In May of 2004, an extraordinary rain drenched the mountains of Haiti, in a place I had never heard of before, called Fonds Verrettes. We are used to the hurricanes: Georges, Ivan, Gustave, Ike, Sandy, Matthew; but the storm that brought this rain didn’t even have a name. Over the course of a week, almost two feet of rain fell in some places.
In the predawn hours of May 24th, the Soliette River burst its banks and a wall of mud and rocks, fifteen feet high and hundreds of yards wide, came roaring through the center of Fonds Verrettes, leveling it, before racing across the border into the Dominican Republic (where it changes names to Rio Blanco). There it obliterated half of the town of Jimani, carrying bodies into Lake Enriquillo, nearly six miles away. Several thousand people were killed that morning, both Haitian and Dominican. The market in Fonds Verrettes, where many of our partners sell goods, was a site of tremendous loss.
The environmental connection between the two countries was never more obvious. The watershed connected Fonds Verrettes and Jimani and had no respect for the international border or the fact the river had a different name. The rain was extraordinary, but most accounts attributed the violence of the flooding to the severe deforestation in the Haitian hills, and the fact that water was unable to infiltrate the soil, instead running off.
I was haunted by the fact that our work could have saved most of those lives.
That event planted the seeds for both our Watershed Model, and the transborder work we have been working to pursue this environmental connection ever since.
Shortly thereafter we began to hold conversations involving both our Haitian and Dominican leaders. Several of those meetings were in Jimani, where we got a close look at the recent destruction. During breaks, I chatted with hotel staff, all of whom had lost friends and relatives.
During those meetings we agreed to intentionally begin a project in a watershed which straddled the border, although as we were to learn, it was a challenge to figure out a location that worked for both organizations. For example, the Dominican region directly across the border from Fonds Verrettes is a desert and is one of the places which gives lie to the cliché about all the trees being in the Dominican Republic.
We even discussed the possibility of administering the project separately from our partners in Haiti or the Dominican Republic, with its own offices and executive director, lest the collaborative aspect and focus on reconciliation get lost. In the end funding did not permit that option.
In April 2006, the Transborder Program was officially launched, with offices in Fonds Verrettes and Sabana Real, Dominican Republic. Despite regular meetings between teams, within a couple of years, funding, geography, impossible logistics, Dominican-Haitian politics, and our own leadership led to gradual disconnection of the two programs.
Nonetheless the connections between watersheds and communities along the border remain deep and complex. Our team once arrived in Sabana Real in the midst of vigilante violence, which had been triggered by an animal that had wandered across the border to graze. Before the situation completely sorted itself out, at least two people had been murdered.
In that same community hundreds of Haitian workers crossed the border every day before dawn to work in the Dominican fields. Further south, in Fonds Verrettes, many of our partnering farmers have side businesses, selling (often donated) goods across the border, while a significant portion of charcoal burned in Haiti is smuggled the opposite direction from the Dominican Republic.
Of course, all of this is impacted right now by the border dispute between the two countries over the construction of a community aqueduct along the Massacre River. That river crosses the border several times, and while the aqueduct is being constructed by Haitians on the Haitian side, the Dominican Republic claims water rights. Once again, the watershed does not respect national boundaries!
Unfortunately, the Dominican response of completely shutting the border has the potential to make life even more difficult for people who depend a great deal on cross-border commerce and even cross-border familial relationships. (For more on the history of the border, especially in that area, see this amazing but difficult article from NPR.)
All this history makes me very enthusiastic about recently renewed efforts on the part of the Latin American-Caribbean team to resurrect the Transborder Program.
Thank you for your role in bringing hope and reconciliation to the border. Your support of this unique environmental connection is felt by so many you may never meet.