A few weeks ago, I participated in the presentation of the Barna Business School Case study about Grupo Puntacana’s Zero Waste program. The business case, entitled “How a private company manages waste to protect the environment,” explores our company’s experience designing and implementing one of the first and largest integrated solid waste management systems in the Dominican Republic. Today, more than 50% of all the waste produced by Grupo Puntaca and its related companies, sometimes as much as 30 tons a day, is repurposed as recyclable material, compost, animal feed or reused locally.Probably the most interesting moment of the event came during the question and answer section, when a representative of the Ministry of Environment of the Dominican Republic, specifically the person charged with oversight of solid waste, asked me this question:
“What is Grupo Puntacana planning to do to achieve better solid waste management in the Punta Cana region amongst other businesses and hotel owners?”
I was surprised, to say the least, by the question. Here was the government authority specifically tasked with compliance of solid waste management asking me, a representative from a private company, how we planned to achieve better compliance from other private companies in proper solid waste management. After achieving a certain degree of success managing our garbage, the agency designated to enforce proper waste management seemed to be passing the responsibility to our company.
While strange, the question is entirely relevant. What exactly is the responsibility of a private company, such as Grupo Puntacana, in waste management, or any activity with the potential to impact the environment? In our view, our responsibility, like other companies committed to sustainability, is to be good corporate citizens that exist to produce benefit for their shareholders and clients, while also protecting the environment and acting in a socially responsible manner. We go a step farther than many companies, offering to share our experiences (both the successes and the failures), such as the Barna business case study, so others can improve upon them. The existence of our Zero Waste program, and my presence at Barna, directly reflect this philosophy. Zero Waste saves us money, improves our corporate image, creates employment, reduces health risks and protects the environment. If other companies in Punta Cana learn from our experience and adopt Zero Waste, the Punta Cana destination will become more competitive and it will bring us more business. We are operating from an enlightened but self-interested perspective.
What then is the role of the public sector in environmental protection? As a professional working in the area of sustainability, one of the concerns I most often hear from different members of Dominican society, is the following: “What is the Ministry of Environment doing to stop this problem? Where is the Ministry of Environment and why aren’t they doing more?”
Obviously, the public sector, and in this case the Ministry of Environment, is responsible for compliance of laws created to protect the environment. Though they often lack adequate resources, personnel or the necessary will to realize effective action, their mandate is to protect the environment.
However, there is a question that I almost never hear about the role of Dominicans in environmental protection: “What are Dominican citizens doing to confront environmental degradation? Where are the Dominicans and why aren’t they doing more?”
While it is certainly true that the private and public sectors have a responsibility to contribute to environmental protection, we often ignore the fundamental role that ordinary citizens have to contribute towards protecting the environment. Citizens, in this case Dominican citizens, have a tremendous potential to cause positive change, which leads directly to greater environmental protection. Unfortunately, citizens often delegate that authority to private companies and the government, without realizing that an unmotivated citizenry is not fulfilling its responsibility to protect the environment.
There are certainly examples when a group of unified and determined Dominican citizens effectively fight for a common cause. Just a few years ago, the Los Haitises National Park was rescued from a potentially damaging cement factory by the actions and campaigning of an organized public. The 4% campaign for education successfully lobbied for increased resources for public education. There are numerous examples of the private and public sectors responding to and joining the will of concerned Dominican citizens in order to confront environmental degradation. But citizen action won’t sustain positive change if it is sporadic and disorganized.
Recently, a group of citizen activists formed the Facebook group “Eco & 1/2 Ambiente-RD” as a platform for ordinary citizens to force the country to “comply with its environmental laws and international treaties.” As the group describes it, “many citizens encounter illegal deforestation, charcoal ovens, sale of endangered species, illegal hunting, and many other environmental infractions throughout the country.” Eco & 1/2 was created as a means to empower citizens to use their cell phones, cameras, and Facebook accounts to publish environmental infractions and force better accountability of the private and public sectors in compliance with environmental laws.
This simple, low-cost tool has already caught the attention of the Ministry of Environment, leading directly to greater enforcement of environmental protection, at least in specific cases. There have been dozens of reports on television, radio and newspaper that have come directly from reports published on Eco & 1/2. Recently, the distribution and intensity of the forest fires in the central mountains was covered on Eco & 1/2 and assisted in a better response to the fires. Made up of an editorial board of four people, this one initiative demonstrates how a simple Facebook group can become a potentially powerful tool for empowerment of citizen action and can help facilitate improved compliance of environmental laws in the Dominican Republic. With the growing importance of digital platforms, especially amongst a younger generation of Dominicans, Eco &1/2 could become a successful model to improve upon, in order to motivate more responsible citizen action.