As I sit in my plastic chair, on the backside of the desk I share, in the tiny whitewashed alcove that is my office, it is hard to believe I have already been living in this country for nearly eight weeks. The rowdy voices of the men working in the Cacao Block fill the air outside- this mixed with the sour smell of fermenting cacao, have come to be the most convincing indicators, for me, of productivity. Success here is not measured by suits, cars or buildings. Rather, I know the cacao block is successful by the genuineness of the employee’s smiles, the height of the sales files- not tucked away in file cabinets, but stacked on plastic chairs just like the one I am sitting in now- and by the volume and tone of the voices of the workers as they call for their querido jefe, “ROMEROoo!”
I spent the first four weeks of my time here traveling around the country, getting a feel for the various and varying levels of tourism, lifestyles, economic situations and social-political outlooks. I visited many of the “sun and sand” destinations that this country is known for, and saw many tourism practices with which I disagreed. I read about the country’s turbulent history, rocky relationship with its only island neighbor, Haiti, and tried to connect the dots of the origins of the many frustrations I was feeling.
Upon starting my fellowship with the Dominican Sustainable Tourism Alliance (DSTA), I began gaining insight as to how the rest of the country could benefit from the country’s rich tourism appeal, without destroying local communities, culture and natural environments. DSTA is currently funding twelve “DESTINOS” projects in nine distinct tourism clusters around the country. The idea behind these unique projects is that communities can collaborate in sustainably marketing their regional offerings as a method of community development.
With my background and interest in organic diversified agriculture, I have been placed with an agro-tourism project called the Ecological Route Chocolate Tour. The project is part of a regional cooperative of cacao producers called “Bloque #3 de Cacao de la Region Este”. The tour caters to Dominican school groups and foreign tour groups looking for a countryside excursion away from their resort stays in “The Coconut Coast.” The tour lasts about 4 hours and includes an overview of the cacao drying and processing facility in Hato Mayor, a tour of an organic cacao farm and introduction to cacao growing practices, and culminates in a locally prepared lunch at a women’s association that produces wine, marmalade and other cacao products. The tour is well-established, however the project has been granted DSTA-USAID funds for marketing and product development that have yet to be utilized. My task for my 6 weeks here in the field, is to develop marketing materials and promote the tour, and its community, in other regions of the country.
During my stay in the campo, thus far, I have relished in the refreshing pace of life here, but I’ve also struggled with the overwhelming obstructions constantly popping up in “development” work. USAID funding requires excruciating documentation and attention to detail, which can often hurt more than help when working with barely-educated, though very well-intentioned, communities. I find myself questioning a system that seems to pumps more money into the oversight and distribution of temporary funding, yet fails to adequately equip recipients with the skills needed to oversee and maintain projects independently. I struggle with this especially, because it is a very common story.
However, frustrations aside, this work is important. The Hato Mayor/Vicentillo/El Seibo region has some of the best soil I’ve ever dug my hands into. Small-scale agriculture has carried this region for generations, and if it were to lose it (to larger operations or international exports), the community would suffer greatly. The land is perfect for organic production as it is lush, wet and full of natural compost, however there are several large citrus farms that are leaning in the unsustainable direction.
Yesterday, I went to the first day of an eight week public course on organic greenhouse production (we’re talking delicious veggies here, not dangerous gases) which was about an hour outside of where I live, in San Pedro de Marcois. The course was initiated and funded by the country’s first lady, who, along with others, wants the DR to utilize its perfect climate and central location to produce and export more healthy produce. In a fly-filled classroom in the middle of nowhere, gathered participants of all ages and experiences. I went with my good friend, Miguelina (who is 60 years old) and there were caballeros equally as old, and boys and girls of about 12. The class lasted over 3 hours and became a captivating conversation between ladies in pearls and life-long farmers in dirty jeans and caps. It was fantastic! After now becoming familiar with the rich interior of the island, it makes complete sense for the Dominican Republic to add organic agriculture to its recognizable offerings of white sand beaches and baseball players, however, like all things in development, there are TANTOS other aspects to consider.
In fact, that may be the most important lesson that I have learned here thus far: that for lasting and effective change to occur, even the most seemingly unrelated aspects of society must be reflected upon. Current development practices that break up societies into specific problem-areas (literacy, HIV/AIDS, access to water), will never fully address these issues unless they comprehensively consider all of their side-causes and effects (lack of transportation, cultural beliefs, improperly implemented industry). This is not a simple task, and certainly not one that can be completed and documented within a calendar year in order to ensure continued funding. The development aid system, ought to also be considered part of this fallacy.
On this note, I am still no closer to knowing exactly what I want to do with my life, but I know that I will forever cherish the following parts of Dominican life and culture: tropical fruit (how will I ever go without it eating locally in the northwest!?) the forced-snuggling of being crammed in a rickety, tin can sedan with seven other people (and the obligatory “saludos” as you open the door and prepare to throw your body upon theirs so as to allow the door to be closed) the fantastic simplicity of wooded slab houses- made snazzy with the brightest of paint colors and a motorcycle parked on the porch two-hour, home-made lunches complete with café y siesta y mucho, mucho más!
For now, I’ll just have to continue soaking up this beautiful country and, what really matters most, its people.
As I sit in the Aeropuerto Santo Domingo Las Americas, preparing for my flight to return stateside, it’s hard to believe I arrived here just over three months ago. This short amount of time has been packed full of new friends, ideas and experiences, to the point where just being in the airport now headed away from this island is prompting a culture-shock like I never expected to feel after just one quarter in a country. I’m leaving the Dominican Republic, with a completely different Spanish accent- one where the first and last syllables of almost every word are cut off, sometimes allowing for just a one letter-sound to express an idea. I’m leaving this county with a similarly fond acceptance of simple-living- one where ingenuity and creativity make the world go ‘round. I’m also leaving this country with a perspective on development work that has been flipped upside down, thrashed around, wrung out, and hung on the fence to dry- perhaps to be revisited in the future, but certainly to be used in a much different way.
I have learned that international aid comes in all shapes and sizes, periods, directions, outlooks, intents and purposes. It comes with restrictions that that can warrant it practically worthless, or can give it the specific direction necessary for success. I’ve seen examples of millions of dollars being pumped toward administrators, distributors and accountants of aid that have never visited the people they are claiming to help. And I’ve seen examples of volunteers working 16 hours a day, on the ground, in these communities, experiencing their ways of life, and working toward most-effectively, collaboratively and sustainably making them better, though living off of their savings or a modest salary of less than a day’s per diem of people in the aforementioned example. In this sense, I see a lot of waste.
My project was unique in that it was not, theoretically, dependent upon this traditional aid funding. The Tour de Chocolate in Hato Mayor-Vicentillo has been fully functioning and profiting for nearly two years. It was originally chosen to receive funding from the USAID-DSTA Destinos Grants because of its potential for success and long-term sustainability. However, the reason they saw this potential is because it has been and is supported by countless other aid groups, as well as the national confederation of Dominican cacao producers, a well-established profiting enterprise. A budget was created for the project by DSTA, and all that’s necessary to claim it, is to spend hours and hours getting appropriate price quotes for each individual item, making sure they fit within USAID restrictions, applying for Dominican tax-exemption and filling out a mountain of complex excel forms. Now, you can imagine the decision made when the choice of going through this process, compared to charging the expense to the account of the sponsoring confederation. The choice is easy- especially when the decision to forego the DSTA process also relieves the burden of having to brand everything in the vicinity with an obnoxiously large USAID logo. It is for this reason that my project is still struggling to claim its funding.
Oddly enough, my project is one of the most successful Destinos Grant Projects, even though it has not used its Destinos Grant. The reasons for this, I believe, are because it has had two very dedicated Peace Corps volunteers for a total of four years, a Dutch volunteer for three years, and the support of a profiting institution who has it in their interest to make their dollar (or Dominican Peso, for that matter) go the furthest. These people, as well as I, were on the ground working with the community itself, the project itself, and were completely aware of the intricacies of each new initiative, project and expenditure. The DSTA budget, however, includes funds for a volleyball court, an illustrative mural, and trainings to occur during the tourism high-season, when nobody involved in the tour would ever be able to participate. Not included in the budget, were funds for a printer in the Tourism Office, or a plan to promote the tour with a website. This are issues of distance- emotionally, physically and educationally, that I see as a major flaw in this specific model of development.
However, there are several other projects that have managed to flourish under this system, and once their DSTA funding expires, they will have a good foundation to move forward with their projects and continue to provide more opportunities for their communities. For instance, the women’s association which works with the Tour de Chocolate, has received assistance from the USAID Agro RED (Rural Economic Development) program, to purchase the machinery necessary to create refined chocolate candies. Though their families and neighbors produce some of the best quality cacao in the world, until now, these women have laboriously processed it by hand for cooking and baking use, but have not had the resources to make actual chocolate. This aid opens up an important new market, and provides a necessary product for sale at the end of a Chocolate Tour.
Despite systematic frustrations, I am very proud of the work I was able to do at my project site in just 6 short weeks. Sometimes I caught myself working beyond the midnight hours, combing through my website or finalizing a project work plan, and would realize how rewarded I felt despite the fact that there was no grade or salary at the other end. The reason for this, I think, is that those with whom I was working at the site were just as invested in their work, knowing what the rewards could potentially be for their families and communities.
I leave the Dominican Republic, with a greater understanding of this culture, people, and the amazing resources this island has to offer. I leave feeling more focused in my future and much more aware of the functioning of the international aid system. I leave relaxed and rejuvenated from a quarter unlike any other, but invigorated from a taste of what really helping people can feel like.