A leaf from:
This Broken Land of Promise:
A Chronicle of Conservation in the Hispaniolan Border Country
“What’s going on with the rain?” I asked Cosme. “¿Hay agua? Is there water?”
Cosme Damián Quezada is one of the Tree Bank’s Directors. He’s a farmer in our project area, a rugged tract of mostly deforested cropland and pasture in the Dominican Republic’s border region, just a few miles from Haiti.
I was on the phone with him, back in June 2015, when the Tree Bank Nursery was just packed with tree seedlings. Thousands of them. We had hoped to start planting them two months earlier but a spring drought prevented that. Now we were having trouble with the nursery water supply. It was going to become increasingly difficult to keep all those little trees alive if we couldn’t get them out onto the farms, so I was hoping to hear that the drought had finally broken.
“The water is no problem,” said Cosme.
“Great! So is the rainfall more or less normal?”
“Normal? No, no, no! It’s not normal.”
“OK,” I said. “I understand.” Which is what I usually say when I don’t understand something. “Well, so you guys must be getting ready to plant then?”
“Oh no,” Cosme laughed. “No, no, no!”
Cosme almost always laughs when he’s telling you something, no matter what it is, good or bad. And I could see him laughing as I listened. Cosme is very thin and his skin is very dark. In bright light, his lean face disappears beneath the shade of his baseball cap, and mostly what you see are his eyes and his brilliant white teeth.
“The moon!” Cosme shouted. Cosme shouts on the phone partly because the reception is spotty, but I think also in recognition of my physical remove. And maybe my psychological remove as well — I’m not sure.
“The moon is not in the right phase. We’ll have to wait a couple more weeks before we can plant.”
I was disappointed but there wasn’t much I could do. Not a good idea to deprecate the local folklore. Anyway, it wouldn’t help. So I said something about checking in on the subject after another couple of weeks.
Then we went back to trading pro forma expressions of cordiality and assurances of conveying greetings to various members of our families. I talk to Cosme almost every week, but this exercise never seems to get old.
A couple of weeks later, I asked the predictable question.
“Planting?” said Cosme. “No, no, no! We don’t have the water.” He laughed. “No water.”
“So we’re back to the drought?”
“Yes, exactly. It’s a drought. A problem. It looks like the harvest will fail. We’re going to have a meeting with the Directiva.” The Directiva is the Executive Committee of our partner association, the Asociación de Productores de Bosque, Los Cerezos (the Los Cerezos Forest Producers Association). Los Cerezos is the municipality where the Tree Bank is based.
“A meeting?” I asked. “What for? What are you going to solve with a meeting?” And even as the words were coming out of my mouth, I was wishing that I wasn’t saying this.
“Solve? No, no, no! It can’t solve anything. Ha ha ha! But we have to discuss the situation.”
In the Tree Bank project area, rain is usually a very local event. One farm may be drenched but another just half a mile down the road may not see a drop. Sometimes during downpours, farmers who have cell phones will call each other up. “Any water over there?”
By late that summer, the drought had moderated, but the harvest still failed. Beans, corn, squash — you name it, we didn’t have it. The rains were too little, too late. And we couldn’t plant our trees. The fields were still too dry for that, but, fortunately, the weather had been wet enough to keep the trees healthy at the nursery.
Winter is the dry season in our region but the rains returned in the spring of 2016. Finally, our trees made their way out onto the farms, and prospects for a solid harvest were encouraging. But then the rains didn’t stop. Instead of the usual late-afternoon downpours, it just rained and rained. By June, we were losing most of our cocoa-tree seed. We had acquired a second nursery by then, and had put it entirely into cocoa, but our seed was just rotting in the containers. By July, our farmers’ beans and squash were rotting in the fields. At least there was some compensation for cattle owners, in the form of lush pasture.
During our calls, Cosme told me that 2016 was turning out to be the wettest year that he could remember. He was 50 years old at the time, and has lived in the region all his life. I was wondering about ways to mitigate the economic damage — even though I was pretty sure that there wouldn’t be any.
“Nobody has any crop insurance, right?”
“In some communities they do,” Cosme said. “They have loans from the government. Around Mao [a small city about 50 miles off] they grow a lot of bananas for export and they have that.”
“Right but those are big businesses, aren’t they?”
“But for you guys there’s nothing like that right?”
“No, no, no! Nothing!”
“So what is a poor family supposed to do if their harvest fails?”
“Well they might have to sell a cow, if they’ve got one.”
“So the cow is like an insurance policy — or like maybe a savings account?”
“No, no, no! A cow is not a savings account. Maybe many cows might be.”
“But then the family wouldn’t be poor, right?”
“Ha ha ha — right! They wouldn’t be poor.”
OK, this was obviously not going anywhere — so I tried another approach: “don’t you sometimes wonder whether it’s all really worth the trouble?”
Cosme was quiet for a moment, and it occurred to me that maybe I shouldn’t have asked that question. Then he started telling me about a new technique that he had worked out for growing onions.
“This Broken Land of Promise” is my attempt to describe and interpret our Tree Bank Hispaniola program. I welcome your comments and questions. Please write me in the comment box below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About quotations: I try to quote people as accurately as I can, but conversations sometimes occur in distracting circumstances, and my memory is far from perfect. An additional complication when quoting our Dominican colleagues and friends: these people speak only Spanish, so our conversations with them are always in that language. For the most part, translating these exchanges is not difficult, but sometimes a literal rendering would make for poor English; in such cases, my aim is to capture the speaker’s tone and meaning, rather than his exact wording.
— Chris Bright
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