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Los Cerezos by the Numbers

Photo: Commerce in the campo! The interior of a country store in Los Cerezos.

The Tree Bank’s first “Information Harvest” has finally come in! Last March, for the first time, we surveyed all of the farmers in the Tree Bank Hispaniola program, to gather uniform data on their households and farms. We have now organized their responses, and I attempt an interpretive summary below.

The Tree Bank Hispaniola works along part of the Dominican Republic / Haiti border, on the Dominican side, to conserve native forest and improve the incomes of the region’s small-holder farmers. For a description of the program, visit the Tree Bank page.

Why We Did This Survey

The Tree Bank was founded in 2006. As the program has grown, so has our interest in measuring its results. We also want to deepen our understanding of the context in which we’re working. More information will help us improve the program, and make sure that we’re not missing important but hidden opportunities.

Periodic surveys should be an effective way to collect much of the information that we need. We hope to conduct one or two surveys a year. Each survey will ask farmers about different topics, or about the same topics from different perspectives, and each will try to extend what we have learned from previous surveys.

In addition to furnishing information, we want the surveys to serve a social purpose. We want to recruit farmers into gathering project data — not all of it, but a substantial share. In the process, we hope, the farmers will begin to create a new role for themselves, as “informal experts” on their farms and forests.

The full results of this first survey are available as a set of spreadsheets in the “Learn More” section of the Tree Bank page. (We have omitted only personal names.) A blank pdf of the survey form is also posted there.

Our Technique

Answers were obtained through interviews conducted by one of our colleagues, Marina Guzman Berihuete. Marina comes from Haiti but she is a resident of Los Cerezos; she is also one of the Tree Bank’s member farmers. Marina’s role was essential because some of our respondents are illiterate and would not have been able to complete the forms on their own. And Marina is a very efficient and thorough note-taker, so I’m confident that we got a much better result through her interviews than we otherwise would have managed. The respondents were paid 1,000 Dominican pesos for their participation. (That’s about $23 by the usual reckoning; I discuss exchange rates below.) As with most surveys, not everyone answered every question.

Forty-six people responded to our survey; each respondent did so on behalf of his or her entire family. At the time, those 46 families accounted for the entire membership of our partner association, the Asociación de Productores de Bosque, Los Cerezos. Los Cerezos is the jurisdiction where the Tree Bank is based. It’s a little section of the Dominican province of Dajabón.

What We Asked, and What They Said

The survey was three pages long. It asked questions about the families; for example, we asked about education, income, health, and diet. It also asked about the farms; we wanted to know about the size of the farms, about farm labor, and about livestock and crops. We did not ask specifically about Tree Bank programs, although all of this information is relevant to the Tree Bank in one way or another.

We began with some basic questions about family composition and location. Here is what we learned.

Our 46 respondents varied in age from 26 to 81; their average age was 54.5. Thirty-five (76%) are married or living with a partner, and 41 (89%) live in Los Cerezos. Among those who do not, four live 10 miles away in Loma de Cabrera, the nearest large town. (That’s 10 miles by road, not by straight line.) The other respondent lives 23 miles away, in the city of Dajabón. (The population of Dajabón was given as 28,071 in the 2010 Dominican census; that of Loma was 15,624.) Some farmers tell me that Loma is gaining population at the expense of the countryside.

All but two (96%) of our respondents had children, who ranged in age from three months to 57 years. (Forgive the peculiar use of the term “children” to refer to middle-aged people! By “child” I mean a first-generation descendant.) The average number of children in a family was 4.5 and the total number of children was 207. Of the 148 adult children (children at least 20 years old), 112 (76%) had moved away from Los Cerezos; nearly all of these people live in cities or towns, not elsewhere in the countryside. Another 44 relatives — mostly grandchildren, adoptees, and elderly relatives — were living in these households. All told, the families included 332 people. Average family size was 7.2 people. Average on-farm family size was 4.4 people. On-farm family size is a useful number because it excludes adult children who have moved away and are living independent lives.

Among the adult children, 53 (36%) had only a primary school education; 49 (33%) had at least some education at the secondary-school level, and 43 (29%) had at least some university education. (We’re missing school information for three adult children.) Public education in the DR is free through secondary school. At the university level, public education is available through the Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo, the DR’s sole public university; there are branches in cities throughout the country. Tuition is free but students must buy their own course materials and pay for their own transportation. (Of course, there are also private schools and universities for students who can afford the tuition.) I don’t know what instruction is like at the public university, but, to be blunt, what I have seen of the primary and secondary levels does not compare favorably with American schools — even weak ones.

The employment picture was discouraging. Among the adult children, 67 (45%) were unemployed. Among those who were working, the most common kinds of employment were: working on the family farm (20 respondents or 14%), various jobs in the DR’s “zonas francas” (free trade zones; 15 or 10%), school-related employment (11 or 7%), driving a taxi or some other type of vehicle (8 or 5%), and military service (6 or 4%). Very few of these jobs would be full-time by US standards.

We asked about health problems. By far the most commonly cited was hypertension; 21 respondents (46%) said that someone in their family suffered from high blood pressure. Next came hernias and spine trouble (each reported by 6 respondents, or 13%), osteoporosis (5 or 11%), and then a miscellany of ills to which the human organism is subject, ranging in severity from bad hearing to HIV/AIDS and cancer (one respondent each). Three respondents (7%) reported mental health problems in their families.

Diets are monotonous — a feature of local life that we already knew well. When asked what foods the family eats most frequently, virtually everyone listed rice and beans — and nine respondents (20%) listed only rice and beans. The most frequently cited addition to the menu was the starchy tropical root-crop cassava, known in the DR as “yuca.” It was mentioned by 17 respondents (37%) and is indeed an almost inescapable addition to the local plate. Following that came eggs and pasta (each cited by 11 respondents or 24%), and then unspecified “meat” (nine respondents or 20%), and bananas (seven or 15%).

We asked how many times per week the family consumed animal-derived protein — meat, milk, or eggs. Responses ranged from once to seven times (meaning every day). The average was three times. We didn’t ask about junk food but maybe we should have. For example, one minor but ubiquitous component of the local diet are these little hard candies that people call “mentas” (mints). Nearly all children can be found sucking on these things at one time of the day or another — even very young children. The implications for dental health can’t be good. Some of our older farmers have very few teeth left; we think that at least one of them is undernourished because he has such difficulty eating.

Next, the Stuff of Life

We asked about some key possessions — things that families usually buy as soon as they can afford to do so.

Fourteen families (30%) owned a motorcycle, the standard means of travel in the rural DR. Twenty-nine families (63%) didn’t own one, and three (7%) owned more than one. (We didn’t ask but can report that there are only two or three households in our region that own a car or truck.)

Thirty-seven families (80%) had a cement floor in at least one cabin. (Dominican country homes often consist of a cluster of several cabins, rather than just one building.) In a dirt-poor, dirt-floor community, cement has transformative potential. A cement floor permits clean feet, at least periodically, and that reduces the risk of hookworm infection. Your children stay clean, or cleaner, for longer than 10 minutes after bathing them. Your furniture is less likely to rot and you can store things more easily. The floor is no longer a different world from table-top and bed. But cement is heavy, so it costs a lot to transport, and you have to pay someone to install it. It’s expensive, so it’s not something available to the poorer members of the community.

Twenty seven households (59%) had a solar panel when we did the survey. Solar panels were rare in the region when we started the Tree Bank in 2006; today they are common. The usual set-up is a single panel installed on a cabin roof and hooked up to a car or truck battery, which is then hooked up to an inverter. The inverter converts the direct current flowing from the panel to the alternating current that most household devices use. This set-up is good for lighting, for playing radios at ear-splitting volume, often just after sunrise, and for recharging cell phones. Families without solar often recharge their phones in the homes of better equipped families. Car-battery solar is not powerful enough to run appliances.

Solar reached Los Cerezos in the mid-2000s; the grid arrived about a decade later. In January of this year, an electric line was run up from Loma. To connect to the grid, a family has to pay to run a wire from the main line, pay for a meter on the house, and, of course, pay a monthly electricity bill. The cost is manageable for families living near the main road, where the electric line runs. These households are now mostly connected, but the grid option is less attractive for more remote locations.

The arrival of the grid is rearranging the local energy economy, but perhaps not in ways conducive to cleaner power. Many grid-connected households are selling their solar panels. I’ve been told that the old panels are usually resold in Tirolí, a local market town that straddles the border. The buyers are usually Haitians, who take the panels into Haiti, either for their own use or to sell again.

Another change wrought by the grid: the arrival of refrigeration. When we did the survey, no households in our region had refrigerators; now many grid-connected households have them. (We don’t know how many; perhaps that’s a question for a later survey.) The refrigerators have created a little local market for ice. Refrigerator-equipped households are selling pedestrians and motorcyclists plastic bags of ice, to temper the afternoon heat — and to bring home if they don’t live too far away! The going price is 5 pesos (about 12 cents) a bag. Of greater interest to the foreign visitor: for the first time ever, cold beverages are now available in the local country stores.

We asked a lot of questions about water. Unfortunately, we flubbed our question about water sources; we didn’t use the standard local terms, so people weren’t sure how to answer. But a little post-survey investigation allowed me to make approximate sense of the responses. It seems that about 35 households (76%) got their water from the two “acueductos” that serve the area. The aqueducts are networks of pipes — mostly flimsy PVC pipes — that run from two little dams in mountain streams above Los Cerezos. Our Tree Bank Nature Reserve was established, in part, to protect the stream that is the larger aqueduct’s source. In addition to serving most of the households that get their water from a pipe, this aqueduct also serves the Tree Bank Nursery and the primary school adjacent the nursery. Our Reserve includes about half of the stream’s headwater drainage, enough to keep the stream flowing except during periods of extended drought.

The aqueducts themselves are not so well protected. The main pipe of the larger aqueduct runs along a dirt road that sees the usual forms of local traffic: pedestrians, motorcyclists, cattle, and donkeys. But every once in a while, a logging truck passes through and crushes a section of pipe, which puts the entire aqueduct out of commission. We are funding a fitful effort to replace the PVC pipes with metal ones. I’m told that our metal pipes are steel and that they are safe for drinking-water. (It did occur to us to check!)

The few households not served by the aqueducts must haul their water from a stream. The region is a geologic crumple of ridges and valleys, so streams are never far away. Even so, fetching water is a major production. The usual technique is to strap a miscellaneous collection of used containers onto a motorcycle, ride down to a stretch of road that is as close to a stream as you can get, fill the containers, strap them back onto the bike, then putter back uphill to the house. The water is usually stored in a tank — a plastic 55-gallon drum or something similar — near one of the family cabins.

Thirteen households (28%) owned a shower. Showers need running water, of course, so they are only built by households with access to the aqueduct (or an urban water supply, in the case of our five town dwellers). The showers are outside the cabins; most are enclosures somewhat larger than outhouses. Three sides of a shower are sheets of corrugated metal; the fourth is a shower curtain or tarp. A pipe rises from the cement floor to a nozzle improvised from whatever hardware was handy, plus rubber strips wrapped around the pipe end. The nozzle is often lower than you would like. Turn the valve and you are subjected to a splattering stream of water so cold that your first contact with it erases the memory of an entire day’s worth of sticky heat. Washing yourself while enduring this level of thermal insult takes practice. The no-shower option is a trek to the nearest stream. Very steep paths, spiny vegetation, manure, and slippery rocks make this option much less idyllic than it sounds.

Twenty households (43%) regularly use a water filter. These filters are containers made of concrete or plastic with a thick layer of sand in the bottom. Untreated water is poured into the top and filtered water is drawn out from a tap at the bottom. The sand captures random crud, but its main purpose is to exclude water-borne intestinal parasites, like giardia, amoebas that can cause dysentery, and worms. Intestinal worms are among the most common health complaints in the region, especially among children.

We also asked about guns. Only two households reported ownership of a firearm, but we know from direct observation that many men have pistols. Perhaps most of them do. The possibility of theft is a cause of pervasive anxiety in the campo. There are no police in Los Cerezos — the Loma police force has jurisdiction, but if you want the police to investigate something, you have to “pay” them to come out. The local approach to law and order is some shifting, not-quite-definable mixture of custom and the threat of violence. The low weapons count in our survey is easily explained: it’s legal to own a gun in the DR but you’re supposed to have a permit and pay an annual fee of 5,000 pesos. That’s about $115 — far too much for most rural family budgets. I’m told that most guns in our region are purchased illegally from dealers who smuggle guns in from Haiti. Not something that people would be inclined to report.

Farm Basics

This first questionnaire went heavier on the families than on the farms, but we did gather some basic information on the latter.

At least 36 households (82%) owned multiple parcels of land — the typical scenario in the Dominican campo. (Two respondents did not specify the number of parcels that they owned, so the percentage here is reckoned from 44 rather than 46.) Total farm size ranged from 3 to 311 acres and averaged 31 acres. The median size was 16 acres. (For “average” and “median,” see the next paragraph.) The largest farm, which is mainly a cattle operation, is four times the size of the second-largest. (For the farm size figures, I’m reckoning from 45 respondents.)

For people whose math is no better than my own, here’s a quick review of the difference between the average, or mean, and the median. We use averages all the time, so you probably remember that the average is found by adding up all the numbers in a set and dividing by however many numbers there are. In the set {3, 5, 7, and 30}, the average is 11.25 (45 divided by 4). But the average may not be a very useful figure on its own if your set contains outlier values that differ greatly from the other numbers, like 30 in the example just given. The 30 is pulling the average pretty far to the right. To compensate for that, you can find the median. If your set contains an odd number of values, the median is the middle value when you put all the numbers in sequence; if the set contains an even number of values, there is no value exactly in the middle, so the median is the average of the two values nearest the middle. The median of the set above is 6, the average of 5 and 7. I had to get Matt, my son and colleague, to explain this to me a couple of times before it stuck.

Average areas in crop production, pasture, and forest were respectively 7.6, 15, and 8.4 acres. (We’re missing these numbers from two respondents, so I’m reckoning from 44.) Most properties enclosed sections of one to three rivers or streams; the largest property was watered by 10.

Perhaps the most surprising farm statistic involved property acquisition: 20 respondents (43%) told us that they had not inherited any of their land — that they had purchased all of it.

Land tenure in the DR is secure: property is owned, bought, and sold much as it is here in the US. Even very poor people generally have legal title to their land. In this respect, Dominican small-holders are better off than many of their counterparts elsewhere in the developing world, where small-holders often do not own the land they work, or where governments do not recognize traditional claims to land. The right to own land is crucial to the Tree Bank; that’s what our conservation agreements are built on.

But even in a poor, remote area like Los Cerezos, property is not cheap. When we purchased the 44.3 acres that now form the Tree Bank Nature Reserve, we paid about $410 per acre, including legal fees. This was a great price from our perspective, but it would be very steep for a local farmer, looking to establish or expand a farm. And since few such buyers can afford payment in full, the usual procedure is to borrow from a bank, which of course means more debt. (The land becomes collateral for the loan.) Add to that debt the low-value harvests and the uncertainties of rain-fed agriculture, and you can see why this kind of farming by mortgage is a very risky proposition.

The farm fauna didn’t vary greatly from one farm to the next; the most common animals are cattle, donkeys, and chickens. Among the least common animals: only eight farms had goats, perhaps because there is no great demand for goat meat, and only seven had pigs. Pigs are not a very efficient way to convert food scraps to meat.

The crops didn’t vary much either. Beans, pigeon peas (lentil-like peas produced by a kind of shrub that is widely cultivated in the tropics), and root crops like cassava — these crops are ubiquitous. Fortunately for us, certain tree crops are also very common: 31 farms (67%) were growing at least one of the following: coffee, citrus, or cacao, the little tree whose seeds yield cocoa and chocolate. Familiarity with tree crops is crucial to our operation.

Planting and harvest require a great deal of labor, and most farms hire seasonal workers to help with these activities. Forty-two of our farms (91%) hire workers at least occasionally; nine (20%) do so regularly. This seasonal labor market is of great importance to the region’s Haitians, some of whom cross into the DR looking for this kind of work, and some of whom live in the DR year round. Because so many of the Haitians are transient, it’s difficult to estimate their total numbers, but it’s probably safe to say that at least 40% of the population of Los Cerezos is Haitian. Thirty-two of the Tree Bank’s farms (70%) reported hiring Haitian workers exclusively and six (13%) claimed workers of both nationalities. Only two said their hired help was Dominican only.

A final farm topic: we asked for opinions on harvest trends. Nine farms (20%) reported an improvement in harvests over the past 10 years; 25 (54%) reported declines, and 11 (24%) saw no change. The most commonly cited problems were drought, listed by 27 respondents (59%), and crop diseases, listed by 17 (37%). (These numbers overlap; 11 respondents cited both.)


When it comes to farm and household finances, our farmers are generally an optimistic group — even though it might be difficult for a foreigner to understand how their experiences have led them to such views. Their reported average income in 2014 was 66,909 Dominican pesos, or about $1,520. (Reported income ranged from the equivalent of $227 to $6,818; the median was $1,136. I’m reckoning from 44 rather than 46 responses.) The average expected income for 2015 was $2,176 — a 43% increase over the 2014 average. (Expected income ranged from $227 to $11,364; the median was $1,477. There were 44 responses.) Only three respondents expected to make less money this year than in the year before. Looking at the history of their personal finances, 31 respondents (70%) said that their situation had improved during the last decade and eight (18%) said that their finances had stayed the same. Only five (11%) said that their finances had declined. (Still with 44 responses.)

This probably sounds like poverty — and although I’m not an economist, I can report that it also looks like poverty. But what level of poverty? There are a couple of different ways to think about these numbers. An American family of four is living at the official US poverty threshold if the family income is $24,230 — or 16 times the average income of our Tree Bank households, at the US-dollar equivalents I quoted above. (The poverty threshold figure comes from US Census Bureau data for 2014, the most recent year for which figures were available; I quoted for a family of four because our average on-farm family size is 4.4.)

OK, you might say, but suppose the costs of things are different in the DR — wouldn’t that affect the value of those family earnings? It would, and does. The US-dollar values that I gave for our families’ income were based on a currency exchange rate — roughly the rate that you would get if you were wiring money to the DR or buying pesos for a visit there. But the currency market rates don’t provide a very good idea of what a given amount of money will actually buy when you spend it; 4,400 pesos may equal $100 in the currency markets, but that doesn’t mean that 4,400 pesos will buy the same quantity of goods and services in the DR that $100 will buy in the US. The US and Dominican economies are very different. To get a sense for what economists call “purchasing power parity,” or PPP, you need to use a different rate, one designed to equalize currencies according to their domestic retail value. The PPP conversion rates are available in the World Bank’s “World Development Indicators” tables; for 2014, the rate for Dominican pesos, relative to US dollars, was 20.2. So in terms of what our farmers can actually buy with their money, their 2014 income was equivalent to $3,312. That’s better, but still far below the US poverty threshold.

On the other hand, you might say, emphatically poor is different from desperately poor, right? I would agree. The obvious official definition of “desperately poor” would be the World Bank’s “absolute” or “extreme” poverty line, which is life on less than $1.25 per day. This is the lot of more than one billion people. To judge from reported 2014 income and family size, we probably have several families who would qualify as “absolutely poor,” even when reckoning with the more generous PPP value of their income. But the average on-farm family’s PPP value translates into per capita daily earnings of $2.06. That’s pretty meager but well above absolute economic misery.

My own personal metric for extreme poverty is more visual than numeric. I look for obvious evidence of malnutrition. Not vitamin or other nutritional deficiencies — I’m not a doctor either! I mean malnutrition in the brute sense of just not getting enough calories. Matt and I believe that we have seen this in a few people, but it seems to be rare.

Not surprisingly, harvests were the most important source of income for our households, and in some cases, the only source of income. But 31 households (67%) also received some government assistance, usually about 1,000 pesos per month (about $23, or $50 by our PPP rate). In 16 households (35%) one or two people had off-farm jobs, which brought in additional income.

Credit is an important part of the home economy, even in Los Cerezos. All of our farmers had borrowed from the Tree Bank’s Forest Credit program, which offers low-cost lines of credit in exchange for forest conservation easements. In addition to Forest Credit, 20 households (44%) had taken out other loans for their farms, either during 2014 or earlier. (We didn’t ask, but we know from many conversations that these loans usually have a one-year term, unless they are loans to purchase land.)

We asked people to list three things that they would do if they made more money. The three most common responses: buy cattle (30 respondents, or 65%), improve my house (26 or 57%), and improve my cropland (16 or 35%).

The final section of the survey dealt with perceived environmental trends and solicited responses only from people at least 50 years old. Fifteen people filled out this section. We began with an open-ended question about the biggest changes that respondents had seen in the region; people could list as many changes as they liked. The responses:

Deforestation (7 mentions),

Climate change, increased drought, or changes in rainfall (6 mentions),

Increased forest conservation (2 mentions — and not a response that we expected!),

Disappearance of birds (2 mentions),

Declines in crop production (1 mention), and

The spread of diseases in young trees (1 mention).

We then asked specifically about changes in the following six factors.

Forest: 13 reported a decrease, 1 an increase, and 1 no change.

Droughts: 12 reported an increase and 3 a decrease.

Birds: all 15 reported a decline.

Soil fertility: 14 reported a decrease and 1 reported an increase.

Human population in the region: 10 reported a decrease, 3 an increase, and 2 didn’t know.

Frequency of fires (in this region, virtually all fires are started by farmers preparing to plant): 8 reported a decrease, 6 an increase, and 1 saw no change.

I’ll close with a quick survey of myself, on the subject of our farmers’ responses. I now have about 10 years of experience with this community. Matt and I visit — perhaps not as often as we should but we’re trying to put in regular appearances — and I’m in touch with our Dominican colleagues every week, by phone, text, even email. We are still outsiders in many ways, but we believe that we know the community fairly well. So I ask myself: do any of these responses surprise me? And if so, do the surprises confirm my view of the community, or do they challenge it?

I see something in here for both of those categories. I see confirmation of my views in that final, over-50 section. Of course, I knew that some of our partners shared our awareness of environmental decline, but I didn’t realize how pervasive that sense is, at least among the older people.

There were also two big challenges to my views, which emerged partly from the survey itself, and partly from a little follow-up research that I did to interpret the responses. First, I was surprised to see how rapidly people are switching from solar panels to the grid, and how rapidly they are buying refrigerators, now that they can run them. And second, I was surprised that so many farmers had purchased their land, rather than inheriting it.

I still find myself wishing for more panels and less debt, but that’s beside the point. The point is that our farmers are more innovative, and have a higher tolerance for risk than I had tended to assume. Now that I know about those talents, I hope to put them to better use.

This text © 2015 by the Earth Sangha. All rights reserved.

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Banner: Late October in a mixed stand of hickories, oaks, and American beech at Fountainhead Regional Park, on the northern shore of the Occoquan River, in Fairfax County, Virginia. Photo by Chris Bright. 

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