A Grass Roots Development Study
Four years ago, we first started visiting the small fishing village of Punta Rucia. As time went by, we started meeting local people there, or they started recognizing us and slowly we became more involved in this small community and the surrounding village of Estero Hondo. Our first helping hand in the community was to assist and help the Landowners Association title their lands, a process which is ongoing today.
Some years ago, in a conversation with the President of the ‘Cooperative de Pesacadores y Afines’ and government appointed Biodiversity officer for the area, the idea of working with this village to create an ecologically sustainable living space and a model for true eco tourism was born. Someone in the conversation had the wisdom to draw an analogy between the fishing resources, and a farm. He explained that the bay, where the community harvests over 80% of their daily food, is like a farm. On a farm, one does not pick the green fruit; you wait for it to become ripe and fully grown and you replant every season. The ocean, as a food resource, requires similar management to keep it sustainable, healthy and producing.
A light went on in the eyes of the audience and one statement from that day remains in my mind: “Our fish are being depleted and we are not managing our fishing grounds and resources properly. We are sinking into poverty. The only hope we have is to sell our lands, unless we can think of other solutions. But we do not have the education, the resources or the vision as to what can be accomplished to save our fishing grounds and our lands.”
This presented a clear and honest problem statement, coming from the community itself! I left this gathering with a firm resolve to bring the resources and the community together – and to do it in the form of a model where others could perhaps learn from our process.
An Exercise in Patience
Talking to the community leaders about doing something in that community proved to be an exercise in patience. Two years and many meetings went by. Meetings where we became like broken records: Sustainability, not quick profits! Transparency, not hijacking resources meant for a specific development ending up in the pockets of the community leaders. Just as I was giving up hope, in November 2005, the community leaders finally showed that they were now starting to understand what sustainable development is and indicated that they will work with us in a transparent manner.
Remarkably in this process, we came across something which I term the ‘legacy of charity.’ Initially the community leaders took a position that work will be done by someone from the outside, we will get good press and perhaps the community will benefit. Of course, they would personally benefit by being paid for the correct permissions and the correct approvals where-ever these were needed. This is generally the way things are done here in the DR. It took time, much perseverance, convincing and discussion, and much simply ‘sticking to our guns’, until joint understanding was reached.
This was a major shift. If anyone asked me today what the single aspect of this 2-year long process was that eventually brought about a shift, I have to say a focused message, perseverance, education and developing trust in our involvement in the community.
Initially the community leaders were unprepared for the concept of a community driven project, where the community sets the priorities and takes an active part in solving problems and working towards goals and priorities. We were quite taken aback by this stance, but soon learnt to simply continue to explain, educate and talk, each time with supporting information substantiating the vision. Over a period of time, this process established trust.
The major lesson for us here is: don’t move too fast and lose the community involvement in the process. Community decision-making takes time, the pace is different, it is not the same as setting priorities and taking actions as one would do in managing a business.
The Prevailing Wisdom - One Growing Season Only!
We experienced many frustrating and also funny moments during this period. Our attorney wanted to know what we meant by experimenting with a new tropical crop for the Dominican Republic, to perhaps move away from the monoculture and globalization model of bananas and pineapples. On finding out that we may be talking of crops that would take 3 to 5 years to mature to first fruit, he literally rolled around laughing. “Three to five years, he crowed, in the Dominican Republic? Never! It is not possible”, he said. “Don’t ever plan on anything that takes longer than one growing season in the DR. The people will never understand it.”
This reminded me of a paragraph from Jared Diamond’s book Collapse. How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. In speaking about ‘One-Liner environmental objections’, he talks about this one ..: “If those environmental problems become desperate, it will be at some time far off in the future, after I die, and I can’t take them seriously.” Diamond then goes on to say that each of the dozen or so major environmental problems currently, will become acute within the lifetime of young adults now alive. “Most of us who have children consider the securing of our children’s future as the highest priority to which to devote our time and money. It makes no sense for us to do these things ….while simultaneously doing things undermining the world in which our children will be living 50 years from now.”
It seems as if we need to collectively and ecologically start planning and working for longer than one growing season.
We were now at Point Go with the support of the community leaders. The next blog will focus on the process of finding out what we collectively have to work with, what we need and how to take the first steps.