Can you tell us a little bit about who you are, how you first found out about the issue behind Avocado Rise and why you are so worried about it?
Ironically, the first time I visited Sierra de Bahoruco, I was visiting an avocado plantation down in La Placa, right in the edge of the National Park. It would be years after that I started birding and photographing in these mountains. Honestly, I was blown away by such a pristine and ancestral forest. I had not realised such a place existed on our island. The destruction became evident rather quickly. Between visits, huge chunks of forest would disappear and give way to illegal plantation: beans, roots, but mostly, avocado. As this fruit became trendy worldwide, the prices skyrocketed and pressure mounted over the forest. This is the last true forest on the island, it holds wonderful secrets, it harbours our endemic birds, it creates our water. This is not just a plot of land: this is the actual heart of this island.
Why is avocado having such a negative impact? Are there any possible alternatives?
It is not the avocado plantations that are harming us, it is the avocado plantations within National Park. There are many ways to cultivate the fruit and create jobs and boost the economy without destroying our natural treasures. The problem is, it is much easier to break into the park where no is watching, far away from civilisation, in fertile, public land and take down the forest. We don’t need to ban avocados, we need to regulate how and where they are planted. We need to regulate water usage (avocado plantations use an obscene amount of water). We are basically exporting our future, our water and our natural resources inside each one of these illegal avocados.
Why is so important to protect Sierra de Bahoruco?
It is just magical. Honestly. It starts with dry forest at the bottom. Dense, dry bush, lianas hanging from the canopy and the sounds of the mysterious Cua, one of the rarest birds in the world, echoing across the land. As you start going up, a dramatic change takes place. The leaves get broader, the ground gets more moist and the forest gets greener. Hispanolian parrots fly by in what now seems prehistoric. It is just a soulful corner of the world. Then, as you keep climbing, yet another change happens and the forest turns into a conifer haven, where crossbills, a bird usually reserved for northern latitudes, raids the pinecones. I promise you, this is not the Caribbean you’ve been told about. This is El Dorado, this is special, and we must protect it at all costs.
What will the wider consequences be for the República Dominicana if nothing is done?
The southwest region of the island, right at the Dominican-Haitian border, is the poorest region in DR, and plenty of illegal activities have a strong grip over these communities: illegal charcoal trade, smuggling of every kind and illegal plantations. These are not necessarily bad people, these are hungry people, these are extremely poor people and the solution should address that reality as well. There are tourism plans for this part of the island, and hopefully this will create formal jobs and boost the economy, but we can’t wait until then to aggressively protect Bahoruco. We’ve seen what happens when the forest is not protected, we’ve seen the human tragedy that follows. It is very surprising to me, mind-blowing, that we care more about internet and the economy and market prices, than we care about air and water. We have become beings that aim to rule our surroundings, committed to dominate it, when we should be creatures connected to our surroundings and committed to protect it.
Do you think the documentary has the power to inspire positive, lasting change?
I am hopeful. I think that our youth, although not clear on the methods just yet, have the right idea and I am hoping we can all organise ourselves better. The documentary will show most Dominicans a reality that they’ve never seen. Also, it might push buyers to be more conscious about the origins of their product. There are some very conscious and serious avocado producers on the island, cultivating in private land. Countries should legislate and regulate to make sure the avocados they are buying are not destroying the planet; they are not blood avocados.
What will you take away from the experience of working on the documentary?
We are one. I’ve been very inspired by the passion for this issue shown by folks across the ocean. This idea of nations, of borders and countries, is starting to change. Because now we know as a fact, that what happens in the other side of the planet, affects us directly. There is no natural isolation. In this sense, collaboration has been beautiful and I am grateful.
Are you positive about the future for the Sierra de Bahoruco?
Somedays I am. Others, I have this huge sense of tragedy and urgency. We have time to act, but not much time. Environmental consciousness is very disconnected from politics. There are politicians involved in the illegal trade of avocado, of charcoal and cement production within national parks, but I see a clear change in new generations, a broader awareness of the situation we face, of the kind of politics that we need. I am hopeful that we can mix this youthful courage with the experience and common sense of the older generations. We need to get everyone involved and convey to every Dominican, the seriousness and importance of this magical place. Sierra de Bahoruco.
Interview with Mario Dávalos
Edited by Bis Turnor