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This is first installment of a two-part series on environmental activism in the Dominican Republic. The second will explore actions taken by communities, businesses and government for climate adaptation.
ALGARROBOS, Dominican Republic — “This is no longer a local fight, but a fight for the life of this country as a whole,” said Tony Sánchez, referring to Loma Miranda, a mountain in central Dominican Republic that activists say is threatened by mining.
Sánchez, a trade union member, sits in a camp at the base of Loma Miranda with about a dozen other activists, including scientists, professors, clergymen and youths. Together, they are organizing a movement to oppose the mountain’s nickel excavation, a government plan the group says would result in irreparable environmental harm.
Loma Miranda, covering about 16 square miles, is home to a unique environment that contains much of the Dominican Republic's biodiversity, as well as dozens of springs, creeks and rivers that provide fresh water to the region.
“It is one of the most important mountain systems in the Dominican Republic,” said Victor Medrano of the Ecological Society of Cibao. “It produces enough water to provide to the surrounding communities irrigation for the entire region and hydroelectric power.”
Escalín Gutiérrez of Agua y Vida, an NGO focused on water rights, called Loma Miranda a "water mine," underscoring activists' contention that the water supply is too valuable to the country to risk polluting.
In June 2014, after news of the government’s plans to break ground on a nickel mine at Loma Miranda, more than 1,500 protesters gathered at the mountain to voice their opposition. Activists mounted other protests across the country, demanding that the mountain not be touched.
To appease protesters, the country’s Senate passed a bill in August to designate Loma Miranda a national park, effectively shielding it from mining companies. However, President Danilo Medina rejected the bill on the grounds that it violated the constitution and harmed the country’s investment interests.
Medina cited article 17 of the constitution — interpreting its statement that natural resources “can be” exploited to satisfy the country’s business interests to mean that they “must be” utilized for that purpose, said Sánchez.
Refusing to back down, activists established a permanent camp at Loma Miranda, from which they have launched a national movement to protect the mountain and founded the headquarters of a future national park.
“By the people’s decision, Loma Miranda is already a national park, and we’re here to defend it,” Sánchez said.
In fact, more than 80 percent of Dominicans support a mining ban at the mountain, according to a 2013 Gallup poll published in the paper Hoy.
‘New form of colonialism’
Medina has said that his veto of the Senate bill to designate Loma Miranda a national park does not amount to approval for mining companies to break ground on the mountain. However, government policies encouraging foreign investment in the country’s natural resources, coupled with what activists say is a history of advancing mining projects against the people’s will, lead many Dominicans to believe that mining at Loma Miranda is imminent.
Their fears may not be unfounded. Peter Fuchs, a spokesman for Swiss-based mining company Glencore — whose Dominican branch is Falcondo — told Al Jazeera that his firm is carrying out environmental studies ordered by the Ministry of Environment to identify any potential effects that mining could have on Loma Miranda.
The firm, however, has not yet been granted approval to launch a mining operation. "There is no current exploration or mining activity at Loma Miranda, but the resource has been previously explored and defined," said Fuchs. Glencore, he added, has been mining in the Dominican Republic since 1971 and is "committed to maintaining the highest levels of environmental standards."
Activists point to the study as proof of the government’s plans to disregard the people’s wishes.
“It’s a new form of colonialism … The government is in service of international corporations,” said Rafael Jiménez Abad, a Loma Miranda camp leader and university professor. “Our fight is about life or death. It’s capitalism versus nature.”
Activists said they have already faced intimidation by security forces periodically stationed at the camp’s entrance and by unidentified groups of armed men. Rubén Darío García, another camp leader, told of one night when — after days of hearing gunshots in the nearby woods — more than 40 armed men arrived at the camp’s entrance threatening the activists’ lives.
If not for the support of local residents, including an all-female self-defense group that arrived to protect the activists, the camp “might not be here today,” he said. The activists still don’t know for sure who the armed men were, but he believes they were locals who support the mining project, lured by promises of jobs and wealth.
While it’s possible that they might return, the activists and their supporters remain resolute in their mission to protect the mountain. Doña Carmen, a local resident who boasted that she was born on Loma Miranda, vowed to continue supporting the activists. “I’m not afraid,” said Carmen, 75, who has been dubbed the “camp grandmother.”
If the beauty and clean water of Loma Miranda is the before of mining projects in the Dominican Republic, Cotui, a town just an hour away in the Sánchez Ramírez province, is the after.
A red-tinged and shrunken waterway welcomes visitors to Cotuí. It once supplied fresh water to residents. “The animals already knew,” said Mayobanex Arias, a rancher walking his cattle across a bridge over the river. “They would test the water, then not drink it.”
State-owned Rosario Dominicana abandoned Cotuí’s mine 15 years ago, only for it to be reopened by Canadian-based Barrick Gold. While locals blame the firms for the town’s environmental degradation, both deny responsibility.
"Barrick Pueblo Viejo has been undertaking a massive cleanup of this contamination since taking over the property,” said company spokesman Andy Lloyd. “The difference in the quality of water is like night and day."
Officials from the Ministry of Environment did not respond to Al Jazeera's request for comment.
Residents said they don't know who is responsible for the degradation but feel helpless. “Everything is polluted,” said Alejandro Jiménez, a Cotuí rancher. “We have to buy our water now. People used to drink it from the rivers, but after the mine, we can’t anymore.”
Local resident María de la Cruz Mariano said attempts by Barrick Gold to clean up after Rosario Dominicana may have stirred up and exposed contaminated soil, which she believes caused her to fall ill in 2009. Mariano has cyanide in her bloodstream, along with sulfur and lead. Her symptoms include joint pain, “enormous” headaches, weakness, skin irritation and eye irritation.
“I used to put my hand over my nose when I passed,” said Mariano, who lives less than a mile from the mine. “The doctor said I should be in a wheelchair with everything they found in my blood. Lots of people have died here, 27 or so. There is a man here in the community making a list of deaths, Ludovino Hernández, who is also sick.”
Other area residents say they suffer from similar symptoms. The news website Dominican Today tested several of Mariano's neighbors, finding they all had cyanide in their blood and urine. Experts said that the levels seen in Cotuí residents meant they absorbed it through drinking contaminated water or through respiration.
It’s a glum future the activists at Loma Miranda hope to avoid.
"These mining companies must be some kind of stupid," said Darío García. "It's like they live in outer space and don't need the water or the land anymore."