The power went out last night, as it often does in our part of the Dominican central mountain region. But this time it happened in the middle of cooking dinner. I was still disoriented by the dark, so it was surprise to me when my host mom came riding in to the kitchen on the family motorcycle, shined the headlights on the stove, and continued cooking. Let me tell you, that woman knows how to solve a problem. I like to think of this as an example of the flexibility in the face of obstacles that characterizes both the Dominican lifestyle I have been welcomed in to and the angle of development work I have gotten to explore in these first 4 weeks.
As an AED Development Fellow I have been assigned to the Dominican Sustainable Tourism Alliance, a USAID funded project whose goal is to encourage community development through ecotourism microenterprises. I am an in-field facilitator for the DSTA small grant projects in the Jarabacoa region of the country. This includes one waterfall hiking excursion, two cabin lodging projects and one art gallery/store/art school for street kids. In general my work is in providing capacity training for these projects – helping to professionalize business plans, marketing strategies, etc. However my exact tasks change daily, giving me a good taste for the challenges of development work. On the one hand the DSTA has given me training and direction on how to work with the projects at the organizational/administrative level. But upon arriving at these communities I’ve encountered the reality that many of these project leaders have had little opportunity to study, let alone maneuver the business world. So how do you connect people with little technical knowledge to the demands of international aid organizations? And if the community can’t speak the language of reports and finances, how can you be sure you are providing what the community really needs?
I am constantly amazed by the enthusiasm and vision of these project members. One of the projects is run by a women’s coop, where they have managed to get funding not only for the cabins on which their business depends but also a hydroelectric generator and a biogas processor for the entire community. The art gallery project is another example of a creative approach to business. While the front portion of the building sells crafts from local artists, the back portion serves as an art school and workshop. Many of the project leaders say that when they were kids they used to shine shoes in the street to support their families. Once a month they put on art workshops for street kids so that they can learn a new skill that could someday give them a different source of income. One more example is the waterfall project. This excursion depends on the youth of the community to serve as guides and keep the trail operating. These are kids for whom the community has very little to offer them, employment or otherwise, and yet their investment in the project is impressive. Of course, it is in the nature of development work that results are slow, and the difficulty of maintaining motivation, unity and patience is one of the greatest obstacles that these projects face. On top of that there is the relentless reality of a national economy stratified by resorts and tour operators, and the monopoly they hold on the tourist industry is an enormous challenge.
It is said in the Dominican Republic that “God lives everywhere, but sleeps in Jarabacoa.” This is where I am living during my internship. Scenes from Jurassic Park were filmed here. The town sits in a deep mountain basin surrounded by beautiful green hillsides of pine and fruit trees. The rivers that flow in to the valley provide for great rafting and several stunning waterfalls to visit. February is Carnaval month in Jarabacoa, and every Sunday the central park is packed with elaborate masks, musicians and youth. Standing in the park on a Sunday night and looking around at the hundreds of teenagers gathered around reminds me of the statistic that 32% of the population in the DR is under 15 years of age. There are so many youth! While this makes for a fun cultural environment, it leaves a lot of questions. How do they all get by? There are only so many jobs at the hotels and rafting companies, and other than that there is little industry in the area. My household is an entirely woman-run operation, as most of the husbands and brothers of the family have gone to Nueba Yol (New York) in search of work and haven’t been able to raise enough money to return. In addition, today was the first day my host brother has been able to go to school since I’ve been here. The teachers have been on strike because the government has refused their demand of 4% government expenditure allocation to education (currently it’s 2.3%. The US is 5.7%). These teacher strikes remind me of the schools I went to growing up in Venezuela, and I feel for both the teachers and students involved.
Aside from that I am enjoying life in the eternal spring that is Jarabacoa. Whether it’s drinking coffee in a project leader’s kitchen or chatting on the front porch with my family at night, I have already learned so much and look forward to the next six weeks. I will leave you with this:
In the DR you can all the tropical fruits you could ever want without feeling guilty about them being imported from really far away. How awesome is that?
Having grown up in Latin America and being back in the Caribbean, I now remember why some words are better said in Spanish, and why coffee always tastes better when it’s served as an excuse to stay and chat for a while. I couldn’t have predicted how rich these past three months have been. The topics I have been studying in school are now personal and they rack my brain at night. My experience with development work has been at times the most frustrating thing in the world and then at others the most rewarding, and I’m sad to see this rollercoaster come to an end.
I have loved being “in the field.” The most rewarding part of my internship was getting to work directly with communities. Life operates at a wholly different pace here. Setting up a meeting with the local construction company to get help with a project can mean attending a merengue dance celebration in town and trying to have a conversation over the drums beats and accordion melodies of the national dance. Working with the guides at the waterfall excursion to get their schedules organized often ends in a rock-throwing contest in front of the falls (you can probably guess who the looser of these competitions was, seeing as I’m the only person in this country that’s never played baseball). One of my most rewarding afternoons was spent teaching teenage girls from one of the projects how to use Google Docs. The goal of this activity was to set up a place for the project to archive their documents more consistently (there is a tendency to loose important papers here). I can’t say I have a lot of confidence that this simple method will be very successful for the future, but I could tell that the process of designating these girls to take over computer responsibilities was a big step for integrating the youth of the community into the project’s future.
Working within the Dominican Sustainable Tourism Alliance was an eye-opener to the trials of development work. The DSTA has witnessed a series of setbacks over the past year that have been a challenge to its functionality (budget cuts, the AED suspension, difficulties in communication with other implementing partners, etc). It has been difficult to sit on the side of the community members who are expected to implement all of USAID’s requirements and watch them struggle with procedures that are entirely unrealistic to the local reality. Where USAID requires three prices quotes for each individual purchase by the projects, this translates to the loss of a day’s work for a community member who has to scramble for a ride to the neighboring city because the local town only has two hardware stores. While I realize the importance of have strict regulations for how funds are spent, I believe that a good portion of the mounds of paperwork forced on these project members could be eliminated if the USAID was more involved in the reality of these communities.
Another issue that has come to life for me has been the tendency of foreign aid to focus on infrastructure programs rather than technical assistance. The reason for this is clear and I see it a lot in the work of USAID through the DSTA: It is much easier to monitor funds and see results when building cabins than it is when giving workshops on how to run a business. The DSTA projects are set up to provide capacity training for the community members involved, but as most of these projects reach their deadlines and the DSTA receives pressure to wrap up the projects, the trainings are often forgotten to the concrete and cement work. While it is certainly a big help to a rural village to have the people of the United States donate a cabin, more than anything these communities lack access to education and skill training.
When I first received my placement assignment I had mixed feeling about working with a tourism project. I couldn’t avoid the stigma associated with the word “tourism” that implies exposing or molding the local culture in order to please the eye of the foreigner. Isn’t that imperialistic? But in my past three months here I have found my preconceived notions pleasantly challenged. For the most part the projects of the Dominican Sustainable Tourism Alliance are currently targeted towards a national crowd. And there’s good reason for that. Dominicans LOVE to pile the whole extended family into the car and drive out to the mountains for a weekend of swimming in the rivers and roasting some kind of animal for the big Sunday dinner. Vacation time is a Dominican value, and these people really do appreciate the beauty of their own country. I was struck by this during a trail-building training when we got to the top of the waterfall and the local tour guides announced, “hey everyone! THIS is my beautiful country!” I can be proud to be a part of any organization that supports this kind of love for one’s country.
On the other hand, it is challenging to see the more commercial aspect of ecotourism, even in a small town like Jarabacoa. On one occasion I was invited to a meeting conducted by the ministry of environment and a few watershed experts from the US, who asked me to contribute the community-based ecotourism perspective. The room was full of bureaucratic professionals and representatives from the local commercial ecotourism industries. The day-long conversation touched on all the ways to improve recreational activities for foreign visitors – rafting, canyoning, etc. It wasn’t long before I realized that the main point of this conversation was to establish new ways for commercial and state institutions to make money with little talk about conservation, let alone how these ventures could better the communities that depend on these resources for their livelihood. I came way from that meeting with the sinking feeling that organizations such as the ones I’ve been working with have a rough battle ahead. They are not given a voice within the local tourism circles because they lack the education and experience to represent themselves, and they have only a handful dedicated advocates. In working with these communities I have come to understand that the value of ecotourism is that it can promote environmental conservation while at the same time creating a form of income that can bring some relief to very poor communities. It is a sad reality that the social aspect of ecotourism is the first part to go in most commercial and institutional ecotourism projects.
In preparing to leave to this beautiful island, I have already had a few sad goodbyes with the communities where I worked as well as the wonderful family that welcomed me into their home. After promising to call on their birthdays, I hiked my way to the bus stop to the capital, taking inventory of all the details about my life here that I will miss back in the states. I feel like my world has grown several sizes in the past three months, having gotten a taste of development work at a number of different levels from the ground up. It will be sad to leave this island come next week, but I know it won’t be long before I return to this part of the world.