Paradise lost: Dominicans adapt to growing climate change threat

Flooding, ocean acidification and beach erosion among challenges faced by Caribbean nation

This is the second installment of a two-part series on environmental activism in the Dominican Republic. The first part investigated actions taken by conservationists opposed to a planned nickel mine at Loma Miranda, a mountain with a unique ecosystem that provides water for the entire region.

MANZANILLO BAY, Dominican Republic — Rocky Antonio Cabrera steps into a small fishing boat as another fisherman yanks on the starter cord bringing the motor to life.

As the boat glides through thick mangroves in Manzanillo Bay, part of a national park in northwest Dominican Republic near the border with Haiti, Cabrera comments on high winds that arrived a month early this year — a change he blames on the impact of global warming on weather patterns.

Jesús Belliard, another local fisherman, sits at the back of the boat and checks his fishing line. Nothing. As he throws the hook back in the clear water, he points to the nearby shore, where small buildings stood half submerged in the water.

“The sea level rise is obvious. Places that had been dry are now underwater,” he said.

Manzanillo Bay is home to almost half of the mangrove forests in the Dominican Republic, and these fishermen aim to protect them and the ecosystem they help flourish. Mangroves store carbon, perhaps even better than traditional forests, according to recent research.

That’s important because carbon storage, or sequestration, can be used to slow global warming — and the Dominican Republic will be among the worst hit by the effects of climate change, according to the Global Climate Risk Index 2014.

The bay’s mangroves, which are a nursery for juvenile fish, also provide protection against storms and floods which are expected to become increasingly severe because of climate change.

As global warming begins to take hold in the Caribbean, it is more important than ever to protect the plants and animals that can slow its effects, the fishermen said.

And the Dominican Republic is taking climate change seriously, from grass-roots organizing among fishermen in a remote area of the country’s frontier, to government actions aimed at adapting to a warmer world. Pilot projects underway here could be used as examples of climate adaptation as other vulnerable Caribbean countries begin to feel the effects of global warming.

Dominican fisherman Jesús Belliard in Manzanillo Bay, Jan. 5, 2015.

Cabrera and Belliard belong to a local group working to protect the bay and its unique ecosystem. They know that climate change has lead to warmer ocean temperatures and ocean acidification — a killer for coral reefs that, like mangroves, provide sanctuary for smaller fish.

Without protection from the mangroves, the fish would be less likely to reach maturity and reproduce, leading to a smaller population for the men to fish. As marine life faces added stresses from the effects of climate change at Manzanillo Bay, the fishermen said the introduction of sustainable fishing practices is more important than ever.

Manzanillo Bay is home to a variety of commercial fish, including crustaceans, barracuda, snapper and grouper. Many species use the shallow waters as spawning grounds to lay eggs and raise their young. Without it, many fish would not reach maturity — threatening future generations and fishermen's bottom line.

“This is a really precious area and these are the fishermen protecting it,” Frederick Payton, executive director of AgroFrontera, a small NGO that works with farmers and fishermen to expand their businesses in an eco-friendly way. AgroFrontera has partnered with the association of fishermen at Manzanillo Bay to advise them in market-based, sustainable fishing practices.

The bay faces many threats, including fertilizer and chemical runoff from Dominican rice fields that drain into the bay on the border with Haiti and overfishing because of the introduction of the industrial fishing model, Payton said. As fish numbers decline, it puts pressure on local fishermen and the ecosystem.

“When I was a boy, I’d swim under the dock at the port here and find 20 or 25 pounds of fish, but those days are gone,” Belliard said.

Cabrera and Belliard hope to convince other Dominican fishermen to put a stop to destructive practices like dragnet fishing — in which large nets are dragged across the bottom of the bay, wiping out small fish, eggs and their habitat, seagrass. Instead, they recommend hook-and-line fishing, spear diving, trapping and mariculture practices including raising rish stocks in enclosed sections of the bay.

“If we benefit from nature’s abundance, we have to protect it so she can be abundant,” Cabrera said. The fishermen said they hope to educate the youth on the environmental benefits life in the bay provides — like mangroves sequestering carbon and parrotfish keeping the coral reefs healthy — so that the next generation will understand why they should continue to protect it.

The bright and colorful parrotfish is one species at risk of overexploitation, Cabrera said. They are caught largely to be sold as aquarium fish, but the parrotfish is not just an eye-catching pet; it is vital to coral reef health.

The fish eats algae off the reefs — which are threatened by ocean acidification, a side effect of climate change, which leads to coral bleaching and death. Parrotfish excrete their waste as sand and can produce up to 200 pounds in a year — an environmental service that has become even more important as rising sea levels erode Dominican beaches.

Beach restoration in progress in Cabarete, circa 1990. (Courtesy of Ian Wilson)

Though the fishermen’s efforts are new, the Dominican Republic has decades of experience in dealing with coastal erosion — one of the earliest and most dramatic effects of rising sea levels caused by climate change.

That's because an undersea earthquake struck off the coast of nearby Puerto Rico in 1991, leading to beach erosion in Cabarete, a popular tourist destination on the northwest coast.

“The seaquake brought incredible waves and opened up a channel here and allowed a lot of the current to come in,” said Udo Jansen, a part-owner of Agualina Kite Resort and a 27-year resident of Cabarete. “The current was so strong that the sand didn’t stay in the bay anymore.”

Although this erosion was caused by a natural disaster, the World Bank has called coastal erosion in the Caribbean a “grave challenge” that will continue to worsen as global temperatures rise. Some countries, like St. Lucia, have been especially hard hit — losing at least 59 feet of beach over the past decade, according to the World Bank.

Cabarete, an idyllic coastal town, relies on the beach, which draws hundreds of tourists and even more kite surfers. After an outcry from local business owners, the government embarked on a massive sand replacement scheme. Heavy machinery filled Cabarete’s beach.

Cabarete’s Velero Beach Resort has been forced to take action in order to preserve what is left of its beach. Large concrete blocks attempt to deflect the strong current that entered the bay right in front of the hotel. Piled-up sandbags mounted a final defense against the rising seas. 

The earthquake disturbed the channel in front of Velero, Jansen said, allowing strong currents to enter the bay and erode its beaches. The rebuilt beach continued to be threatened by the strong current created by the quake.

Ian Wilson, a Canadian civil engineer and part-time Cabarete resident, said, “Seven or eight years ago, they had another huge project ... and they parked a great big freighter [in the bay] filled with sand, and they had a pipe run all the way to the coast and started filling the beach all the way around,” he said.

The move succeeded in raising the beach about a meter, he added. “People said it would last five years, and they were right. It’s all gone by now,” he said. The beach around the corner from Velero has all but disappeared. In an effort to help, Wilson said he had contacted some friends in Florida, which is also threatened by coastal erosion, to see if they had had any success in preserving their beaches.

Among their suggestions were reef balls — setting up artificial reefs that allow coral to regrow so that they can provide a buffer against storm surges. They also suggested geotubing, a method in which sediment-filled tubes are placed along the original shoreline to provide a barrier against erosion. 

The experience rebuilding Cabarete’s beach will likely be used in future projects around the country as coastal erosion continues to worsen, sweeping Dominican beaches out to sea. 

Sugeyri Martinez, who was born in La Barquita, said the area floods several times a year, on Jan. 3, 2015.

It’s not only the Dominican Republic’s picturesque beaches that are threatened by rising sea levels. The capital, Santo Domingo, will be among the five cities in the world most affected by rising sea levels, according to current predictions. 

The city’s poorest residents will be most vulnerable to flooding from storm surges and rain fueled by warmer temperatures. Some people who live in one of Santo Domingo’s poorest slums know the risks all too well.

Their neighborhood, La Barquita, which lies along the banks of the Ozama River, already floods three or four times a year because of heavy rains and storm surges, which are expected to worsen as global temperatures rise — adding fuel to tropical storms. In response, an ambitious government-sponsored climate adaptation project aims to relocate the neighborhood's most vulnerable families to higher ground.

“In the last bad flood, the waters reached as high as our rooftops,” Sugeyri Martinez, a lifelong resident of La Barquita said. 

“Everything was destroyed,” Martinez said, standing in the midst of a maze of metal shacks characteristic of her impoverished neighborhood which cascades down a hillside to the river's floodplain. Residents have built homes all the way to the edge of the river. Signs dotting La Barquita read “Evacuation route,” and point uphill.

“When the floodwaters rise, the neighborhood mobilizes, and someone with a megaphone will tell everyone to get to higher ground,” Martinez said. Residents living farther up the hill often take in those forced to flee during the floods, said Eridania Rosario Marcelo, the president of La Barquita's neighborhood association.

“There is a lot of solidarity here,” Marcelo told Al Jazeera as she sat in an improvised restaurant called Comedor Nueva Barquita (New Barquita Kitchen). It is near the construction site for La Nueva Barquita, which is expected to be finished in several months, Marcelo said. The new city will include a high school, clinic, church, commercial center and several-story-tall apartment buildings. 

The success or failure of this pilot project, along with other actions taken across the country, will be instrumental because they could serve as examples for other countries in the region when the effects of climate change appear in their communities.

Though Manzanillo’s fishermen aim to use sustainable practices to combat the effects of climate change, protecting the bay also stems from a more urgent threat: hunger.

“As God as my witness, we’re very protective of the flora and fauna, because that’s how my family eats, through this natural stewardship,” Cabrera said.

“We are not engineers or reporters. We are fishermen.”

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