The Tree Bank Hispaniola
The Tree Bank Hispaniola is a partnership between the Earth Sangha and the Asociación de Productores de Bosque Los Cerezos, a farmers’ cooperative in the mountains of Dajabón province, in the Dominican Republic, not far from the Haitian border. We work with smallholder farmers to propagate local-ecotype native trees and conserve tropical forest, while promoting sustainable agriculture and helping to alleviate poverty.
The tropical forests in the central highlands of the Dominican Republic are the largest remaining forest block within the Caribbean "Global Biodiversity Hotspot." (A global hotspot is a region with global conservation significance: hotspots have a high level of biodiversity and are under a high level of threat.) These forests are home to many endemic species: plants, birds, reptiles, and amphibians that occur naturally only on the island of Hispaniola. But the forests are unraveling, largely because of agriculture. In our project area, the biggest threat is the smallholder struggle for soil that is still fertile.
Building on our experience in the DC area — especially with nursery operation and the management of conservation projects that have many interested parties — we incorporated a farmers’ co-op in the district of Los Cerezos. Then, together with our farmers, we developed an agenda that has two priorities: improving small-holder incomes, and conserving native forest. Everything that the Tree Bank does is designed to further both of those objectives.
The key to our approach is simple to state but difficult to manage: we are trying to make forest conservation profitable for our farmers.
Why Los Cerezos?
The Tree Bank is based in Los Cerezos, a mountain district in the northwestern reaches of the Dominican Republic, about 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from the border with Haiti. (Our project area extends beyond Los Cerezos somewhat, into adjoining districts.)
Small family farms cover most of our project area. The farmers eke out their harvests from steep, hillside plots that have usually been in the same family for generations. Most of the farms in our area range in size from less than 2 acres to around 15 acres.
We chose Los Cerezos as our base because it is an ecologically strategic area to fight deforestation.
It is on the “deforestation front” between the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
It has been extensively deforested, but still contains many valuable forest fragments.
It is a transition area between two forest types.
It is near BirdLife International’s Nalga de Maco – Río Limpio “Important Bird Area.”
It lies within the headwaters drainage of the Río Artibonito, Hispaniola’s longest river, and the most important river in Haiti.
Most of the area’s forest fragments have been repeatedly cut and burned for planting, and then released to regrow as forest, once the soil no longer supports a worthwhile harvest. There are also some "old growth" (or "older growth") fragments on land too steep to plant. This landscape still contains substantial biodiversity, including many native trees and other plants, many birds — some of them species that migrate between the eastern US and the Dominican Republic — and other wildlife as well. Many of the region's plant and animal species are in decline; some are already endangered.
To the west of our project area lie the barren ridges of Haiti. Once cloaked in forest, these ridges have been reduced to a kind of artificial Caribbean desert. Haiti is the most deforested country in the world. Less than 2 percent of Haiti’s original forest cover remains. Successful forest restoration in our area could confer major economic and ecological benefits on both of Hispaniola’s countries.
Who Are the Tree Bank's Member Farmers?
Tucked away in the mountains, the little settlement of La Berenjena ("The Eggplant") lies at the heart of Los Cerezos and has fewer than 500 residents. Almost every family owns some farmland and everyone depends on agriculture to one degree or another. The average local farm supports, at least in part, 8-10 people.
La Berenjena is the Tree Bank's home base. Its people and farms are typical of Los Cerezos, and the region as a whole. Most landowners are men, but there are a few women heads-of-household. Some people live only by farming, but most families have a member or two with another source of income — as a shopkeeper in one of the little stores along the country roads, as a teacher, nurse, or security guard. Some families have a cabin in Los Cerezos and a little house in Loma de Cabrera, the nearest town — an arrangement that allows them to split their time between town and country. Others live in more distant towns, or alone, deep in the countryside.
About 65 of these farmers are now “socios,” that is, members of our partner organization, the Asociación de Productores de Bosque Los Cerezos (Los Cerezos Forest Producers Association). The socios come from all over the region, and make up a representative sample of local society.
Admission to the Association is not difficult. A small recurrent fee is required, to help keep the Association in business, and members must regularly attend Association meetings, which occur every two weeks. Beyond that, it’s just a matter of being committed to sustainable agroforestry and agriculture.
If you're interested in learning more about the people of Los Cerezos, you might like to view our Cuestionario Form and the Cuestionario Results. The Results spreadsheets contain all of the Cuestionario data except for proper names. An interpretation of the survey results is available as "Los Cerezos by the Numbers" (October 2015), on the blog page.
Banner: Typical small-holder houses in the Tree Bank project region. Photo by Chris Bright.