As I signed up for the FLIP (Faculty lead International Placement) program I had no idea what to expect. Would we be working with grassroots trailblazers? Perhaps we would be focusing more on the economic history of the area. Maybe we would be working to share the message of living a greener and cleaner life! Everyone said it would change the way I look at the world but it was hard to believe. Taking off into Canadian skies, I felt excited and nervous about the adventure I was about to embark on.
We landed in Puerto Plata, a city hosting the first port ever created by Christopher Columbus in the Dominican Republic and soon learned that part of our job was to keep our eyes open to notice the assets available in each community. This was to come up with ways to engage tourists, that recently began returning to Puerto Plata on cruise ships, in a sustainable way. The point was to step away from walled-off resorts and cruise ship routines enough to take in the beautiful communities that surrounded the port, support the local economy and take home an unforgettable and changing experience.
We visited many budding experiences with fresh eyes and eager hearts. We visited a backyard mine owned by a local family where chunks of amber were extracted from the ground and made into jewellery. We visited a beautiful and warm family that owned a coffee plantation up in the mountains. We experienced how coffee beans travel from the tree to the cup and clapped along to a diddy they sang while grinding freshly roasted coffee beans (which smell amazing by the way). We scaled mountains and slunk through rivers examining prospective tourism opportunities and enjoyed the breathtaking view.
It all seemed so beautiful, tranquil and new but we learned that Puerto Plata was actually recovering from a difficult past. Puerto Plata was well known for being a major port, tourism hotspot and coffee-growing region which attracted attention from around the globe. In the 1980s, coffee leaf rust, a global disease that had been spreading, killed 80% of the coffee trees in the area and its economy took a devastating hit. This caused farmers to begin deforestation in an attempt to rid the mountainside of these diseased coffee trees and pick up cattle farming instead. Large expanses of grass replaced lush shaded coffee forests and in turn, less rainfall was able to trickle through the mountainside gound into the riverways. Because of this, Yasica river, a large river flowing through the area lost 50% of its water flow over the course of twenty years.
It took a while to get my head around that one. I’ve heard of cause and effect. I’ve learned in class how everything is connected but I haven’t seen it like this. To think that what would seem like an opportunistic moment (beginning a cattle farm) could become so devastating (drying up a major river) was beyond anything I could imagine! This trip wasn’t about one person, one project, one town… it was about realizing how everything is intertwined and connected and how every part of the economy is part of a fine intricate web.
I walked into this program expecting to help a few people or work together on a project that needed extra workers on the job but I was so mistaken. Although we did meet beautiful people, listened to excellent music, experienced amazing food and shared incredible conversation about the Dominican Republic, this was about increasing the health of communities through something as small as tourists planting little coffee tree seeds and placing them in a nursery. A task that took a few minutes out of the day and meant to appease bored vacationers, created a whole opportunity to impact the entirety of Puerto Plata. If the coffee trees can be given to farmers, they can plant those trees and the forests surrounding, protecting those trees will return. If the forests return, the roots that hold those forests will hold more heavy rain and allow the waters to trickle through the ground and replenish the rivers. If the waters are going into the river, there is less runoff and flooding of towns will lessen and people can build their communities with more security. The impact is tremendous!
Everything is connected whether we see it or not. This just so happened to be a more dramatic situation in which I could spend one week with the right people and see the big picture but life isn’t like that and many communities aren’t either. It’s important for us to realize that. I went from feeling so confident in participating in this program to being humbled and dumbfounded by how big the impact of each activity is. I feel that I need to learn, now more than ever, about how those interconnections work and how I can be an advocate for positive change. As a community development worker, I would like to carry this experience into every project I work on. Not only is this applicable in community development work but it’s applicable to all areas of life. I would like to remember that all things are connected, whether I see it right away or not, and work towards healthy connectivity between those aspects.