By Yessenia Soto, Rainforest Alliance
Between late 1518 and early 1519, the cacique Enriquillo, chief of the Jaragua district in the Dominican Republic, led a famous rebellion against the Spaniards. Enriquillo was a Taíno Indian who was educated and indoctrinated by the colonizers, but he confronted them to end the abuses they were committing against his people. The chief was joined by other indigenous peoples and together they went to Sierra de Bahoruco, a mountain range in the southwestern part of the island whose dense forests and terrain were a challenge for his adversaries. There they fought as rebels for more than a decade, turning the mountains into a war zone that the Spaniards never managed to conquer. A peace agreement was signed in 1533.
In addition to its rich history, Sierra de Bahoruco is now considered the most biologically important area in the country and one of the most important in the Caribbean. The mountains are home to the highest diversity of wild plants and animals on the island and they contain several ecosystems such as dry forests, broadleaf forests, and pine forests. Sierra de Bahoruco continues in Haiti as the Massif de la Selle and is part of the Massif de la Selle-Jaragua-Bahoruco-Enriquillo Bi-national Corridor.
In 1983, Sierra de Bahoruco National Park (SBNP) was created to protect 413 square miles (1,069 km2) of the mountains. Some 668 plant, 24 reptile, six amphibian, 112 bird, and 12 mammal species have been reported in the park. Unfortunately, some of these species are endangered or threatened due to the effects of climate change, increasing human pressures, and a lack of effective park management. Endemic and migratory birds found in the mountains, such as the bay-breasted cuckoo (Coccyzus rufigularis) and the migratory Bicknell’s thrush (Catharus bicknelli), as well as the island’s renowned endemic mammal, the Hispaniolan solenodon (Solenodon paradoxus), are all endangered.
The main human cause of environmental degradation near SBNP is illegal deforestation for agriculture and extraction for charcoal, mainly in areas outside the park and in the broadleaf forests of the mountains’ southern slope.
“There are poor people who do this because they don’t have farmland or job opportunities in the area, and there are also some commercial farms within the protected area. Another problem is the lack of clear park boundaries,” says Jorge Brocca, director of the Sociedad Ornitológica de La Hispaniola (SOH Conservation), an organization that promotes the protection and conservation of biodiversity in the Dominican Republic and Haiti through research, education, training, and strengthening protected areas.
Besides habitat loss and further threatening a number of wildlife species, Brocca said that environmental services that are vital for humans are also at risk. The SBNP is a key area for carbon sequestration on the island, protecting water sources that supply water and hydroelectric energy to the population in the south, and generating local income from tourism, as Sierra Bahoruco is considered the premier site for bird-watching in the Dominican Republic.
In 2011, SOH Conservation decided to start a project to help conserve the park. With support from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), Fundación Tropigás Natural, and the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources of the Dominican Republic, the organization is working to been able to reduce the incidence of major threats that affect the northern slope of SBNP.
SOH Conservation is working with the Ministry of Environment on improving the monitoring, control, surveillance, and management of the park. First, they installed gates at some of the park entrances, which are watched over by park rangers or military personnel. They also negotiated the hiring of more park rangers and the funds to properly equip them; they donated three motors, radio equipment, and several GPS units; and managed to have nearly the entire area guarded round-the-clock. SBNP now has 27 park rangers and administrative staff, and 50 Haitian and Dominican brigade members hired to support these and other tasks. SOH Conservation and the Ministry of Environment train all park personnel.
Thanks to these efforts, there is greater control of tourist movements and vehicle traffic on the international route that crosses the park, and some invaders have been identified and reprimanded.
In addition, SOH Conservation helped establish a successful partnership with Fundación Tropigás Natural, which now donates some of the gasoline the park rangers use at their checkpoints. “Before, these rangers had to cut trees for firewood. How could they ask the communities not to cut down trees when they were doing it themselves? Now they are leading by example,” said Brocca.
Working closely with the communities near SBNP is one of the project’s greatest achievements. “When we started, we went to ask the mayor of Duvergé for support, and he told us that we could count on him but he warned us that the community was not interested in ‘that conservation stuff’, said César Abrill Cáceres, SOH Conservation’s on-site coordinator for the northern slope.
These communities are surrounded by the SBNP and other protected areas such as the Loma Charco Azul Biological Reserve, Lago Enriquillo National Park, and the Gran Sabana National Park, which is why they feel they don’t have enough land for agriculture or other economic opportunities. Abrill says this is why they usually view parks as an obstacle to their welfare and rangers as “bad cops”.
Over the years, with support from CEPF and ABC, SOH Conservation has held environmental education workshops in the local schools and had talks with youth groups, cooperatives, community associations, and local leaders to educate them about damage to the forest and motivate them to conserve its resources. As a result, a group of volunteers was formed that already has about 70 members, brigade members were trained for reforestation tasks and to support park rangers, and they have successfully held the “Festival de la Cúa” (Cuckoo Festival) for several years, largely organized by local youth and sponsored in part by small businesses.
To provide economic alternatives, the Puerto Escondido Guide Association was created with a group of 12 naturalist guides who will soon give tours in the park, and a business plan was prepared to develop and promote ecotourism in Sierra de Bahoruco. Communities and entrepreneurs are being trained to create coordinated, profitable, and sustainable tourism.
Together with Fundación Tropigás Natural and the Ministry of Environment, work is being done on a project to bring subsidized gas to about 4,000 families in the communities of Puerto Escondido, which will be key to reducing deforestation in the park. Further, a municipal conservation plan will soon be developed and there is a proposal to create a municipal conservation network. Abrill says that now it is the same mayor who is telling the story about their first encounter when he talks about the great progress made by these communities. They now believe that local communities are the park’s best conservation asset.
SOH Conservation estimates that threats to the northern slope of SBNP have been reduced by 70%, but they still face many challenges. Brocca explains that key priorities are strengthening local governance, defining the park boundaries, and doing more work with private landowners to gain their respect, as well as to create and implement more sustainable economic alternatives for local communities.
In addition, four months ago they started work in the southern part of the park, and hope to replicate the successes they’ve achieved in the park’s northern slope. A conservation committee was formed with local communities and governments of both the Dominican Republic and Haiti, and a nursery with fruit and timber trees was created for use in the reforestation and restoration of degraded lands inside and outside the protected area. The Ministry of Environment hired a brigade of Haitians and Dominicans for restoration work and to conduct monitoring and surveillance activities in this part of the park. They are also going to build two checkpoints for the park rangers.
“This a long-term project because we want to achieve long-term results”, added Brocca. “More than a conservation project, this is now a conservation alliance between the public and private sectors and the civil society, all committed to save this key biodiversity area.”