For a change of scenery (from Africa) and a change of industry (from farming) I accepted an assignment offered by Partners of the Americas. My base is in the very pleasant Dominican Republic town of Jarabacoa. This town sits in the central highlands pretty much equidistant between the north and south coasts. My task is to work with an environmental organization, Plan Yaque, to guide the development of a strategic plan. This organization seeks to preserve and also repair the largest watershed in the Caribbean.
There are so many threats to the watershed that I am not sure where to begin. In the upper reaches deforestation is taking a toll. Fewer trees result in increased erosion, dumping sediment into the rivers. The sediment eventually overwhelms the dams further downstream and leads to flooding – – a big problem for farmers who have fields near the rivers.
Settlements for the most part have no waste water plants, so untreated sewage enters the rivers. Jarabacoa, a town of 30,000, has no waste water treatment. Waste flows onward to Santiago, the DR’s second largest city with over one million inhabitants, where only 60% of the houses are connected to a sewer. The other 40% empty directly into the Rio Yaque del Norte River.
Further down, around Mao, a major rice and banana growing area, we encountered additional problems. The river water, carrying its waste, cattle field run off, and factory effluent is used to irrigate the paddies and banana fields. We observed tributaries choked with floating Styrofoam and plastic refuse including empty agricultural pesticide containers. And not 50 yards away from this toxic flotsam was the intake canal to an organic banana field.
Fortunately, the people I am working with are super dedicated, environmentally savvy, and very well educated. I suspect I am learning more from them – – than they from me. But that is usually the case on my assignments.
There are many more insults to the watershed than my organization can address in a lifetime. So we have selected a few linchpin problems that, if corrected, will create a positive domino effect. We are focusing our efforts on the upper part of the watershed where reforestation will provide benefits all the way downstream; where anti-litter efforts are easier to take hold because there are fewer people; where plantings along stream banks can help to naturally filter waste water and field run-off.
El Parque Central is the nexus of Jarabacoa nightlife. Sunday evenings are as throbbing as any place I have ever seen. The open air bars spill their patrons, their music, their light shows, and their beer into the streets. The boom box bearing cars cruise the park offering deafening techno beats into the night. The hundreds of motorcyclists show off for the crowds by weaving recklessly among the (mostly heedless) pedestrians. Every few minutes a motorcyclist will lay a block-long wheelie. Sunday night entertainment is the best.
The following Wednesday, in mid-afternoon, after completing the first draft of a strategic plan, I went out for a mind clearing stroll around town.
I followed the sound of the marching band to find the graduates filing out of church – – from, I presume a graduation mass – – and up the steep hill leading from El Parque Central. But these were not ordinary high school or college grads. These were beauty school graduates, wearing mortar board, gown, and cape. I didn’t know that beauty school graduates wore this traditional garb on their commencement day. But then again I never attended beauty school. Some of you may find that hard to believe given how neatly I keep the hair around my ears trimmed. But no, I never attended.
The movement of several score newly minted estheticians captured my curiosity so I followed them using a technique I learned from the 007 novels, the front trail – – staying about 20 yards ahead so that they would not know they were under surveillance. The John Phillip Sousa marches played by the band reminded me of my early 20s Army career. So I continued to front trail, all the way to my hotel, where, by coincidence they were holding their graduation party.
They marched well over a mile, mostly uphill in the hot tropical sun, wearing party clothes covered by cap and gown. Not an easy hike, especially while wearing makeup and hiking in high heel shoes. And I mean really high. After all these were not the beauty school dropouts.
I urge you to come to Jarabacoa to get your hair fixed, watch the Sunday night entertainment, and stay for the watershed clean up.