power, water and irrigation projects, supported the local women’s associations in communities with greenhouses and apiaries, has supplied hundreds of villages with schools, community centres and clinics.

This organization, now loved by all of the inhabitants of San José De Ocoa, traces its humble beginnings to one man, a Canadian pastor, Father Louis Joseph Quinn. Padre Luis, who is now a man of legend in the province, came to Dominican Republic in 1953 and fell in love with this country. He lived here until his death in 2007, dedicating his life to the development of San José De Ocoa and eradication of poverty in communities. Many stories that the locals tell about the Padre describe a man of intense energy and conviction who spent his days working knee-deep in dirt beside the men in the communities and his evenings preaching in the church in the town, often still in his work boots, wearing his gown over his dusty clothes. Padre Luis led by example, and the people followed.

ADESJO was founded by Padre in 1962, beginning with just a few men helping with his goal of improving the life in communities in San José De Ocoa. As the organization grew, so did its influence in the area. Padre would use all the help he could find, often recruiting foreign volunteers to help in the fields and the villages. One of the anecdotes about Padre Luis tells of him recruiting a group of sailors on leave off a Canadian (Navy?) ship docked in Santo Domingo, and putting them to work in the mountains of San José De Ocoa. When the country was devastated by hurricane David in 1979, ADESJO rebuilt entire villages and neighbourhoods in the town of San José De Ocoa, helped them restore power and water, irrigation systems destroyed by the storm.

ADESJO today has dozens of projects constantly on the go, large and small, reforestation being one of the main goals of its Natural Resources department led by Carlos Bonilla, ADESJO veteran of over 25 years. A tall silent man—a man’s man—Carlos has led the ADESJO reforestation effort, estimating over 50,000,000 trees planted under his lead in the province of San José De Ocoa. “There was not a single tree in these mountains 30 years ago”, says Carlos proudly, pointing at a typical mountain range, covered with a lush green layer of forest. And he has a good reason to be proud, the efforts of ADESJO have transformed the land into a picturesque green tropical paradise. It’s hard to imagine the land before the reforestation: without the fast-growing leucaenas and tall pines, without the fruit orchards, the hundreds of springs dried out, not a single shade to hide under from the scorching sun—all this is just an exercise for the imagination today. “We chose leucaenas for this area because the leaves of the tree degrade very quickly, restoring the top soil”, he explains, driving the four-wheel drive truck on a rural road built by ADESJO back in the 1980s. “They are resilient, grow on very little water, and are hard to kill”, he smiles, and it’s obvious that he loves his work. “Bonilla!” he is warmly greeted by the locals everywhere we drive by, and he waves back. “Are you happy?” I ask him as we drive cross the river Ocoa. “Si!” he smiles, and I believe him.

One of the latest projects Carlos Bonilla has been involved in is a sustainable lumber yard—a dream of late Padre Luis—which is being constructed in Derrumbado, a community supported by ADESJO for many years now with numerous housing projects, a school, water and irrigation. The reforestation efforts here have been expanded into a growing supply of renewable timber, and ADESJO has successfully applied for a grant from Food and Agriculture Organization of United Nations (FAO) which awarded them with wood-cutting machinery and training exceeding 2,500,000 Dominican pesos, around US$60,000. 20% of proceeds from this lumber yard will benefit the members of the local community, who will also be able to purchase wood at half price. The yard is expected to produce more than 270,000 ft of wood per year. “There is a great demand for wood in San José De Ocoa”, says Carlos, “and getting the wood at lower cost is a great benefit for the housing projects of ADESJO!”. Currently the organization has to buy commercial wood at high cost, but once the lumber yard begins its operations, the costs are going to be reduced dramatically, allowing them to build even more houses much needed by the local communities.

The success of ADESJO has attracted much attention. The people of ADESJO have been finding themselves spending more and more time sharing their experience with similar organizations in neighbouring provinces, as well as internationally. The world is interested in their work, techniques, and the know-how, but I suspect that the core of this success lies in the hearts of the people like Carlos Bonilla and the rest of the staff of ADESJO, led by the spirit of Padre Luis that lives on in their work, felt throughout the province of San José De Ocoa even today.

Click below to see the Fifty Million Trees gallery for more photos for this story:

Rooms: Hot Shower Optional by Art Zaratsyan

Remember the last time you stayed in a hotel. What did your room come with? Internet access? Air conditioning? A television, a mini-fridge? Did it have hot water, running water, electricity? A telephone? How about a working toilet? Clean towels, clean sheets, toilet paper and soap?

“Well, yes of course!” you’ll say. These things are all a given.

Now, imagine having to choose between having only some of these “givens”. Which ones would you give up? Can you stay in a room without most of these? How about none of these?

If you answered yes to the last question: you should consider a career in humanitarian photography!

I’m kidding of course—but only to a point. Staying in hotels in different corners of the world has taught me to appreciate certain luxuries. The farther you go from urban centers, the deeper you enter the less traveled areas of the developing world, access to these obvious to us hotel room comforts begins to get spotty. And, as they gradually drop off, new, life-saving features begin to make an appearance, like mosquito nets or ceiling fans, strong fences decorated with barbed wire and manned with armed guards…

I’m not trying to scare anyone, it’s just the way it is.

So, it occurred to me that it would make a fun little series to describe on this blog some of the rooms I’ve occupied while working as a humanitarian photographer.

I’ll start with the most recent one: a room in the heart of the little town of San José De Ocoa, Dominican Republic, where I stayed for two weeks this June while covering the work of ADESJO, a local development NGO.

The hotel I stayed at the first night in town was nice. A popular location, it had the largest pool in town and a big restaurant/nightclub—lost on me, but hey, it was there! The rooms were clean, comfortable, but I had to leave nonetheless… No wi-fi. Correction: there was a wi-fi signal, but it was dead, no connectivity to internet. I’m a Westerner who speaks only a bit of Spanish, in a town for two weeks all by myself. Faced with a choice of wi-fi over anything else in such a situation, I will always choose wi-fi.

In the morning I moved to the second hotel. Right downtown, three blocks from ADESJO offices, it was a perfect place to stay. The wi-fi was solid. The room was 700 Dominican pesos per night, roughly $17 US. I liked it right away: no bugs, old but clean sheets, had luxuries like a television, a mini-fridge and air-conditioning, not counting necessities like a ceiling fan to keep mosquitos away at night—a must-have with thechikungunya epidemic running wild in town, even though it makes one feel like they’re sleeping in a wind tunnel. A nice little family-run place with a restaurant downstairs. What’s not to like?!

Only that evening, when I came home after a long, hot, exhausting day of shooting in the mountains and stepped in the shower looking forward to a relaxing evening, I realized what I had given up for it: hot water… I could only sigh and shrug. Or was it me shivering? Hard to tell.

Were two weeks of cold showers worth having a solid wi-fi connection? You bet!

Privacy and Ethics by Art Zaratsyan

When should one put down the camera and leave those going through a hard time alone?

I came face-to-face with this question in Santo Domingo, the capital of Dominican Republic, while covering the work of Asociacíon para el Desarrollo de San José de Ocoa (ADESJO). The organization had just delivered a truckload of medicaments and supplies donated by HOPE International Development Agency to the Hospital Traumatologico Dr. Ney Arias Lora, a large national hospital specializing in trauma, and we were invited for a “tour”.

As we reached the ICU waiting area in the Emergency ward, as you can imagine, things got harder and harder to take. The emergency staff here handles over 250 trauma cases per day, most of them from traffic accidents (Dominican Republic is one of the countries with the most deaths caused by traffic accidents in the world). The waiting area was full with people with sadness and concern all over their faces, tears in their eyes. One of them, a young woman, just stood there with an absent expression on her face, with her bloodshot eyes fixed at an empty stretcher. Instinctively, I took a picture, and as I did so, a man next to her turned around and glared at me. His anger at my act of invasion of the privacy of their sorrow was righteous. I felt ashamed. I mustered a weak smile and moved on.

The experience still feels raw, burnt into my mind. Yet, as a documentary photographer, covering things as they are is a big part of my work. Reconciling that with the realization that I was a rude intruder in this scenario, is something I still have to do.

What would you do? Feel free to leave a comment below if you’d like to share your thoughts.