But the land Globalia intends to build on was not long ago part of Cotubanamá National Park, a site with one of the highest biodiversity levels in the county. Currently under review for consideration for UNESCO World Heritage status, Cotubanamá National Park contains an anthropologically important limestone cave system with prehistoric paintings and glyphs, as well as important native species.

Leon describes Cotubanamá National Park as “insanely beautiful,” painting a picture of unique fan and cherry palm species found only there. The 796-square-kilometer (307-square-mile) park is also home to the solenodon (Solenodon paradoxus), a shrew-like creature that neutralizes prey and rivals with venom injected through its teeth. Other endangered animals living in the area include the rhinoceros iguana (Cyclura cornuta) and hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata), as well as vulnerable species such as the West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus) and the Hispaniolan parrot (Amazona ventralis).

The endangered rhinoceros iguana, a species native to Cotubanamá National Park. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

“This park is by far the largest income earner of all protected areas in the Dominican Republic,” Leon says, referring to its lucrative status as a day-trip tourism destination. “Ruining the natural state of the park is silly because it is a big part of its attraction.”

The debate has become a collision of two very different agendas over the last remaining remnant of lowland natural ecosystem in the eastern half of a country heavily dependent on tourism.

Following two legal complaints and a media campaign by the NGO Coalition for the Defense of Protected Areas of the Dominican Republic, the president’s office on Feb. 28 ordered a suspension of construction work. The suspension will be reviewed on completion of a research commission to clarify what can legally be built there.

“It’s a bittersweet victory,” Leon says. “Of course, we are happy that in the short term the bulldozers are off the premises. But the permit has not been revoked, and we suspect the government is buying time before the [May] elections.”

Following a preliminary hearing in early March, the Superior Administrative Court has said it will rule on the development by March 20.

Downgrading a protected area

Sixteen years ago, the government officially downgraded the western coastline of Cotubanamá National Park, designating it the Guaraguao-Punta Catuano Recreation Area and essentially opening it up to the potential of future development. The land in question went from IUCN category II to category VI: Category VI areas are still protected, but restricted development is possible under some circumstances. The site targeted by Globalia, which is beachfront and therefore especially attractive for tourism development, is known as Plot 24-A.

“The coalition considers that this strip of beach was downgraded with malice,” says Beatriz Ferrer, a lawyer and member of environmental group SOS Ambiente RD. She says the same thing happened in Jaragua National Park Bahia, where a beach area called Las Aguilas was also downgraded for development.

Ferrer says the arbitrary way in which only beach areas are downgraded suggests “a political intent to exclude these beaches, in a country [that] depends mostly on tourism … But the ecosystem cannot be defined by a straight line.”

The national park is also a vital aquifer recharge zone: the only permanent freshwater source in the region is the rain that falls on the park, collecting underground in permeable rock. Leon says this is a major concern because communities across the region depend on clean water from the Cotubanamá aquifer — as does the rainforest ecosystem. Building tourist resorts there could result in overuse and pollution of the water source.

Local communities already say tourism is contaminating the water. According to a paper published in Marine Science and Engineering in 2019, researchers found that 100% of local focus group attendees felt that current tourism levels are having a negative impact on underground water supplies.

The green line shows the boundary of Cotubanamá National Park. The yellow line shows the boundary of the downgraded Guaraguao-Punta Catuano Recreation Area. The red line shows Plot 24-A, proposed site of the Leaf Bayahíbe development. Image courtesy of Grupo Jaragua.

Development can take place in category VI protected areas, “but only as a very secondary activity or when they are part of the local communities’ socio-economic strategies (e.g., in relation to ecotourism development),” according to the IUCN.

For environmentalists, it is clear that a for-profit tourism development owned by a Spain-based company does not constitute either a secondary activity, or something that is part of the local community’s socio-economic strategy.

Globalia, on the other hand, says the proposed development will have minimal ecological impact and will provide jobs to local communities via ecotourism.

The practice of targeting protected areas for development by governments has been termed downgrading, downsizing and degazetting (PADDD) by scientists. The trend is on the rise, according to a 2019 paper published in Science. Of the nearly 4,000 PADDD events identified since the mid-19th century, 64% occurred between 2008 and 2018. Governments downgraded protections for nearly 1.7 million km2 (641,000 mi2) — an area almost the size of Alaska — and removed nearly 520,000 km2 (200,700 mi2) from protection entirely in the period from 1892 to 2018.

A history of dispute

Globalia founder Pepe Hidalgo purchased Plot 24-A in October 2000 for $3.7 million, with the intention of building a tourist resort. The sale went through just weeks after then-President Hipólito Mejía removed development restrictions on the land by issuing a decree reducing the area of the park, and placing the plot just outside the protection boundary.

José Antonio Trinidad Sena, then the attorney for the defense of the environment, investigated the case in 2004 because the Dominican Republic requires a legal change — not a decree — to alter the size of a national park. Mejía’s decree was not backed by such a legal change, so permission to develop was deemed illegal and withdrawn.

In 2018, Globalia was again denied permission, this time to develop a 978-room hotel on Plot 24-A. The company commissioned a report to assess the plans, which was submitted to the Ministry for Environment. The report, by Adolfo López and Eleuterio Martínez, of the Academy of Sciences, said that “the ecosystems present in the Guaraguao Punta-Catuano National Recreation Area, are an indissoluble part of the ecosystems present within the Cotubanamá National Park and their interaction in pristine conditions depends on the ecological functionality of both conservation units.”

The scientists recommended that even though the two areas have different IUCN protection ratings, they should be treated as “a uniform ecological and cultural set” in terms of land use. The Ministry for Environment issued a resolution prohibiting any development within the Guaraguao Punta-Catuano Recreation Area as a result.

Globalia again applied to develop Plot 24-A in 2018, after Angel Estévez took over as minister for environment in May of that year. This time, despite the resolution banning development, the ministry accepted the application for a very different eco-resort project of 96 villas plus support infrastructure. The ministry granted an environmental permit, signed by Estévez, on Jan. 14 this year. Globalia began to clear the area that same month.

Forest area cleared in Guaraguao on Jan. 21, 2020. Image by Adolfo López.

“The project, the company and society have changed since [2000]. And we honestly believe that Leaf Bayahíbe reflects those changes,” says Uriondo, the Globalia representative. “We believe that it is a good compromise between our rights as owners of the place and the protection of the environment.”

A controversial minister

Since the government halted the development in February, it has appointed a research commission to investigate the plans. But this has done little to settle the controversy. Critics say the research commission cannot be impartial since one of its members is the minister for environment, Angel Estévez, who signed off on the plan in the first place.

“This is not the proper, let alone institutional, way to handle an investigation,” says Ferrer, the lawyer.

Presidential candidate Guillermo Moreno, of the Alianza País party, recently referred to Estévez as “public enemy number one,” calling for his immediate dismissal over granting Globalia permission to develop the area. He condemned the incumbent Dominican Liberation Party in the same press conference for what he termed attacks on the environment, listing numerous development and mineral extraction projects the government has authorized on national park land.

This is not the first time Estévez’s commitment to the Dominican Republic’s protected areas has come into question.

In a TV interview in May 2019 with El Dia, Estévez appeared to openly support illegal agriculture in Sierra de Bahoruco National Park, saying, “I will not topple a single avocado tree.” He went on to question how one kind of tree could possibly do damage when others do not.

Following these comments, more than 35,000 people signed an online petition demanding Estévez’s immediate resignation, saying he lacks the knowledge or capacity to adequately fulfill the role of minister for environment.

The ministry declined to respond to Mongabay’s request for comment.

Setting a possible precedent

The environmental coalition says that beyond harming the ecology of Cotubanamá National Park, the resort development could open the door to others.

“There are many rumours [that] others have [land] titles there and if this hotel is given the green light, they will want to do the same,” says Leon, the biologist.

Days after Estévez signed off on Globalia’s permit to build, Ángel Rondón, a director of the Lashan Corp., was seen visiting the park, according to video published by the newspaper Diario Libre. Lashan purportedly owns another plot, 13-A, within the downgraded beach strip.

Globalia, for its part, says it is confident it has done its due diligence to adjust the project to the area, with what it says are plans for natural air conditioning, biodiesel from kitchen waste, recycling, zero plastic, and water-saving faucets and cisterns.

“We have been in pause for 20 years, and we have been changing our plans for this plot, always reducing its impact,” Uriondo says. “It began as a traditional resort; afterward it evolved to a smaller one and now we think that the eco-lodge is the perfect formula. But we have never built anything, and whatever we do, we will always abide by the law.”

Uriondo says the ball is now in the government’s court — Globalia can only develop if the company has permission.

Environmentalists say this is not about a single proposed development, but a loss of trust in the Ministry for Environment itself.

“The chain of negligent, unprepared or complicit Ministers of Environment (with rare exceptions) has meant an increase in the exploitation of protected areas,” Ferrer wrote in an email.

A Hispaniolan solenodon (Solenodon paradoxus) with grass seeds on its face near Pedernales,Dominican Republic. Image by Jeremy Hance.

She adds that the constitutional court, the highest in the country, has had to remind authorities multiple times that natural resources and protected areas are safeguarded under the country’s constitution.

“I think it is time to reflect upon past mistakes and make it right,” Ferrer says. “There needs to be a conversation on why this strip of beach, so enticing for developers, was downgraded and excluded from the national park, and if this should remain so. The bigger conversation is about what type of tourism do we want to nurture.”

 
Banner image: Plot 24-A, the proposed site of an ecotourism development by Spanish company Globalia, in an area previously part of the protected Cotubanamá National Park. Image courtesy of Grupo Jaragua.

 
Citations:

Golden Kroner, R. E., Qin, S., Cook, C. N., Krithivasan, R., Pack, S. M., Bonilla, O. D., … Mascia, M. B. (2019). The uncertain future of protected lands and waters. Science364(6443), 881-886. doi:10.1126/science.aau5525

Navarro, N. (2019). Community perceptions of tourism impacts on coastal protected areas. Journal of Marine Science and Engineering7(8), 274. doi:10.3390/jmse7080274

Article published by Maria Salazar
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