After Hurricane Fiona blasted the island of Puerto Rico, it struck the Dominican Republic, where this reporter was visiting the rainforests. It was the first hurricane to rip through the island in 16 years — an event that underscores climate change’s omnipotence and the vital role rainforests play in combatting it.
The Dominican Republic is a party to the Paris climate agreement, allowing monitors to ensure the sanctity of rainforests. They absorb carbon, permitting credits to be issued that make it easier for companies and countries to meet their net-zero requirements. The island will soon be eligible to sell credits equating to 25 million tons, which could raise at least $125 million in 2023 to form an ecotourism industry while preserving biodiversity and water resources.
“The money will go to create more forests that will capture more carbon and build water resources,” says Federico Franco, vice minister of protected areas and biodiversity, in an interview with this writer at his office in Santo Domingo. “This will change the financial metrics that come from farming and timber.”
Franco adds that the Dominican Republic is responsible for 0.008% of global warming. But it is one of the 10 most affected countries in the world by climate change. For example, the rising tides are eroding its beaches. At the same time, the sargassum — ugly seaweed — overwhelms the Caribbean’s beaches: it is the result of rising water temperatures, causing chemicals to bleed into the ocean and kill biodiversity.
The island’s beaches occupy 1,500 square kilometers of coastline. But its rainforests are 18,000 square kilometers, making up 43% of the country today — up from 11% between 1960 and 1980. The government aims to expand the forests to 67% of the country. The national law protects 25% of the existing forests. Between 2000 and 2018, the island’s average emissions were 2.4 million tons of CO2 yearly. But its rainforests absorbed an average of 2.8 million tons annually.
Consider the La Celestina sustainable forest management project in the Santiago Province: it was developed by the Dominican Republic during the 1980s, as a model to solve climate-related issues while increasing economic activity. It is where this reporter visited. The San Ramon Foresters Association manages the land and is part of the REDD+ program that rewards a country for overseeing and monitoring its forests.
This area’s sustainable management of the forest is essential, especially for capturing and storing water. Because the Caribbean islands do not have glaciers or snow-capped peaks to hold water, they depend exclusively on their mountain-based forests. They catch the water from the clouds as they collide with the mountains and the moisture that condenses at night. On the other hand, those forests are used for timbering and they are creating jobs and income. Furniture businesses, construction companies, and hardware stores buy the resulting wood.
Nothing gets wasted:
— the sawdust fills potholes impacted by heavy rains.
— the bark becomes an energy feedstock or biomass, and
— the branches are used to regenerate organic matter to prevent soil erosion in harvested areas.
“Truly sustainable management of this forest provides economic income to local communities, the raw material to businesses in the region, and water for all the towns that benefit from the basin,” says Cesar Abrill, a biologist who led this writer on the rainforest adventure. Notably, the forests are refurbished.
But the standing trees will capture carbon and decrease CO2 emissions — generating funds under REDD+ and producing new jobs, a program originated by the Coalition for Rainforest Nations with Costa Rica and Papua New Guinea in 2005.
At the La Celestina sustainable forest management project, mountain cabins dot the campus — ones that allow campers to walk the trails. They peacefully coexist with timbering. The trees selected for commercial use are crooked and where the density is highest. The process is transparent, while a system of checks and balances prevents abuses and guarantees that living trees have healthy soil, generate water supplies, and capture CO2.
While tourism is a significant industry in the Dominican Republic — think beach resorts — the timber sector is a staple of the economy. For example, men cut down trees and transform them into wood for trade. La Celestina does not finish the wood because each buyer has distinctive needs. In 2018, the timber industry grew by 12% and added 10% to the nation’s GDP. Importantly, the forests are managed, and commercial use is partitioned and closely watched.
But the “weevil” threaten the trees — a menace made even worse by drought and climate change. However, the landowners closely monitor those ravenous insects.
“We are an island. Without a forest, we don’t have water,” says Jose Elias Gonzalez, vice minister of forestry resources, in an interview with this writer at his office. “We protect our forests. The trees not only absorb carbon but they preserve our water supplies. The trees preserve our biodiversity and create a broader economy to produce new businesses. We can train and educate people, protecting our economy and forests while bringing more benefits.”
‘Living Off Tourism’
The rainforest nations have put a lot of effort into slowing their rate of deforestation. The trees suck CO2 out of the atmosphere. If the trees live on, they will continue to do that. It is nature’s solution and the cheapest remedy to fight climate change — even more affordable than renewables.
Since 2009, the developed world has promised financing to ensure timbering and farming does not usurp the trees. It may soon come — a welcome development because the low-lying countries contribute a fraction of the globe’s CO2.
For example, the Caribbean islands spend their resources on climate mitigation and cleaning the sargassum from the beaches. Giant work crews rake the sand before putting the organism into bags and bins. It’s costly, and the money could instead go to hospitals and education.
Enter forest preservation: to get the monies promised under REDD+, the country must take stock of its trees and create a national forestry inventory. With that, it can calculate the country’s carbon stock — the amount of CO2 the forests are absorbing annually. The government must report its emissions and what its trees absorb if it wants to sell carbon credits. The operation must be transparent and verified and get at the root causes of deforestation and degradation.
Its forest sector captures about 350,000 more tons than the country’s overall annual emissions. Next year, it expects to sell 25 million tons in the form of carbon credits at $5 a ton. Among the major employers in the country are KPMG, Scotiabank, Verizon, Philip Morris International
Meantime, the Dominican Republic is part of the Cancun agreement that respects not only conservation, water resources, and biodiversity but also the people who live and work in nature and the owners of the forests.
“The Ministry of the Environment is not trying to stop development,” says Milagros De Camps, vice minister for climate change and sustainability, in a talk with this reporter at her office. “We are just trying to protect natural resources. We live off tourism. We need to protect our natural resources. It has benefits for our ecosystem. We are raising public awareness and setting a price on our natural capital — the forests — that will increase our gross domestic product.
“We are sensitizing our citizens about how the environment provides a better quality of life,” she continues. “But in a developing country, the people are most concerned about health and education. While climate change is not one of the top concerns, our people are seeing the side effects of it: Fiona’s destruction, the amount of sargassum on the beaches, and the level of beach erosion occurring.”
The Dominican Republic values its rainforest and aims to expand its presence to fight climate change and promote prosperity. Commercial activity such as timbering is well-planned. In the long run, more trees mean abundant water supplies and the ability to capture even more carbon, providing the credits and money to fix pervasive problems and build ecotourism centers. The rainforests are a national treasure — an economic magnet that empowers the island.
Editor’s Note: This story is the first of a two-part series on the island of the Dominican Republic. The second, to appear next week, examines the island’s shift to renewable energies — to help it comply with the Paris climate agreement.
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