The island of Hispaniola—made up of Haiti and the Dominican Republic (DR)—is widely recognized as one of the most important “hotspots” for biological diversity on the planet. However, it is currently suffering large-scale habitat loss and deforestation, in large measure because of charcoal production and unsustainable agriculture.

Death by a Thousand Cuts, documents the illegal charcoal trafficking from the forests of the Dominican Republic to the urban markets of Haiti, and how the conflict over the island’s remaining natural resources could potentially end in violence. Over five years, we witnessed the forests of the Sierra de Bahoruco—the Dominican national park on the border of Haiti—slowly disappear. In our journey following the charcoal trail, we explored the complex factors that drive what has become a very lucrative, but destructive industry.

In Haiti—where dangerously low levels of forest cover have degraded natural resources—charcoal made from trees is the primary source for cooking fuel. With no viable fuel alternative and limited trees with which to meet its charcoal demand, Haiti has become increasingly dependent on charcoal produced in the Dominican Republic—which has significantly more forest cover. Charcoal producers find remote parcels of forest in the DR, clear vast quantities of trees to make charcoal ovens, and then smuggle the product back to Haiti in sacks for sale.

The simple narrative is that desperately poor Haitians have turned to the Dominican forests for their livelihood. However, during our investigation we quickly found this picture, while not fully inaccurate, was definitely incomplete. It is not simply desperately poor Haitians cutting down Dominican trees to make out a livelihood. Many of the largest charcoal smuggling operations on Hispaniola were actually facilitated by, paid for, and directly benefitted Dominicans that controlled its production.

In the lowlands surrounding Lake Enriquillo and north of the Sierra de Bahoruco, both Dominican and Haitian charcoal producers worked for wealthier Dominican merchants. The merchants not only controlled charcoal production along the border area, but at times managed to acquired permits from the Dominican government, further complicating the situation. The different degrees of corruption in the increasing deforestation occurring along the border became more and more clear to us.

The risks of continued deforestation for both countries of Hispaniola are significant. Haiti is ranked as one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change, and it’s susceptibility to flooding, droughts, hurricanes, earthquakes, and landslides threaten to extend to its closest neighbor, the Dominican Republic.

While it is still not too late to save important habitats across the island, it will require a long-term, comprehensive approach be put in place. As long as the demand for charcoal is so vast and the poverty of rural populations on both sides of the island so pervasive, stricter enforcement of forestry laws and “ecological” charcoal substitutes alone are not enough to address the escalating deforestation. A comprehensive solution requires a collaborative Dominican-Haitian approach that recognizes that deforestation will have dire consequences for the entire island.

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