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Pride in mangroves takes root across Dominican Republic

April 20, 2022

By Karen Peterson

Despite the wonders of email, instant messaging, and video calls, there is no substitute for seeing island conservation projects–and meeting the dedicated and energetic people in charge of them–in person. This spring, more than two years after our last trip to the Dominican Republic, Seacology staff members were finally able to get an up-close look at the progress of our National Mangrove Initiative, as it approached its first anniversary.

Protecting the DR’s mangroves is of critical importance both to the DR and the world. These dense mangrove forests provide not just habitat for a vast array of wildlife, but also natural protection from coastal flooding, which threatens 70 percent of the country’s population. Mangroves also store more carbon than almost any other ecosystem, so protecting them is a cost-effective way to mitigate global climate change.

Our DR Mangrove Initiative has two key parts: countrywide outreach to spread the word about mangroves’ environmental importance, and local, community-based mangrove conservation projects. We are especially happy at the success of our Play for the Mangroves program, which gives the DR’s sports-crazed youth both mangrove education and volleyball and baseball equipment.

On our first day in the DR, we visited beekeepers who are the de facto guardians of the area called Las Dunas de Las Calderas. It’s a unique stabilized dune ecosystem with several endemic plant and animal species. We’re helping to ramp up the beekeepers’ production and marketing, and reduce waste. We talked with the beekeepers about their successes and challenges, and saw some of their hives in the protected area. We spotted lots of bees out and about in the dry forest, voraciously feeding on blooming plant life! Near the mangroves, endemic (and huge) rhinoceros iguanas sunned themselves on a quiet road.

Seacology staff members and field representative Leida Buglass meet with beekeepers at Las Calderas.

Iguanas sun themselves on a road leading to Las Calderas.

In Boca Chica, just east of the capital city of Santo Domingo, we saw a very different kind of project. This is a bustling tourist area with beachfront hotels and restaurants, close enough to the country’s largest city to attract large crowds. Increasingly severe weather events have significantly eroded the beach fringing San Andreas Bay. Our local partner, Fundación Verde Profundo, aims to regenerate and protect this important 13-acre bay by restoring mangroves, coral reef, and seagrass habitat. We noticed a stunning contrast between the protected area and just outside, where storms and rising sea levels make the waves literally lap at the edges of coastal infrastructure.

A group of local schoolkids was visiting the site too, participating in Play for the Mangroves. They attended a presentation about mangroves and their importance, then hit the water with pool noodles and snorkeling masks to see first-hand the teeming underwater life. After some conditioning drills on the beach, the kids received volleyball and baseball equipment and uniforms. Their excitement about what they learned and experienced was contagious.

Recently planted mangroves grow along the coast of Boca Chica.

Seacology staff members meet with Play for the Mangroves participants.

It was our turn to learn when we went to the Samaná Peninsula, on the east coast of the DR. El Astillero is a mangrove fragment at the mouth of the Arroyo River, which spills out between two beautiful beaches. The area is home to all four of the DR’s mangrove species, and hawksbill turtles graze in the vast seagrass beds offshore and nest on the beaches. 

Local organization Foro Ambiental de Samaná is spearheading efforts to create a new mangrove park and outdoor classroom, with youth activities, a media campaign, and mangrove restoration. Despite being surrounded by a popular tourist area, the mangrove area is incredibly dense and full of life. The beauty of the intersection of the mangroves and the sea was breathtaking. It was clear that this is an area to be nurtured and protected. 

Local kids were already on site, sorting trash they’d gathered and learning about why plastic waste is particularly bad news for mangroves. We learned that if you want to plant mangroves efficiently, engage young athletes! It was amazing to see their enthusiasm and energy. One proudly recited the names of all four mangrove species: “Mangle rojo! Mangle blanco! Mangle negro! Mangle boton!” 

The dense forests at El Astillero contain all four of the mangrove species found in the Dominican Republic.

Seacology Executive Director Duane Silverstein joins members of the local community to plant mangroves.

Our final visit was to El Tablón Ecological Park, on the northwestern coast. It has also been damaged by coastal development, but Fundación Ecológica Maguá, our project partner, has created a 66-acre oasis. There are paths through the mangroves, a human-made wetland that is attracting lots of wildlife, and beehives. As in Las Calderas, we’re supporting local beekeepers and were treated to the very first harvest of “Maguá Honey.” The project is also helping to manage trash that comes from a nearby river, which is prone to flooding and dumps trash from communities upstream into the mangroves and eventually out to sea. The area has high potential as a place for locals and tourists to learn about mangroves and enjoy a peaceful natural experience. It was wonderful to see firsthand why it is so special and deserving of protection.

The mangroves and other foliage at El Tablón offer a thriving habitat for honeybees.

El Tablón Ecological Park contains a curated wetland area that supports a variety of wildlife.

We were thrilled to see how our local project partners are moving forward and engaging people of all ages in mangrove awareness and conservation. It won’t be another two years before we are back!

Karen Peterson is Seacology’s Senior Manager of Special Initiatives, overseeing our major projects as well as our work in East Africa.