Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Caribbean’s Best Kept Treasure

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It all started with the glittering turquoise blue Caribbean Sea.

And then, a thatch-roof airport. This was the sight that greeted me as the plane descended on the runway. Swaying coconut palm trees. Rocking on a beach hammock. A morning jog along the coast to watch the sunrise. Thatch-roof huts glowing in silhouette against the sunset. An endless array of colorful fruits of papaya, pineapple, passion fruit, mango. A postcard paradise. Welcome to the Caribbean’s best kept treasure: the Punta Cana resort in the eastern tip of Dominican Republic.

What brings most people to Punta Cana is vacation; what brought me and fifteen other journalists to Punta Cana was a week-long seminar, “How Environmental Issues Influence Our Daily Lives: The Nexus Between Environment, Economics and Business” by The New York Times Institute on the Environment. We came from diverse ages, experience, and media backgrounds. From spread out locations of New York, New Jersey, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Washington DC, California, Montana and internationally, from Johannesburg, Montreal and Santo Domingo – we all united in Punta Cana resort with one purpose: to learn about the current environmental issues. It is my first time to Dominican Republic and the first time to the Caribbean. I hope staying at a luxurious resort will not inhibit me from having a real experience.

The Punta Cana resort was founded by Ted Kheel, and his partner Frank Rainieri over 30 years ago. A labor lawyer from New York he invested in this eastern part of Dominican Republic at a time when the area was barren and unknown. As a result of the resort and tourism, the region’s economy has been transformed, providing all sorts of employment for the Dominicans. But not just the locals benefit, also benefiting are their neighbors, the Haitians. These two countries share the island of Hispaniola, a significant historical location as it was first stop for Christopher Columbus when he first arrived in 1492 on his way to America. Ever since reading: Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, I’ve been intrigued by how history and environment affects a country’s economy. Though Dominican Republic and Haiti share the same island, with similar environments, resources, climate, and a history as former colonies - their current situations are totally different. Haiti is one of the most impoverished nations on earth and is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. So poor are the Haitians that they escape to Dominican Republic to become ‘environmental refugees’.

Less than a century ago, Haiti was still a lush country with 60% forests covering the lands. Since then, the trees have been cut down and today Haiti only has 1 percent of its land covered in forest. Its neighbor, Dominican Republic on the other hand has environment that is protected. Its economy continues to grow and there is interaction with the international community. From this simple case study, I learned how vital it is for a country to be aware of its environmental problems. Unlike most resort owners in the world, Ted Kheel believes and supports environmental sustainability. He understood early on that the business of tourism is also a business of preserving the natural environment. Punta Cana Ecological Foundation was established to preserve the coastal zone, monitor water quality and has a recycling center and an Ecological Park and Reserve. Punta Cana Resort is setting an example of how it’s possible to develop a region, maintain economic growth and still preserve the environment.

Each day the journalists had the seminar classes in Ted Kheel’s resort home, Casa Guayacan. We had a field trip one afternoon that took us outside our Paradise-land to the shantytowns. Located in an area around the resort, this is where the resort workers and locals live. People are poor, with homes made of plywood or sheet metal. Our van passed by fields of migrant workers, of all shades of skin of black, chocolate and caramel, working on building the roads, gardening the plants, etc. We visited a medical clinic and an elementary school, all established by the resort owner to help the people in the impoverished area. Journalists get the rare privilege to view things differently, seeking out the extraordinary in the ordinary – just by definition of their profession. And whether in written words or photographs or moving images, they transcend what they have learned to others. Environmental journalists especially, I feel are humbled by their exposures of what they see. The interactions during the week-long seminars, both in and outside of class were tremendously dynamic - and because of all of them, Punta Cana was not only alluring for the sight but also stimulating for the intellect too.

As I sat on the plane heading back to New York City, I thought how Punta Cana turned out to be the perfect location for an environmental/economics seminar and a great introduction to Dominican Republic. It was as one fellow journalist said, “A rejuvenating experience learning about environment, socio-economics and life in general that left me with a great will to travel more and do better work". The experience has made me eager to return to the Caribbean. The next time I hope to be speaking with the locals in Spanish and making some great films. But until that next opportunity, I will always have the image of the coconut palm trees swaying in the foreground of the turquoise blue Caribbean Sea.

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Roland Hulme said...

Great blog! It must have been amazing to go. I got married in the Bahamas and swam with the sharks (yes, you can do that if dolphins are too girly) and I thought they were beautiful. Sleek and predatory - like cats of the sea! Which is appropriate, since aren't cat fish a member of the shark family?

Can't wait to see your film.

Anonymous said...

Very informative.
thank you for bringing back environmental
awareness into my mind.
You write so beautifully!
Looking forward to reading more of your articles.
I am very proud of you girl :)


jamesdyoo said...

so well written that i thought i was actually seeing things myself. u have a real way with words. i kept on going once i started.

and the resort sounds simply amazing. it's always inspiring to hear of folks who do something larger than themselves and share it with others