Dammed if you Do….

“All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem.”  —Martin Luther King Jr.

Isolated in the Dominican Republic’s central mountain range, small agricultural communities still practice traditional coffee farming on plots of land that have provided family livelihoods for generations. The coffee is shade-grown at high altitude, distinguishing it as having superior quality and maintaining some of the forest canopy. The sale of the beans to private and national companies provides, almost exclusively, the yearly household income. This isolated and harvest-dependent existence creates strong social bonds within families and within the community.

In July of 2008 a Brazilian construction company sent representatives to one of these small communities in the Cordillera Central to explain their plans for building a $285 million dollar hydroelectric dam, financed by a Brazilian loan to the DR, on the river that borders the community.  With two large plasma screen televisions powered by a generator, the representatives presented their plans including the benefits and impacts to the community and the surrounding environment.

Stated benefits of the project included employment for community members during the 7-10 years of dam construction, the eventual influx of tourism, and new business opportunities.

The stated impacts included reduction of coffee farmland, modification of landscape, reduction of vegetation cover, activation of erosion, modification of ecosystems, distressed species within protected areas, loss of species, increase in traffic, increase in noise, decrease in air quality, increase in risk of respiratory illness, alteration of natural watershed and drainage, accumulation of sediment and associated decrease in water quality, and modification of intrinsic value of the landscape.

Explanation of the dam project included a complicated blueprint. The company proposed to completely dam and divert two rivers from their natural watersheds.  The Rio Bao, which flows out of pristine Armando Bermudez National Park and provides water to numerous communities, would be diverted into a 11.5 kilometer tunnel through a mountain range to be united with the Rio Jagua.  Once combined, the flow of both rivers would be diverted to a hydroelectric plant and eventually into a reservoir, all through pipelines.  The reservoir behind the dam and the dam construction area would overtake the valuable coffee land that the residents of the area depend on and over take pristine forested land that is habitat for 24 threatened and/or protected plant species, nine endangered reptiles and amphibians, numerous endemic and vulnerable bird species, and the rare, endangered Hispaniolan solenodon.

In summary, at a great financial cost to the Dominican Government, the projected outcome would be 87 megawatts capacity of generated energy and temporary work opportunities for community members, but at the expense of two pristine rivers losing their natural flow along with their ecological resources, the inundation of prized coffee land belonging to rural families, and the undeniable change to traditional livelihoods of the nearby residents.

Rio Bao in Parque Nacional Armando Bermudez

With the increase in demand for energy in the developing world, hydroelectric projects can be an appropriate alternative.  Once constructed, they are a relatively clean source of energy. However, the construction process can leave behind devastating impacts. While providing a solution to energy demands, ecological and social problems are created. A mindful approach must be taken with any advance in technology, considering that human and natural resources may be altered indefinitely.

What also brings this particular project under scrutiny is that the Brazilian company Andrade Gutierrez, one of the largest private groups in Latin America, won the construction bid.  The project, in turn, is financed by a Brazilian loan.  The fact that the bid was outsourced to a large Brazilian company increases the Dominican Republic’s national debt and takes away the opportunities for Dominican companies and engineers.  While Dominican companies might not have the ability to take on such an ambitious design, this may be an argument for smaller scale projects (i.e. no trans-mountain pipelines and leaving the river flow in its channel below the dam) that could be comparatively efficient but less destructive, minimizing social and ecological impacts.

A few months after the initial presentation, contracted representatives were sent to negotiate prices with the coffee farmers and buy their land for the value of only one year’s crop yield.  Landowners were “convinced” to sell their plots.

While selling their land earns the farmers a lump-sum initially, the income generated from one harvest is not sufficient to buy new land and new trees while waiting the obligatory 3-5 years before the coffee is mature enough to harvest. In some cases, the cost to construct a new house is the same price as the payment received for their land, coffee, and previous house combined.  This leaves the farmers without the long-term income previously provided by the yearly harvest and without economic security for their future. The residents of the area are given the opportunity to work intermittently at low-paying manual labor jobs during the 7-10 year dam construction, but there is no guarantee and no promise of jobs after completion of the dam.

The alternative to staying in the mountains is to move their families to the ever-growing populations on the fringes of Santiago, the second largest city in the Dominican Republic.  With this geographic move, the traditional lifestyles, social structure, and social bonds of the isolated campo are changed.  Reliable work is scarce.   One possibility is working long hours with minimal compensation at the zona francas, or free trade factories, but that may be only a best case scenario.

A year into dam construction, the immediate effects on the landscape and social atmosphere have become evident.  Construction progress had clear-cut land near the dam site, cut roads into the steep hill slopes triggering erosion, changed social dynamics, and pushed families off of their land.  The first rain after the construction began triggered landslides and caused newly built erosion channels to overflow. In a town with minimal prior outside influence, immediate social changes from the influx of single male workers and the increase in outside money caused a rise in drug and alcohol use, prostitution, and solid waste.

The company was not forthright with the residents and farmers who were being affected by the construction.  Residents wanted their testimonies to be heard.

“We left for five days,” says Altagracia of her family, “when we came back, everything was gone. They said that they would take a small piece (of land) to pile dirt. But it was not like that, they cut everything, the entire property.”

Altagracia’s family of six lived in a house on a coveted piece of flat land near the dam site. The landowner had negotiated with the company to sell a small strip of the land for road access.  When the family left for five days to harvest coffee in the upper elevations, the construction workers cut down every tree on the property, including all of the coffee, fruit trees, and the trees on her patio.

“They didn’t explain anything,” she says as she shakes her head.

In the background, backhoes are covering up the toppled trees with dirt. Altagracia believes this is to hide the trees that they cut down without permission.  “They shouldn’t have done that,” Altagracia continues, “Here, when the trees are producing, the kids eat the fruit because when one is poor you can’t afford snacks.”

With no choice left, the landowner sold the house.  It was bulldozed and turned into an area to pile dirt excavated from the dam site and tunnel. Altagracia and her family attempted to move into a house across the creek, but the company decided they wanted that land too.  The family eventually moved into town.

Bautista is one of the coffee farmers who sold a majority of his land, his coffee, and his house for a price that only enabled him to construct a new house.  His new house is just upslope from the new busy construction road.  For Bautista’s coffee crop that remained, he shows us that a black smoke and dust from the construction is covering the leaves and blossoms.  As workers bladed the new road, they knocked boulders down onto his best coffee.

“I have spoken to the head several times about a response to this,” Bautista says, “and they are turning a blind eye.  The thing is, before, we talked and they said they had to pay for any damage they do to anyone and now they don’t want to hear when someone speaks to them.”

Bautista is becoming frustrated.  After spending the bus fare (equivalent US$10) for the five hour round-trip to Santiago to talk to someone at the company’s office, they told him no, they would not take any more of his coffee.  Upon arrival back to his land, they had cut more of his coffee plants down.

“I want to show evidence of what they have done,” Bautista says standing above what remains of his land, pointing to his coffee on which new boulders have fallen, “to show that I am not making this up. So they know all this needs to be valued, because it is the fruit of our labor.”

After trying every option, Bautista is getting tired and has no desire to go back to the company’s office when it does not result in a resolution.

As with many large-scale development projects, the anticipated benefits and awe of new technology overshadow the realities of the local communities and ecology. Although alternative plans may not be as exciting or newsworthy, they may impose fewer impacts and still be effective while remaining respectful to the cultural and natural resources of the area.

While the DR and other developing countries are undeniably in need of increased electricity production, we should keep in mind that unrestrained progress can and does create ecological and social problems. We must question economic opportunities for international companies and mitigate the damaging effects on the lives and land that are disturbed.

Please visit our kickstarter site at:   http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/amysmartin/racing-the-dam-documenting-change-in-dominican-rep

Thank you!


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