Carving up ParadiseBy Elizabeth Eames Roebling
LAS TERRENAS, Dec 15 (IPS) -
Located along white sand beaches on the north coast of the lush Samana peninsula, this is the latest Dominican boom town. Entering the town from across the high mountains, developers' signs are perched on the steep hills, with prices in dollars, promising a piece of paradise.
Inside the small village, crowded with motorbikes and SUVs, real estate agencies seem to be the major business. Empty new storefronts dot the sidewalks. New four-storey apartment buildings crowd along the beach front. Twenty-five years ago, the small village of a few hundred people lived off of fishing. Now the estimated 30,000 residents, including more than 5,000 foreigners, predominantly French, wait for others to come and buy the land that was long ago bought from the original owners.
Charlie Simon, a local artist, says things are worse for him now than a few years ago. He is concerned about all the new construction and what it will mean for the future of the place. "It is not such a good thing to build so many apartments. People come for a week or two and then lock the place up and leave. Or people come for the weekend from the capital, they come with their own food, with everything. These people, what do they bring? You don't need many people to work in an apartment. It is not business for a town. Fifty apartments will produce maybe five jobs. How much will they make each month, the maids, the gardeners, maybe RD 5,000 pesos a month? This is a benefit for the country? No."
Free Trade Zone earnings and tourism are currently the country's fastest-growing export sectors. So-called "real estate tourism" -- foreigners building vacation homes -- alone accounted for 1.5 billion dollars for 2007, and that number is expected to double within three years, according to the Dominican Association of Real Estate Tourism Companies.
Dr. Jose Bourget, a Dominican who teaches via the internet as a professor at the University of Maryland, settled in Las Terrenas with his family six years ago. He shares Simon's concerns about development. "I think Las Terrenas has grown too much, too soon. That has had a tremendous impact on basic services and infrastructure, on water, roads. People were building any way they wanted, anywhere they wanted. Much of it was done by paying off officials," he told IPS. "The damage cannot be undone. The corals are dying. The quality of the water is...well, there is no quality. We know that the underground water cannot be trusted because there are too many septic tanks. Now they have built a town sewage treatment plant, but they put the collection tanks right on the beach. Some of us have reservations about how well it will work. But the damage has been done. No one was thinking of how to control it when the place exploded," he said.
From May until October, there was a halt on all new construction projects in Las Terrenas. One tourism director put the ban in place and his replacement in the new administration lifted it. While Dr. Bourget believes that there should be a freeze on growth for five years, he is opposed to the manner in which the central government has been directing things in Las Terrenas.
Recently, the government released a "master plan" for the town, containing marked areas for green zones, commercial development and private residences. The plan was designed without any local input. "If you are making a plan for a city, how can you not ask the residents of that city what they want for their home? This was a lost opportunity for participation, to have a local discussion. for general focus groups and town hall meetings, " Bourget observed. "Most likely a lot of things that are in the plan will be said, like 'we want more sidewalks, more green areas, protection for the beach, solution for the traffic problem', but it feels differently if there are hearings, if people have their say. "
Bourget and his wife, Annette Snyder, started the Anacaona Community Library three years ago and run summer camps for some of the local children, with the aid of volunteers. The small library, which serves about 270 local people a week, also serves as the town's only children's playground. When asked about the public education system, Bourget threw up his hands. "Yes, the system has grown. Now there are two secondary schools. But there are 40-50 kids in each class. You cannot teach in a classroom with 50 kids. Graduates of eighth grade here do not read or write well. That is the most critical issue here and no one is talking about it. Leadership should be coming from government, otherwise the people will not be able to raise themselves out of poverty."
Simon's voice carries an edge of bitterness when he talks about the future of the town, reserving most of his anger for the resident foreign population. "The foreign population of Las Terrenas, they do the same thing that Dominicans do, every day. They are here for their business. Some people come from France, very young, they are supposed to stay in France, working until they retire but they do not do that, they come here with 5,000 dollars and open a restaurant and the French tourists go there, not to our comedors to eat our rice and beans. They use our country to make money. They talk bad about our population."
"If we look what we have to do to grow in a positive way, we need education for the people. If development is only for the rich people, the town will be finished," he said. (END/2008)