Dear friends, let me share with you this little reflection. There are many more elements that could be included and I'm sure that there are nuances which in my haste I have overlooked. This reflection was motivated by my last stay in the chapel in La Cienega. So much poverty and people working hard but always in debt..
40 year review of the Church’s involvement with families in the upper watershed of the San Juan River, Sabaneta
With the first satellite imagery of the island Hispaniola, the human impact upon natural earth systems could be observed from a distance of 40 miles or more above the Earth’s surface. For anyone with access to digital satellite imagery, the contrast between Haiti’s forest cover and that of the DR was obvious. As the United Nations declared the eighties to be the clean water decade, ecologists emphasized the connection between conservation of forest cover in the upper watersheds, and access to annual flowing, clean drinking water. The eighties also saw the DR invest in rapid construction of hydroelectric dams for both irrigation and power.
Different strategies were proposed in government circles to protect those investments in dams, canals and other infrastructure that depended upon healthy watersheds in the mountains. These were motivated in part by national pride. The DR would not become another Haiti with less than 4% of forest cover. Basically you could reduce the strategies into two camps: (1) force the villagers in the upper watersheds out of the mountains and let nature regenerate a natural forest cover; or (2) work with the villagers to use their manpower and skills to reforest. The Dominican Church opted for the second strategy, while military officials and more radical eco groups opted for the first. Neither group anticipated the rapid development of migrant Haitian workers who farm the land in basically the same way that depleted Haitian mountain soils.
The dam in Sabaneta was completed before hurricanes David and George. Politics rather than scientific reasoning inverted the logical order of progression: rather than first protecting the watershed from erosion that could fill the dam’s lake with sediment, construction went full speed ahead. With the above mentioned hurricanes, the dam almost collapsed. Ever afterwards, reforestation efforts have been trying to play catch-up.
In the 90’s, the new bishop of San Juan de la Maguana, Mons. Jose Grullion de Estrella, became fully engaged with the communities throughout his diocese. He would visit every village at least once a year. During those visits, he listened to the needs of the families and encouraged them to form pastoral councils to resolve as many of the local problems as they could. The villagers kept insisting upon two major needs beyond their control: roads for transportation and better education opportunities for their children.
In response to the first need, the bishop established FUNDASEP (Foundation Azua, San Juan, Elias Piña) to manage the infrastructure needed to make and repair roads into the mountains. The diocese, with government subsidies, created the vehicle worthy roads in use today. Since none of them is covered with cement or asphalt, they require continual reparations. National ecological groups objected strongly to the creation of these dirt and rock roads, noting that they were major sources of erosion which also increased the incentives to multiply agricultural production of cash crops on mountain sides. They said in effect: if you build roads, farmers will plant more beans; and beans are bad for the steep mountainsides.
With the assignation of Father Cristian as pastor of Sabaneta, Bishop Jose found the perfect worker to address the second problem of poor educational opportunities. He began work on La Aventura. Soon he was transporting both teachers and students up the mountains on Monday mornings. His tireless attention to the development of this center is a testimony to the power of Catholic motivation.
One of the remnants of the first strategy to address forest destruction (get campesinos out of the mountains) are the institutionalized incentives which make it impossible to make a good living with bean farming. Mountain farmers compete with both valley farmers who have control of water inputs in the San Juan valley, and importers with access to low cost beans on the world market. In April they buy a quintal of beans for $14,000 pesos, and in August they sell a quintal at $3,000 or $4,000 pesos. Most farmers end up in a permanent cycle of debt to merchants who front the initial costs of planting: herbicides, followed by planting by Haitian migrant workers and fumigation to prevent insect invasions.
For over 40 years the mountain soil in the upper Joca and San Juan rivers has been steadily eroded by bean farming. Access to roads, as the ecologists prophesied, has had the unintended consequence of incentivizing bean farming along with increased use of herbicides and other chemicals. Sadly, with the diocesan roads it becomes much easier to establish bars which contribute to the sharp increase in alcoholism among the young Dominican men. A strong case can be made for viewing the roads as contributing to more problems than they solved. In contrast, the Jesuit Father Regino worked with farming communities to get them out of the mountains and onto land that was not so easily degraded by erosion. He organized them to invade government owned land which they successfully converted into small holdings for each family.
Last weekend (end of August, 2021) the pastoral juvenile of Azua organized an outing to La Aventura. Over 230 children and youths were transported up the treacherous road from Boca de los Arroyos to the beautifully apportioned school facilities, equipped with solar energy, bunk rooms and a large dining area. Each vehicle ran a considerable risk of getting stuck or worse. It has become the “new normal” in the diocese to depend heavily upon Toyota Hilux double cabin trucks, mostly financed by Adveniat (German Catholic charities), for such outings. The children and adult supervisors passed by communities like La Cienega where ecological problems are growing beyond the control of local families.
La Cienega has an aqueduct which a Catholic American mission from Elko Nevada created in 2002. This aqueduct used to provide clean drinking water for the entire year. But increased bean farming on lands above the aqueduct has created a situation where the water now contains harmful chemicals and comes close to running dry three months of the year. Father Carlos (Father Cristian’s replacement) things that the solution is to extend the new aqueduct being constructed for La Aventura. But that tubing requires extensive labor, organization and sustained commitment to be buried. Furthermore, the flushing toilets newly installed in the Center puts more pressure on the scarce water resources available.
Little effort has been directed by the Church towards confronting the institutional incentives which keep farmers addicted to beans. Father Cristian spent enormous sums of energy helping to build and maintain the dirt roads, while constructing and managing La Aventura school. Father Carlos is alone in a parish with more chapels than he can visit in a month. As more children want to go to La Aventura, he finds himself looking for ways to either transport them up the mountain roads or build yet another mini Aventura on Church property below.
In summary: the Church in the 80’s opted for encouraging people to make a living in the upper watershed of the San Juan river. She never backed away from that accompaniment. She built and maintained roads and a remarkable school. But in spite of all the conferences and projects to plant pine trees, coffee and avocado trees… the Church has not been able to nudge farming away from beans and chick peas. Under her leadership, the farmers are more dependent upon seasonal, young Haitian migrant laborers who push the lands into greater fragility; subject to increased use of chemicals. In over 40 years, the Church has not created a spiritual environment where young professionals are called by Christ to live humbly in the mountains alongside the farmers. Her experts all follow the same pattern: Toyota rides up the mountains; inputs; followed by returns to towns and cities on the plains.
A Franciscan spirituality of loving the land, forest, water, birds… more than cash crops; more than the comforts of city life. Is this what the signs of the times require? How does one encourage the Church to convert from Toyota to backpacking? Can the roads be used in a way that will de-incentivize beans, or is their very presence an insurmountable incentive in the wrong direction? Is it time to engage in helping one farmer at a time to break away from beans? When will the Church get out of the business of road repair? (In Paraíso the Church has nothing to do with road repair.) Father Santos once bought a piece of land from a known killer. The land is beside the river, has mature cedar trees, and room for coffee plants. It is beside a farm easily capable of being irrigated from a stream across the river. Is it time to create a backpack retreat center, accessible on foot from Boca de los Arroyos?
Father Brian Kennedy.