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The island state of the Dominican Republic is extremely vulnerable to hurricanes, tropical storms, and floods. Furthermore, it is currently experiencing threats from climate change and pollution. This picture of Wallhouse, Dominica, was taken a few days after Category 5 Hurricane Maria struck the island. Credit: Alison Kentish/IPS
  • by Jan Lundius (stockholm)
  • Inter Press Service

The island state of the Dominican Republic is extremely vulnerable to meteorological phenomena such as hurricanes, tropical storms, and floods. Furthermore, it is currently experiencing threatening effects from climate change and pollution. Increasing temperatures are causing drought, which reduces crop yields and negatively affects water supplies. However, in spite of this, the nation’s economy has, during the last ten years, experienced some of the fastest growth in Latin America and the Caribbean. The period saw a 24 percent upsurge in hotels, bars, and restaurants, while construction and the industrial sector were thriving. The middle class is increasing and poverty is declining. The country has transitioned from being an agricultural society to one dominated by vast metropolitan areas during the last 15 years; its urban population has doubled. Nevertheless, sectors such as agriculture, industry, construction, and tourism are highly dependent on increasingly scarce natural resources, such as water, timber, and land, while unsustainable practices continue to cause environmental degradation.

To prevent pollution and further depletion of natural resources, the Ministry of Environment regulates all activities that present a potential risk to the environment, implementing policies that allow the Ministry to enforce an environmental management and adaptation plan to avoid further damage. One example of environment protecting laws is that, according to the Dominican Constitution, water is part of the nation’s heritage. Rivers, lakes, lagoons, beaches, and coasts are considered to be public property. A 60-meter coastal strip running parallel to the sea is also considered part of the nation’s public property, accessible to the public and cannot be exploited.

At the beginning of IPS’ discussion with the Dominican Minister of Environment and Natural Resources, Miguel Ceara, we asked him if environmental issues are a priority for the current government.

Miguel Ceara: To a very high degree. The Ministry is rather new. It was created in 2000 as the result of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. We are currently trying to implement the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which was adopted by all UN Member States in 2015. The goals of this agenda are all interconnected and safeguarding the environment is a transversal theme that concerns all levels of society, demanding coordination and collaboration of all ministries, particularly with the cabinets in charge of issues like education, water, construction, security, etc.

Many challenges lay ahead of us. Most important is to foment a new, general culture that promotes environmental health management as well as economic growth to enable us to finance the transformation needed if our society will be able to confront such a formidable threat as the one posed by climate change.

IPS: Before you accepted your current position, you served as Minister for Economy, Planification, and Development and have now been Minister of Environment for just two years. When you entered this office, what did you perceive as your main challenge?

Miguel Ceara: Lack of respect for environmental laws and a high level of permisologia, i.e. an inclination to turn a blind eye to violations of rules and regulations, paired with a readiness to grant permits where they should not have been permitted. Furthermore, the wages have been far too low for technicians and other people involved in the protection of natural resources.

IPS: Reforestation has long been a priority for Dominican governments, though it has often been stated that it has seldom been a particularly successful endeavor.

Ceara: Quite right, but reforestation has now become urgent; in two years’ time, more than 200 000 km2 will be planted with 20 million seedlings.

IPS: Are there any protected areas in the Dominican Republic?

Ceara: Approximately one-fourth of the national territory is protected, as is an additional 11 percent of the marine waters.

IPS: What does this protection imply?

Ceara: The exploitation of protected areas is forbidden. Unharmful and protective practices are allowed to help the vegetation evolve in a healthy, sustainable manner, safeguarding flora and fauna. However, it is expensive and quite difficult to preserve and protect these areas. Only within Los Haitises National Park are more than 400 soldiers deployed to protect it and apart from foresters and game wardens, we are in great need of expertise in nature preservation. We need geologists, geographers, agronomists, hydrologists, forest scientists, and biologists. The country already has a sufficient supply of marketers, economists, architects, and engineers. The government is currently supporting a Masters’ programme for 60 environmental technicians and more are needed.

IPS: You mentioned a culture of permisologia, how do you deal with that problem?

Ceara: We are currently digitalizing all permits and are at the same time checking and revising them. Transgressors are brought to court. We are trying to implement harsh laws to stop abuse, for example, by increasing vigilance to protect forests and vegetation around water sources. Extracting sand for cement production from riverbeds is strictly forbidden, sand can now only be harvested in mines; and harmful agricultural methods are also being limited and even forbidden.

IPS: Can you mention some environmental threats that are unique to the Dominican Republic?

Ceara: There are several. For example, sudden, huge downpours that have hit the island in recent times, possibly a result of climate change. On November 4, 2022, a precipitation of 266 mm was measured in the capital, the highest level ever recorded. Nevertheless, on November 19, 2023, the Dominican Republic received 431 mm of rain. Extreme precipitation caused floods, tearing down bridges and dams, while inundating fields and neighbourhoods. In the capital, the collapse of an overpass claimed nine lives.

Another concern, caused by climate change, is algal blooms. Increasing temperatures are changing sea currents, which, in combination with fertilizing components reaching the sea, are stimulating Sargassum, a brown macro-algae, to experience a catastrophic bloom, creating dense layers on the sea surface. Occasionally, such huge carpets of algae move onto the Dominican coastline, destroying beaches and disrupting ecosystems, while creating a decomposing and stinking mess containing concentrations of heavy metals and arsenic. Currently, a moving eight thousand km2 expanse of 30 million metric tons of Sargassum is approaching Caribbean waters.

The Dominican Republic is a low emitter of greenhouse gases, accounting for approximately 0.08 of global emissions. The land use sector currently absorbs more CO2 than it emits. However, energy demand is steadily on the rise and emissions have, during a five-year period, increased by 20 percent. As soon as it came into power, this government committed itself to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 27 percent by 2030, compared to 2010 levels. 

IPS: Are Dominicans in general aware of the lethal threats of environmental degradation and climate change?

Ceara: Unfortunately, not! There are always uncertainties and unforeseen events that make planning difficult. Emergencies and rising investment costs are affected by forces we have no control over. Resources are limited. Consumption is increasing, and so are waste and pollution. Cars are becoming more common, as are air conditioners and other energy-consuming appliances. Plastic is suffocating water sources. Planning is constantly being made to meet needs and demands, as well as find alternative, sustainable energy sources, and not the least to support increased awareness about environmental threats to health and society. However, much more has to be done.

To adapt an entire nation to the painful transition from fossil fuel dependency to a society based on renewable energy is a costly and painful endeavor, but it has to be done and can conceivably be achieved. For example, this nation’s economy was once highly dependent on the production of sugar, coffee, cacao, and tobacco. Foreign competition eventually destroyed these sources of income, but the nation proved to be capable of overcoming a painful transition and through the expansion of other sectors, the economy could be recuperated.

I believe that people can be convinced to change their habits and concerns. Take as an example how smoking has diminished by efforts to make people aware of its dangers. A similar result can be reached if people become aware of the dangers involved with mindless pollution, inadequate waste treatment, and wasteful energy consumption. To take care of our natural environment, it has to be a collective endeavor. This is not primarily a law enforcement issue, we cannot have a policeman checking every Dominican citizen. Education and awareness campaigns have to be carried out to enable every citizen, every municipality, and every neighbourhood to participate in the care and protection of our natural environment.

IPS: However, mitigation of the harmful effects of climate change and general pollution is not only a local, but also a global concern.

Miguel Ceara: Of course, this is a serious concern for us. To be quite frank, the worst culprits are developed nations and they don’t care enough about the harm done to developing countries. Climate change is a global issue, with a vast array of components. It has to be addressed on a multilateral basis and in a synchronized manner. So far, this has not been done, at least not to the extent it should be done. Developing nations are always in the back seat while negotiating with nations that are better off.

Take as an example the issue of COVID mitigation. The Dominican Republic had early on made an agreement with a pharmaceutical company for timely vaccine delivery, but when the vaccines were going to be delivered, they became unavailable after being sold to bigger, wealthier nations. We had to wait and when the vaccine finally appeared, we had to pay a price four times higher than we had originally agreed upon. We cannot sit and wait for wealthier nations to assist us in addressing urgent environmental issues, we have to begin by acting alone.

Furthermore, we are sharing our eco system with Haiti, a nation that now has become a failed state, with criminal gangs running amok, turning into private armies, fomenting fear, chaos, and increasing poverty. The Dominican Republic cannot, on its own, mitigate a crisis that threatens not only peace and cooperation, but also the ecosystem of the entire island. We expect the international community to step in and help Haiti, first for the good of the Haitian people, who deserve to live with dignity and without fear, but also to safeguard the ecosystem of the entire island. Without a stable government and institutional counterparts, it is impossible for us to reach out to Haiti to coordinate environmental policies.

IPS: At last, a personal question: the President urged you to become minister of environment after your predecessor had been murdered in this very office. I know you hesitated while being aware of the danger involved in accepting a post like this one, as well as the fact that you are an economist and not an environmental expert. Why do you think the President chose you and if the ruling party wins the upcoming elections, do you intend to stay in your post?

Ceara: I am aware that my predecessor was killed for applying the strict laws related to granting, or denying, permits related to environmental issues and the protection of our ecosystem. I assume the President gave me the offer since he considered me to be a man of personal integrity and experienced in planning and coordination. After being confronted with the challenges connected with environmental management and safeguarding our eco system, I am fully committed to continuing, in any capacity, to environmental protection and efforts to counteract the harmful effects of climate change.

This feature is published with the support of Open Society Foundations.

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© Inter Press Service (2024) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service





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