As a coral restoration practitioner for the Puntacana Ecological Foundation, my primary charge was studying and helping restore coral reefs in the Dominican Republic (DR). Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that coral restoration is just a small piece of a much larger puzzle, and that supporting sustainable livelihoods is the most important achievement of all successful conservation work. Indeed, real conservation work happens above water and involves shifting behaviors and ways of life to meet the needs of our changing climate and environment; the field of coral restoration is no exception.
During my six months of field work in the DR, I was fortunate to learn from and be able to help train three ex-fishermen to perform a wide range of coral restoration activities. Eventually these dedicated individuals and others like them will take on rigorous scientific monitoring protocols and learn to apply their vast traditional knowledge and experience towards improving the adaptive management of their local reefs. As conservation professionals, learning from local people and successfully empowering a few individuals to try new tools and ways of thinking is perhaps the best possible outcome and the path towards creating a brighter future.
The fishermen with whom my team and I worked with on a daily basis made major sacrifices to become coral restoration practitioners. Indeed, they would have likely made more money fishing, when fishing was at its best, but that income was becoming increasingly more unreliable, and the profession more dangerous, and exhausting. For family men growing older and facing ever dwindling fish stocks the paycheck made out by the Ecological Foundation offered a sense of security. In addition, the work inspired in them a sense of pride, as they learned to take on tangible stewardship actions. As an eyewitness, I can attest that my fishermen colleagues, namely Jose Guerrero, better known as Papujo, and Jose Nolasco, enjoyed the learning process and spoke often of their budding accomplishments. We rewarded these local fishermen’s effort with photos of them working underwater and with new dive gear among other small but significant incentives, but the promise of a better future for their children was of course the greatest incentive of all.
Another way we helped shift local attitudes, such as the widely held and often stated notion that conservation work was only for the wealthy and usually ignored the realities faced by local people, was by involving hundreds of local students, from elementary to college age, and providing hands-on opportunities for them to participate in coral restoration practice. That said, involving outsiders and potential funders is also important, and the local dive shop took on this task by pioneering a new PADI Coral Restoration Specialty Course that engaged visiting tourists from all over the world in caring for the reefs that they came to enjoy.
I came to learn the most about the process of community building and local involvement when my team and I hit the road to experience life outside of the huge gated community that is Puntacana. The following is the story of one such learning adventure. From the Center for Sustainability, Victor Galvan (the boss) and the interns – James Fifer, Nicole Sikowitz, and I loaded up the jeep with our dive gear, light cloths, and passports, and with the Allman Brothers on the radio we headed to Santo Domingo to pick up Marlig Perez, our local partner and representative of the coral restoration project’s largest funder – the Washington D.C. based NGO Counterpart International. Marlig, (pronounced Marley) is a teacher, philosopher, lawyer and conservation advocate. She worked for the DR’s Ministry for the Environment for two decades and possesses an intimate knowledge of the Dominican people and environment. She is familiar with hard-earned progress, as well as with hard to swallow frustrations, and she knows what it takes to work in a developing nation that is infamous for its struggle with corruption. While it might sound unsavory to mention this reality, it was Marlig’s healthy criticism of local attitudes and policies that most reflected her unfailing determination to achieve social and environmental progress.
Unsustainable development and corruption can be just as harmful to the socio-economic and cultural fiber of local communities as it can be to the ecosystem, and according to Marlig, in a system where most anything can be purchased, the strongest offense is a stronger defense. It is also her stated hope that knowledge and support from outside will help empower people within the community to adopt more sustainable practices. Fortunately, in the modern day DR, both fishermen and the tourism sector equate healthy coral reefs with clear economic and social gains, and both sectors have become increasingly involved in reef conservation and restoration activities.
Our team’s destination was Punta Rucia, the site of our 14th coral nursery and a small fishing community on a quaint northern beach located just three hours East of the border with Haiti. This nursery was originally selected to preserve the genetic diversity of several healthy coral colonies that were brought to light by University of Miami professor Diego Lirman, Victor’s supervisor, among other renown scientists in the 2010 assessment, “A Window to the Past: Documenting the Status of one of the Last Remaining Mega-Populations of the Threatened Staghorn Coral Acropora Cervicornis in the Dominican Republic.” Despite being but a small dot along the 166 km of national coastline, Punta Rucia comprises an ecologically and culturally significant part of the country’s largest fringing reef, which runs for approximately 50 km from the town of El Morro in the West to Punta Rucia in the East (see map below).
In addition to our scientific endeavors, we came to Punta Rucia as representatives of funding agencies that pay several of the salaries of prominent members of the township, and our intention was to promote a model for progress in which passionate individuals and entrepreneurs could be confident that they would be rewarded with new livelihoods and opportunities. Driving this point home was one of the priorities of our discussions with the local Sustainability-Stakeholder Community Group, and topics such as re-forestation to combat erosion, an upcoming eco-tourism event, and the creation of a new tourism information booth were discussed. These projects all rely heavily on entrusted individuals, such as a Spanish woman named Sylvia who is a local kayak-tourism operator, and a local man named Geury (pronounced Heury) who is the son of a local fisherman. Geury was paid to maintain the local coral nursery before taking a fisheries-based, data-collection job with another NGO, and he is both well-known and trusted within the community. What is more, Geury has a uniquely clear and hopeful vision for his region’s future. for example, after our daily restoration work, Geury and another fisherman named Juan rocketed us West towards the mangrove forest, giving us a spectacular tour through the mangroves. There was even a mangrove island in the middle of a lake within the mangrove forest, reminding me of the floating island in “The Life of Pi”. Geury knew that his local mangroves are crucial nursery habitats for juvenile reef fish and the most important plants in taking Co2 out of the air. Abundant oysters on their roots play a big part in cleaning the water, and many other invertebrates stick and burrow into their roots. While in neighboring Haiti, the vast majority of mangroves have been cut down for coal, Geury spoke of conserving his mangroves and advocating them by taking more tourists to experience them.
The main tourism attraction in Punta Rucia today, for locals and visitors alike, is a small, sandy cay aptly named Cayo Arena. The cay is the pride of the township, to the extent that locals seem to ignore more ecologically, and potentially economically, important natural assets such as their extensive coral reef, mangrove forest, and beach-lined coast, as well as the neighboring Marine Mammal Sanctuary created for the West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus). When I was painting a mural in the town square, I noted that my very vocal, local critics’ primary concern was how I would depict, not the underwater world that was the focus of the mural, but their precious Sandy Cay, and when I put down the base paint I had to reassure them that I would eventually paint the little island true to its natural colors.
Laughs aside, the narrow focus of some local people demonstrates the need to open minds to new opportunities and to educate locals about the critical importance of protecting the entire ecosystem’s integrity, which will go a long way in generating profits and improved living conditions. As Marlig explained, one example of the local community’s inability to take on a bigger picture perspective was the Community Stakeholder Group’s decision to pick a bone with the Ministry for the Environment concerning the management of the nearby Marine Mammal Sanctuary. While the Ministry charges fees to visitors, it often neglects doing the critical maintenance work that is needed in the park. Drawing from the demonstrated power of grassroots activism, Marlig felt that if locals took the initiative to service the park’s trails, for their own sake and that of the wildlife, that the Ministry’s general account managers would in turn be more willing to fund local care taking activities. Nevertheless, the group decided they would not undertake basic maintenance work, not because it was too difficult or expensive, but because they felt it was the responsibility of the park’s negligent managers. This way of thinking is not necessarily wrongheaded but has been shown to lead to stagnation and inaction.
On a related note, an overwhelming sense of doubt was immediately apparent in the attitudes of many local fishermen we encountered, posing yet another major obstacle to catalyzing the radical changes needed to ensure the community’s long-term resilience. Fisherfolk’s doubts are of course reasonable, and many of the country’s traditional fishing communities have indeed been displaced by government agencies, corporations, and wealthy land-buyers in the name of progress. Meanwhile, outsiders wanting to help bring positive changes have learned that they cannot simply come into the community and dictate projects as they see fit, because local buy-in is essential to their success. Instead, real progress requires the leadership of local individuals who, like Geury, can leverage their leadership skills to push past the many who will cling to business as usual and inevitably hinder potentially better and more sustainable ways of life.
For example, the problem of over-fishing is perhaps the biggest challenge facing local fishermen in the DR, and our world’s oceans at large. We addressed this pressing issue by giving an outdoor Power Point presentation on the critical importance of conserving keystone species like parrot fish in the town’s quaint, pink, concrete park, hoping to raise concern. The fishermen, and indeed they are all men, young and old, had recently returned from their day’s toil and juvenile parrotfish were toted home with pride, strung together on wire like so many tiny songbirds. But the fishermen are not bullies, they have simply fished their way down the food web to the point where their catch reflects an almost total absence of mature fish in the sea. Indeed, juvenile parrot fish, which are fished year-round, make up more than 50% of the total catch! This is especially problematic when we consider that these mostly herbivorous fish are critical ecosystem engineers that keep reefs healthy and clear essential habitat for coral larvae to grow by grazing on both algae and sponges. In addition, they poop out the beautiful soft white sand that we all love to relax on.
In 2014, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) examined over forty years of data and concluded that unless we prevent the over-fishing of grazers like parrot fish, coral reefs in the Caribbean could be dead in just twenty years. Furthermore, the scientific consensus predicts the subsequent extinction of all reef fish and an ocean that will be dominated by jellies and algae. It’s not a pretty picture, so we took our presentation seriously. I heard myself yelling over the sound of motorbikes and kids shouting, and we read each slide’s text out loud as many of the local fishermen are, unfortunately, illiterate.
When citing the likely death of all Caribbean coral reefs in the next two decades, not one of the fishermen listening to our presentation even flinched. Like a pygmy goby that lives two months, aside a whale that lives two hundred years, the fisherfolk and the scientists seemed to exist on two different time scales. Their reaction, or lack there of, reminded us that for many people in poor, rural communities, life is nothing other than immediate. Although business as usual will no doubt continue tomorrow, our talk was well received. After encouraging one interested fisherman to participate, he admitted that he had long recognized the problem of diminishing stocks and spoke out against illegal gill-netters who, he said, take a hundred times more fish than local fishermen working with lines and spears. He then explained how locals like himself sell their catch by weight, and how when a certain weight is reached buyers will be called in from the city to pick up the frozen catch in bulk. Another man explained how fish mongers in Haiti have come to prefer buying more, smaller fish, than fewer, larger ones, due to the illusion of getting more for their money. Paradoxes like this, where no one actually benefits from the modus operandi, are all too common, but instead of banging our heads against the wall we must think outside the box and find ways to change social and economic incentives for the better.
After our sobering presentation, we aimed to end on a brighter note by projecting a BBC ocean documentary (translated into Spanish) onto the park’s wall, which became a lovely outdoor movie theatre. It was great to see multiple people take the initiative to pick up the every-day trash in the plaza when they heard about the upcoming movie night. The sun had set, and the people, now bathed and neatly dressed, began to stroll down from their little wooden homes. The kids gathered in the center of the park with homemade popcorn and when the movie began their brown eyes were as wide as saucers. I could not help but smile at the magic in the air as the audience reveled in the spectacular marine footage, doubting the whole time that the images could be real, and at the same time commenting with expertise about the varied marine life they saw, especially the fish. Sure, the older kids may have obsessed about which of the film’s fish they could easily spear, but they were also surreptitiously introduced to crucial concepts such as biodiversity. Someone from our team suggested showing another movie in lieu of this one’s success, but Victor warned against over-doing these special moments to keep them significant – a wise observation from a veteran Peace Corps social worker. Certainly, the movie gave locals a welcome break from the daily routine of watching old soap operas from the counter of the general store.
The following day, I took on a major, unplanned mural project while my colleagues continued to work underwater, and though I would have liked to be in the cool sea, painting the mural taught me more about the community than I could have hoped for. People of all ages, from the local drunk to the granddaughter of some of the town’s first residents lingered in the shade, observing, critiquing, criticizing, appraising, and every so often lending a hand. There was certainly no one, from the toddlers to the elders, that didn’t throw in their two cents, but only three young men and a handful of children took a brush to the wall. The locals were especially excited about identifying the marine species that I painted, usually pointing to the inconsistencies in their shape and features.
We began with one gallon of white base paint, and we used just one pint of red, green, blue, and yellow to make our 20ft wide by 6ft tall masterpiece. In the 106° humid heat, we were bitten by midges, mauled by mosquitos, and sweated more than is humanly possible, our skin burning off as the morning shade gave way to the oppressive afternoon sun. Nevertheless, our efforts were rewarded as the project picked up momentum, and if it had not been for our few, but hardworking, helpers the mural would have remained incomplete. We left a band of white space above the piece for locals to write a conservation message of their choice after we had gone. In the morning, as we packed to go, we added the Grupo Puntacana palm leaf logo and the names of our sponsors and signed the work for posterity. I’m sure that the artwork will be appreciated daily, with much mention brought to the depiction of Geury working in the coral nursery.
As for my team and I, we left Punta Rucia with a deep appreciation and a much richer understanding of what it means to live in an artisanal fishing community in the Caribbean, and of where the DR stands in terms of ensuring the livelihoods of local people and safeguarding the ecosystems that provide for them.