The Dominican Republic has one of the most extensive national park systems in Latin America, with a large percentage of the national territory, including marine areas, declared “protected” parks, reserves, sanctuaries, monuments, and landscapes. The country has an impressive amount of unique biodiversity and a high percentage of protected areas, making it a model for environmental protection for many countries in the region.
However, while it has numerous protected areas on paper, in practice, many of these protected areas are not protected at all. Most of the countries parks lack management plans, financial resources, equipment, and enforcement personnel. Agriculture, mining, development, exploitation of sand and other aggregate materials, among other problems, put constant pressure on the nation’s limited natural resources.
Recently, I had the opportunity to accompany the Ministry of Environment of the country, Francisco Dominguez Brito, on a visit to the one of the most ecologically important regions of the country, Montecristi. Located on the northwest coast, this area possesses some of the most important marine ecosystems in the DR. Montecristi has five different protected areas, which include a diverse array of coastal habitats, including seagrass beds, coral reefs, lagoons, and mangroves. The region has a diversity of marine species such as dolphins, manatees, sea turtles, as well as migratory and local birds species.
Photo Marvin del Cid
The first stop on our itinerary was Tuna Key, a small island of coastal vegetation and sand, that forms part of the “The Seven Brothers Keys.” When we landed on the island, we were met with a cacophony of calls from tens of thousands of terns, migratory birds that utilize the Tuna Key for nest. There were so many terns we could hear the chorus above the boat’s motor. The bird explosion extended beyond the horizon, covering most of the mile-long island. As we got closer to the vegetation, the terns dive-bombed us from above. Locally known as “boobies,” Tuna Key is a world-class ecological attraction, reminiscent of the Galapagos Islands, but on a much smaller scale.
Unfortunately, Montecristi’s ecosystems are extremely threatened. The lack of economic opportunity for the surrounding communities, the absence of regulatory oversight and the lack of resources for enforcement, have resulted in a dangerous over-exploitation of the local coral reefs. Local fish and marine organism populations have been decimated due to intensive artisanal fishing, the capture of ornamental reef fish for export to the United States, and the harvest of sea cucumbers for export to Asia. Sea cucumbers, though not widely known, represent a key species for coastal ecosystem health. Unregulated fishing by Dominicans is compounded by pressure from fishermen from nearby Haiti.
Photo Marvin del Cid
Yet, during my visit, I was stunned to hear a technical staff from the Ministry insist on the creation of more protected areas in Montecristi, as well as other regions of the country. Montecristi may already having five named protected areas, however throughout the day we were able witness firsthand the deficiencies and lack of resources and staff to safeguard these critical natural resources. But more troublesome, many of the local communities depend directly on these ecosystems for their subsistence and currently have few alternatives for their livelihood. There is little that declaring additional protected areas, without some viable conservation strategy, would contribute to changing this reality.
What then is the point of declaring a protected area if there are no concrete plans to guarantee their protection? Paper parks are little more than political window dressing if they are surrounded by ecological decline. Ironically, this staff member of the Ministry proudly touted that he had been central to creating many of the countries’ protected areas, without appreciating how meaningless that achievement is, if they don’t have the necessary tools and plans to be truly protected.
The purpose of my visit to Montecristi was precisely to evaluate how the experience of our organization, Grupo Puntacana Foundation, and our environmental activities in the Punta Cana region, could be applied to ecotourism activities in the northwest DR. We have successfully created dozens of new jobs and opportunities for local fishermen in the tourism industry. The Minister wanted to explore the possibility of replicating some of our community integration and sustainable livelihood programs in Montecristi.
Local fishermen in Punta Cana train to become licensed boat captains for the tourism industry with the Grupo Puntacana Foundation
Montecristi, rich in biodiversity, is still far from being a major player in the national tourism industry, at least in the short term. Rather than waiting on the panacea of hotels and tourism for economic opportunity, Montecristi should focus on a strategy of offering low-density, but high quality, complementary tourism activities, utilizing its exceptional natural resources to attract visitors looking to enjoy a unique experience. To achieve this will require innovation to create new economic opportunities for local fishermen and their families, without further degrading the local natural resources. It will certainly requiere government support. The first step will be developing more sustainable fishing practices and providing resources to protect existing protected areas. Yet, without a realistic plan and adequate resources to defend Montecristi, and other protected areas throughout the Dominican Republic, they will continue to be paper parks.