A Portrait in Charcoal

“Death by a Thousand Cuts took a Charcoal Portrait of the Country.”

Marialicia Urbaneja

Executive Director of the National Business Support Network for Environmental Protection (ECORED)

As Death by a Thousand Cuts’ production team, we are extremely proud of our documentary’s success and the great support we’ve received in the Dominican Republic.

Following its world premiere at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto, the film won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the Seattle International Film Festival and has since been screened at festivals all over the world. Audiences in Europe, Colombia, Mexico and across the United States have been visibly moved and shocked by the precarious conditions on the border of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The conversations that have followed these screenings are serving as a wake-up call to the rest of the world.

However, beyond the strong reactions and awareness that the film has stirred on the international festival circuit, far more important has been the powerful impact that it has had in Haiti, as well as in the Dominican Republic. Although our distribution and action plan for Haiti is still in its early stages, we see great potential for the film to generate dialog about the complex trafficking and trade of charcoal, the negative impacts of deforestation the need to find alternative fuel sources, and the broader necessity of strengthening the working class economy for the underclass to replace charcoal trade jobs.

At the first screening we held at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in Haiti, the question-and-answer session led an hour-long, animated debate among the participants on Haiti’s role in finding a solution to the challenge of wood charcoal use. We were surprised that when one of the participants expressed disapproval of the way the film portrayed Haiti, several participants with decades of combined experience working in bi-national projects passionately defended the balanced depiction of both nations in the film. This sort of discourse is precisely one of the film’s objectives.

Screening at the Interamerican Bank headquarters in Port Au Prince, Haiti

Meanwhile, in the Dominican Republic, Death by a Thousand Cuts has generated a national discussion over the illegal trafficking of charcoal, deforestation, and the delicate relationship with Haiti. As social documentary filmmakers, we feel that the real success of the film goes beyond prizes and festivals, in that it has succeeded in generating dialog.

Photo Screening at Centro Leon, Santiago, Dominican Republic

As conservation photographer Eladio Fernández noted, we hope that the documentary will act as a platform or a “launching pad” for other organizations to voice their concerns about the diverse environmental issues affecting the country. We are guardedly optimistic that the Dominican government seems to be reacting to a growing public concern for the environment and so far, has expressed a newfound commitment to the natural environment. We hope this will become a truly lasting commitment.

But perhaps our primary achievement has been the way the general public has been deeply affected by the film. We have received massive positive feedback from people expressing the impact the film has had on them, but even better, we are seeing how these voices are joining the debate and the dialog for genuine solutions.

However, after several dozen screenings around the world, without fail we almost always hear the same concern from viewers. What are the solutions? How can such a complex set of problems be overcome?

After completing five years of in-depth investigation into the charcoal issue, we have gained a unique perspective on the issue. We believe that when viewed as one large issue, the damage caused by the wood charcoal industry may appear to be too complex to solve. But if they are divided into more manageable components, there are genuine opportunities for both short and long-term solutions. The key is in tackling the problem strategically, without over-simplifying, while ensuring that the scale of the problem does not lead to paralysis from over-analysis.

  1. Strengthen Dominican Protected Areas

Any visitor to the country’s protected areas is immediately impacted by the lack of available resources to protect the parks. Any pride in the number or size of the parks is meaningless, if the parks don’t have the resources needed to properly manage and protect them. From our first visits, we concluded that it was essential for the parks to have sufficient rangers, vehicles, tools, radios and equipment. The park system must guarantee basic and continuous support to insure, for example, that there is enough gasoline for their vehicles and food and uniforms for the park rangers.

In addition, sufficient funds are needed to ensure that the park employees – including forest rangers – enjoy a decent standard of living and thus are less susceptible to bribes or coercion. They should receive thorough training to build morale and help create a feeling of pride as a protector of the nation’s forests.

The protection of the National Parks also require investments in infrastructure to encourage the Dominican public and visiting tourists to play a more active role in the parks. Improved infrastructure will provide incentives for opportunities to go camping, hiking, bird watching, taking photographs, research, and simply enjoy these spectacular and unique resources that are these parks. More visitors to the parks will open up employment opportunities for guides, trail maintenance, selling handicrafts for adjacent communities to participate in the economy in lieu of the charcoal trade and/or illegal agricultural operations within the park system.

Until there is a proper budget and government commitment towards these countries’ protected areas, these areas will continue to be at risk.

  1. Control of Illegal Charcoal Traffic

Clearly, improving facilities in the protected areas will help limit the illegal charcoal trade that takes place within the protected areas. However, the charcoal trade is not limited only to the national parks, but also in many underdeveloped and poorer areas of the country. In our research, we concluded that an approach based solely on punitive measures against charcoal producers would not be successful. Placing all the emphasis on pursuing and punishing small-scale charcoal producers is not just a waste of resources, it doesn’t fundamentally address the underlying issue: many of these regions suffer from high levels of poverty. Destroying their sole source of livelihood will only end up increasing their poverty and desperation, without necessarily limiting the charcoal trade.

On both sides of the border, we discovered that charcoal producers are generally the poorest of the poor. They are people who have very few economic alternatives and that they produce charcoal “rather than stealing.” In desperate situations like this, punitive measures have little effect on charcoal demand and poor producers will continue to do what they can to survive and support their families.

The war on charcoal is, in this way, similar to the so-called “war on drugs.” Although the growers in Peru, Bolivia and Colombia are punished for producing drugs, the demand for their product continues.

In conclusion, although we welcome the recent emphasis and attention paid by the Dominican government to the issue of illegal charcoal trafficking, we believe that the solution for slowing charcoal production has to be through economic productivity. There need to be alternative livelihoods for the producers while simultaneously reducing demand.

An example mentioned recently by Eduardo Sanz Lovatón is to create economic incentives to encourage business investment in alternatives to charcoal and bi-national projects in Haiti. The private sector in the Dominican Republic is creative and entrepreneurial. Socially motivated businesses could devise new economic opportunities in the border area and in Haiti that would reduce demand for charcoal as well as poor producers’ need to make it.

  1. Development of Sustainable Forestry Products

An increase in supervision, control and vigilance capacity of the protected areas, and control of the illegal charcoal trade will create new sustainable production opportunities for forestry products. Forest management plans, which currently lack credibility and in many cases transparency, require technical know-how, planned monitoring and supervision in order to ensure that the forestry products (whether charcoal, wood or agro-forestry) are legitimate and sustainably produced.

This endeavor would require tight monitoring with the government in an independent observer role, which would ensure that these products do not come from illegal sources, do not harm the habitats of important or endangered species, and do not enter protected areas. In some parts of the country, making the most of certain rapid growth and regeneration species, the development of energy farms and productive forests is a possibility, as long as they are managed with complete transparency and strong technical supervision.

  1. Long-Term Solutions for Haiti

The leading cause of illegal wood charcoal production and trafficking in the Dominican Republic is, undeniably, the high level of demand from Haiti. Identifying and implementing solutions to the overwhelming demand for charcoal is a complex challenge. It will require significant investment as well as the need to confront the economic interests of certain individuals that control the charcoal trade. However, until a viable energy alternative can be established, distributed cost-effectively, and technically maintained in Haiti, the demand for wood charcoal will continue.

Already a number of international organizations are already working to address this issue. The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves and other entities have conducted a study that identifies potential short and long-term solutions in Haiti. Interestingly, this group found that the vast majority of the consumption of wood charcoal is concentrated in the country’s urban centers and cities. Working strategically, a solution could be provided for these urban areas with new options like propane gas or alternative, sustainable charcoal.

Nonetheless, it is clear that in the same way that has occurred in the Dominican Republic, a plan for introducing an alternative fuel source to Haiti’s urban centers would no doubt involve a huge investment in infrastructure as well as the subsidies needed to ensure that the vast majority of the population can afford it. It is also estimated that the charcoal economy provides more than 300,000 jobs in Haiti, and economic alternatives would have to be found to fill this employment gap.

We believe it is vital and absolutely essential to find a long-term solution in the face of the high demand for wood charcoal in Haiti. But it is also important to acknowledge that a solution of this kind would be extremely complex and will undoubtedly require collaboration, cooperation and investment on the part of both countries. Yet, the environmental situation in Haiti is affecting the whole island. Both countries share the same rivers, mountain ranges, ecosystems, and natural resources. There is little doubt that a lasting solution to the challenge of deforestation will require a bi-national approach and discarding past historical fissures. With this bi-national vision for the future, we have great hope for both Haiti and the Dominican Republic – the island of Hispaniola in total – to be able to strengthen its natural resources, economy and the lives of its citizens as a new path forward.

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