By the Blouin News Science & Health staff

Can ecotourism save the D.R.?

by in Environment.

The view looking south from Pico Duarte (3,087m), in the D.R., May 24, 2015. Photo: MICHAEL LERNER

The view looking south from Pico Duarte, the D.R.’s tallest mountain (3,087m), on May 24, 2015. Photo: MICHAEL LERNER

by Michael Lerner

On May 22, a consultant for the government of the Dominican Republic revealed that the country has over 350 open-air landfills in which garbage is discarded without any type of control. Domingo Contreras decried the resulting environmental and human health impacts. (Note that 60% of the landfills are located in zones with aquifers, and 89% are within 1,000 meters of a river or stream.) Of the 13,000 tons of solid waste produced every day in the D.R., Contreras estimated that “around 30% are recyclable materials with commercial value,” although less than 10% is actually recycled.

Litter is a pervasive problem across the country. When I went rafting down the Dominican Republic’s thrilling Yaque del Norte River a few weeks ago, on flat stretches in between rapids I noticed garbage accumulated along the shores. This is a microcosm of the country’s development today: The D.R. is discovering the tourism potential of its natural wonders, beyond its world-famous beaches, but its population has yet to embrace stewardship of the environment.

Gesturing to one grassy patch along the river shore, strewn with Styrofoam plates, plastic wrappers, and other trash, our raft’s guide lamented “Every day this place fills up with people, and they just leave everything behind. It’s a lack of environmental consciousness.” He then scooped up a floating Coke bottle from the river and tucked it away, to be properly disposed of later.

Tourism is not the main cause of all the trash and littering, particularly since most travelers are accustomed to comprehensive waste disposal and recycling in their own (and often wealthier) countries. What the D.R. is experiencing is a collective societal problem — only partly explained by lack of widespread garbage disposal and recycling — of environmental carelessness. Senator Euclides Sánchez of La Vega said on Thursday that when it comes to protecting the environment, Dominicans “behave like animals” without any awareness of the perils lurking. He added that the population will have to realize that the disappearance of most of the country’s rivers isn’t chance and attitudes “had better change.”

But is ecotourism the boost needed to raise awareness of environmental issues? Maybe. (“Ecotourism” is an often bandied about buzz word, but lacks a standard definition; for this article, I take it to mean outdoor recreational tourism that seeks to preserve the environment and educate visitors while minimizing their impact.) Ecotourism is still a small fraction of overall tourism to the D.R., which is booming, breaking all previous records. In 2014, a total of 5.14 million tourists arrived by air — up 9.6% from the previous year. This was both the highest growth rate and the highest absolute amount of non-resident arrivals in the entire Caribbean, and does not include additional arrivals by cruise ships and other vessels.

However, most tourists’ visits have little to do with environmental conservation. Vacationers often stay in pricey hotels and exclusive beach resorts, which are basically self-contained worlds; their exposure to trash comes mostly from the enormous amounts along the country’s roads. But there is potential. As the most geographically diverse country in the Caribbean, with 16 national parks that cover a wide range of climates, the D.R. could become an ecotourism centerpiece. If there were local ecotourism guides in more areas, word could spread among travelers, ideally leading to greater demand. This positive feedback system would incentivize environmental protection, to the benefit of all.

I spoke with David Durán, a 20-year old ecotourism guide in Jarabacoa, the country’s outdoor adventure capital, about the realities of ecotourism today. He has been a guide for two years, and will continue to be one for the foreseeable future. “I love nature, I love what I do. I didn’t study anything about tourism. It’s something that comes from the heart,” he said.

According to Durán, the largest drivers of Jarabacoa’s economy in size order are agriculture, construction, and then tourism. Jarabacoa has 40,000 people, and there are only a few independent guides like him. But, Durán added, “More tourists are coming, especially in the last five years,” the majority from the U.S. and Europe. Durán acknowledged that rampant littering was “very bad for the environment,” but noted that “it’s changing a little bit, one person at a time.”

Experts agree that education — a chronic problem in the D.R., which ranks far below most other Latin American countries, including poorer ones —  is the key. Reforming the school system is a huge undertaking, but in terms of the environment, the crucial first step is awareness of the pollution problem. Seeing and learning about it firsthand could go a long way towards changing collective attitudes.

But in the meantime, the the hiking trails near Jarabacoa remain scattered with litter. And even where ecotourism is the backbone of the local economy, as it is for the small town of La Ciénaga (about a 45-minute drive from Jarabacoa), there is trash along all the roads. This town is the most common starting point for the hike up Pico Duarte, at 3,087 meters (10,128 feet) the tallest mountain in the Caribbean. And once you begin the long hike, on a trail entirely within the beautiful Armando Bermúdez National Park, the litter seems to vanish — this despite the heavy traffic in the park. I spoke with Antonio Serrata, a local mule driver, who estimated about 10,000 hikers made the trek last year. (Serrata is one of many in this small town who are dependent on ecotourism. All visitors to Pico Duarte are legally required to go with a guide, mule, and mule driver; of La Ciénaga’s roughly 200 households there are 104 guides on rotating duty in their professional association.)

Hopefully, Armando Bermúdez National Park won’t remain the country’s primary environmental oasis. To this end, sustainable tourism companies like Explora! Ecotour conduct weekly trips with local groups. These aim to increase environmental education for Dominicans and show locals some of their own country’s astounding beauty, according to the environmental news site mongabay.com. “These particular nature tours are very important to us because the whole idea behind it is to take locals out to visit a part of their country that they did not know, hope that they fall in love with the place and then take back with them a new sense of responsibility for preserving our natural resources,” owners Manny Jimenes and Olyenka Sang said. They added, “The good news is that it is, most of the time, as simple as that.”

They may be right. One shining example of a successful ecotourism project increasing awareness among locals is the 27 Waterfalls of Damajagua. Originally started as a Peace Corps project in the early 1990s, it is a sustainable community-run tour of the Damajagua River, which has proved popular with Dominicans and foreigners alike. All the guides are locals, who take pride in educating visitors about this protected area. Meanwhile, the community benefits from the entrance fees, for example by building and maintaining local schools. And after the cool water, the most refreshing aspect is that the whole river is pristine, no trash in sight anywhere.