I remember the first time I ever heard about mangrove trees. I was in Malaysia, on a boat, sailing in and out of these delicate little caves looking for bats. Our tour guide was telling us that although mangroves often suffer from a bad reputation (after all, those trees do tend to smell), they are actually a critical part of Malaysia’s delicate coastal ecosystem. Not only do they provide habitat for plenty of little sea-dwellers, they also retain, concentrate, and recycle nutrients and remove toxins through a natural filtration process.
They literally clean the homes they live in.
Before I traveled to the Dominican Republic, this was all I really knew about mangroves: that they smelled funny, and that they rock at cleaning their own environments just by living in them. I didn’t know that the Ministry for the Environment is using that very fact to help repopulate and clean the polluted waters along the Cabarete swamps in the northern part of the island–or that I would take a cruise down from Miami and plant seven of those mangroves trees myself.
In July, I joined the fourth Fathom Cruise voyage from Miami to the Dominican Republic to volunteer with the Ministry for the Environment on these mangrove-planting projects in the Cabarete swamps. The concept intrigued me: the entire cruise experience is centered around what they call “impact activities,” or activities that are designed to assist local nonprofit and government NGOs in the work they are already doing. Although they offer up to six impact activities at a time, including participating in community English lessons, volunteering at a summer camp for kids, building clay water filters, and sorting chocolate at a women’s coop, when I found out that they were looking for volunteers to go out into the forests and plant the trees that the last group had nurtured in the nursery, I couldn’t wait to sign up.
I wanted nothing more than to put on a pair of grungy old shoes and hit the forests.
As we drove up north to the swamps on the morning of our activity in our tiny bus, our impact guide, a Dominican on college break, talked to us about the reforestation initiatives in her country with unbridled confidence and an amazing passion. She told us about the impetus for the project, and how the on-ground Fathom team (who are all Dominican themselves) went out to seek nonprofits and NGOs that needed extra hands to complete their projects. They went in search of educational, societal, and environmental organizations–and ultimately connected with IDDI, or, el Instituto Dominicano de Desarrollo Integral, a local Dominican agency that specializes in environmental projects. They connected Fathom with the Ministry for the Environment, who suggested that the Fathom participants could help germinate, nurture, and then plant mangroves around the swamps to help repopulate the diminishing forests.
“A mangrove tree,” she told us, “takes in 48 pounds of carbon dioxide every year, if you can believe that.”
As our guide talked to us about the importance of reforestation, I thought about what I did know about the environmental issues facing the Dominican Republic. I assumed that parts of the country experienced problems with pollution, garbage, and unsafe drinking water—problems that plague so many of our world’s nations–but what I didn’t know was just how much the country’s arboreal ecosystem had been compromised over the years by two major culprits: devastating natural storms and rapid coastal development. As we’d learn, the Cabarete swamp is one of the most devastated of these regions. Last year, they lost the size of Panama in trees. In 100 years, our guide told us, there would be no more forests at all.
When we arrived, we climbed out of the bus and walked about a half a mile to the coastline. Then, we got to work, stopping only for a quick lunch of half-sandwiches and bananas.
So what was it like? Spending a day planting 320 trees with the Ministry for the Environment in the hot, sweaty, rainy Dominican summer?
Well, it was crowded, and noisy, and everything you’d expect from sticking forty eager people along one coastline with one job to do. The lines sometimes got long. It was really humid. Employees at the Ministry dug hole after hole while the Fathom crew hauled tiny seedlings from the backs of large pick-up trucks, found an available hole, placed the seedling in the hole, and covered up the hole with dirt. When we had no more trees to plant, we grabbed large plastic bags and started canvassing the area, picking up large pieces of trash and plastic and cleaning up the fallen palm fronds.
As we worked, I started talking with Delvin, a marketing coordinator at IDDI who’d come out to work on the project with us. We talked about his home in Puerto Plata, about the environmental concerns facing the northern region of his country, about how he got started at the Ministry. “There is so much more to be done,” he said, gesturing around to the trash all over the hillsides. “Planting these trees is only the beginning.”
What would he want to do next? I asked him, opening up a new trash bag and helping him stuff in a plastic milk jug.
“If our people don’t learn to dispose of their garbage in more ethical ways, there are not enough trees to save our waters.”
He’s right, of course. There is always more to do. But today, we do what we can do—we plant trees. We put seedlings into holes and softly cover those holes with dirt. We pick up trash. We start conversations. In a few weeks, the next Fathom group will come and head back to the nursery, where they will start caring for the next group of seedlings.
And when we return, at the end of the day, we wash our hands and clean up for dinner.
Article and all photos by Kristin Winet.
A special thanks to Fathom Cruises for bringing me on their fourth voyage to experience the reforestation projects first-hand. All opinions are, of course, my own.