It’s another beautiful day in Miches on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic, but the sun-drenched, pure white sandy beaches are nearly empty. Despite the island staying open for visitors, Covid-19 has taken its toll on the tourism industry, with visitor numbers down and the economy predicted to shrink by 6.5 percent in 2020.
However, it’s not the pandemic which worries Yonattan Mercado as he strolls through his hometown. He’s more concerned about the impacts of climate change and unsustainable development, and in particular the devastating hurricanes which increasingly batter the coastline.
“When the town was hit by Hurricanes Irma and María in 2017, people saw for themselves the raw power of nature,” says Yonattan. Hundreds of homes were destroyed, and thousands of people displaced, after Hurricane Maria struck Miches bringing a storm surge which caused the Yeguada river to burst its banks. “The flooding was worse than anything they had seen before. But people have very short memories, and they continue to build in vulnerable areas despite knowing what could happen.”
Yonattan, who has lived in Miches his whole life, now works for the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources in the Dominican Republic, looking after two local protected areas as wildlife refuge, the Laguna Redonda and Limón and Los Manglares de La Gina . “They are home to dozens of wild species, but they also provide income for many local families,” he explains. “We’re experiencing the local impacts of climate change on the mangroves, beaches, coral reefs and other key ecosystems. Higher temperatures, shorter rainy seasons, degraded coral reefs and constant coastal erosion are all taking their toll. Some communities have already been abandoned because the beaches have washed away.”
“The Ministry of Environment, as the focal point before the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the UN Adaptation Fund, is committed to strengthening our commitment to the most vulnerable populations of the Dominican Republic adapt to the climate change adverse effects“, said Dominican Minister of Environment Orlando Jorge Mera, recalling the situation of the island.
"Accelerated climate change is a problem that our country has had to face not only because of its condition as an island state, in which we share half of the island‘s territory, but because of our geographic location in the tropics. All the storms, cyclones, hurricanes, droughts, pests and diseases severely impact us when they are enhanced by the focus of our economic development model and, of course, by our individual actions.
The EU flagship climate programme Global Climate Change Alliance Plus (GCCA+) aims to enhance the resilience of Miches and the surrounding area of El Seibo to climate change and natural disasters. After an initial pilot, the five year, five million-euro programme will be rolled out across the country. “El Seibo is one of the poorest and least developed provinces in the Dominican Republic, and the population is extremely vulnerable to climate change impacts,” says Friederike Eppen, project coordinator for the German development cooperation,GIZ, the EU’s implementing partner. “The local economy depends on having healthy ecosystems. It’s really important that we work with the local communities, farmers, fishermen and those working in the tourism industry to hear their experiences and involve them in the solutions.”
Yonattan agrees. “For the climate smart agriculture programme to work, it is essential to speak directly with the farmers, to discuss their problems, their weaknesses, how they work the land and the condition of the soil. Then you get good results.”
The programme will integrate climate smart agriculture with ecosystem-based solutions for increased food security and disaster risk reduction. “By focusing on the services provided by ecosystems, we can ensure healthy agricultural land, as well as conserving the mangroves and coral reefs that protect the coast,” says Friederike.
On Esmeralda beach, luxury holiday cabins and beach bars are dotted among the palm trees and sand dunes. Building work has recently started on two new resorts which are due to open in 2022, and Yonattan worries about the impacts that tourism is having on his home town. “We need more sustainable economic growth,” he says. “At the moment everything is focused on tourism, and the environmental, cultural and social aspects get forgotten. Everything in Miches smells of tourism.”
But beyond the newly-built resorts, Miches - described by the New York Times as an “Instagram goldmine” - is still one of the poorest towns in the Dominican Republic. Squeezed between the Cordillera Oriental mountains and Samaná Bay, people here have traditionally relied on subsistence farming and small-scale fishing for their livelihoods. But water shortages, soil erosion and over-use of pesticides have all taken their toll on the delicate coastal ecosystems.
Despite these challenges, Yonattan’s passion for his hometown and the local ecosystems remains undiminished. “This is where I was born, raised, studied and still live. Everywhere I go brings back childhood memories. I don’t want to live or even go on holiday anywhere else!” He is not alone. “We have lots of activities dedicated to keeping our natural resources in good condition,” he says. “There are dozens of women, girls, men and boys who, like me, give their all for a better Miches. The healthier the local ecosystems are, the better they will withstand climate change.”