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Tourism tangles a fishing lifeline

Loss of sea access hits the Dominican Republic’s already pressed fishermen.

By Moises Velasquez-ManoffStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 2, 2009

Fishermen’s association members (l. to r.) Rafael Castillo Mota, Luis Paulino, and Francisco Calpio worry that resort construction will end access to areas where they launch their boats..

Moises Velasquez-Manoff


Punta Cana, Dominican Republic

At the far eastern end of Hispaniola – an area famed for resorts and world-class golf courses that attract a globe-trotting international elite – a dirt road leads to a craggy, limestone shore. There, a few dinged and scratched yolas – brightly painted fishing boats – lie overturned on the rock or moored in the ocean. Humming, churning, and banging noises of a construction site fill the air, drowning out the sound of waves hitting the breakwater.

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The scene encapsulates the hopes and fears of local fishermen. Their hope is to make a decent living for themselves and their families. Their fears center on how that can be done sustainably given the pressures of expanding tourist development, the reality of chronic overfishing, and degraded reef ecosystems, which have lessened the number of fish.

Fishermen here also fret over another threat: losing access to the sea. This road is the only access to the ocean for miles. To the north lie established vacation spots; to the south, Cap Cana, a resort that’s partly finished.

The fishermen are concerned that as the construction of Cap Cana is completed, the road will close to them. Representatives of Cap Cana say this won’t happen, but loss of access to the ocean is indeed a growing problem in the Dominican Republic, say experts. By law, beaches are public, but in reality, most beaches – 70 percent, according to one study – are now off limits to ordinary Dominicans.

“Privatized beaches are a grave problem in my country,” says Felicita Heredia, a member of the commission on the environment at the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo (UASD) and author of the beach access study. She contrasts the situation with what she observed during a visit to Miami and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. At the end of each street, people could access the beach.

“We don’t have that here,” she says. “It’s a problem of political vision.”

In an e-mail, Ricardo Colón Alvarez, executive director of the newly formed Dominican office of fishery management, says, “Touristic development tremendously affects fishery development.”

The fishermen put it more colloquially: “The bigger fish eats the little fish,” says Luis Paulino. “In the Dominican Republic ... money is law.”

Tourism has grown dramatically here in recent decades. In 2008, 4.4 million people visited the nation of 9.5 million, according to the Ministry of Tourism, nearly double the number a decade earlier. Valued at $8 billion, tourism and related activities make up 15.9 percent of the economy. That influx of foreign money has spurred more development geared toward capturing more tourist dollars.

But communities are pushing back, says Luis Carvajal, a biologist at UASD. In March, fishermen in Cabrera on the island’s north coast protested what they said were illegal developments blocking access to the sea. They called for an impact statement before construction proceeded.

The Ministry of Environment is also more assertive. In January, it demolished what it called illegally constructed buildings in Bayahibe.

The fishermen here have formed the Asociación de Pescadores de Juanillo, or APEJU. Their goal is twofold: fight to retain access to the ocean and learn to fish sustainably.

“We are not against touristic development,” says Mr. Paulino. “It benefits us and it benefits the country. What we want is for them to give us a little piece, so we can survive.”