January 30, 2012 / Praxis
Flannery O’Connor insists that good fiction must be grounded in place; in this essay, Andrew W. E. Carlson discovers that the same can be said for church.
July 6, 2009
As our two pickups struggle through the grass and mud, it is clear that we are the first to pass this way in at least a few days. In the pouring rain the entire road, what Carlos, Plant With Purpose’s Dominican director, calls the international highway, seems like it could wash down the side of the mountain.
Rising thirty or forty feet to our right is a tangle of green. Old tree trunks are visible through the undergrowth, and branches with reddish bromeliads overhang our path. Patches of heavy mist drift through the trees and obscure the tops of the mountain. To our left is a vertigo-inducing drop-off into thin air, the valleys of Haiti visible far in the distance.
We are driving between impoverished border communities through Sierra de Neiba National Park in the Dominican Republic, near the Haitian border. It is a place of breathtaking beauty. After crossing the pass, we begin the winding descent down the other side of the mountain range. The forest changes from broadleaf to tall pines.
After three days of visiting our work in the struggling hillside communities to the south, the park is a reminder of how magnificent this island once was. I begin to feel as though I’ve caught a glimpse of how things were meant to be in the Garden. One can only speculate about what creation in a pre-Fall world must have been like, yet for all that the curse has tainted and all that human sin has done to damage our earth, the beauty of what God has made still shines through everywhere. God’s ability to work things together for good is obvious in the intricate ways that ecosystems like this fit together so perfectly. Nothing is wasted, and everything has its niche. Everywhere life springs forth from death, and resurrection is foreshadowed.
Soon we drop out of the trees and leave the park. As we wind our way down muddy switchbacks, the forest gives way to newly planted bean fields blanketing all but the steepest slopes. The view is still spectacular, but now there is much that is clearly broken. Here the curse is obvious. Huge rills caused by erosion are a testimony to the unsustainable nature of the agriculture. On the far side of the gorge, above the flood-scarred dry wash that marks the border, dozens of Haitian homesteads dot the hillsides. There, years of intense cultivation have given erosion a head start, and the exposed bedrock that fills the fields is a portent for the Dominican side as well.
This is new territory for me; Plant With Purpose only recently completed initial surveys on this side of the park. The first village we come to, a collection of wooden shacks, a one-room school, and a military border checkpoint, has been appropriately nicknamed “The Armpit.”
The conventional wisdom, that you can tell the location of the border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti by where the trees stop, isn’t entirely true, but it is close—the greater population density on the Haitian side makes the border obvious. But on both sides, circumstances have made it challenging for people to live without destroying their environment. And the environment returns the favor, its degradation making life tenuous for these forgotten people. It is a broken relationship in a fallen world.
Poverty limits the options of farmers who have no resources other than the hillsides. When times get especially hard, they cut the trees to sell as firewood. The Dominicans can clear more of the forest to plant their beans, moving into the edges of the national park, but the Haitians must cross the border daily to sharecrop the Dominican bean fields. They trade half their crops for the right to farm Dominican hills, taking their unsustainable farming practices deeper into the Dominican Republic.
As the trees fall, the soil continues to erode and the watershed continues to degrade, robbing the farmers of their two most important assets—soil and water. Thus, poverty spreads and is clearly visible in the eyes and on the faces of the shoeless workers that walk back and forth across this border.
But even here, there is hope. There is good news and there are options. The people may be disempowered, they may need to be reminded of their own God-given talents, but they are not stupid or helpless. Like all of us, they need to be reminded of their own importance in the eyes of God and of the love he has for them. The good news of the kingdom is that they can begin to live as if the curse were lifted. Relationships with God, creation, and neighbor can begin to heal.
Creation need not be an enemy. Farmers can learn other ways to farm that work with the steep hillsides, instead of against them. Trees can be planted that thrive in this environment and provide income to poor families while slowing soil erosion and restoring the watershed. Waste can be used as fertilizer rather than river pollutant. By mimicking the diversity of creation and its cycles, a new, healthier relationship can be created. New life can come from decay. Like all of our relationships, these new relationships are still tainted by the fall, but they can be improved and health can be restored. Finally, as Dominicans and Haitians, people with a long history of mistrust and even violence, work together for a common purpose as brothers and sisters in the Lord, relationships between troubled neighbors can be healed.
In the few years that Plant With Purpose has been working on the other side of the park, we have begun to see the changes that occur when individuals and communities rediscover their God-given potential and heal their land. Tiny trees cover the hillsides. Beans are being replaced with a diversity of crops that make the best use of the steep hillsides and scarce water. There is reconciliation between Haitian and Dominican. It still doesn’t look like the park and never will, but there is perhaps even greater beauty in the redemption that is taking place as life springs forth from death. Here in the Armpit, that redemption is still only a prayer, but we look forward with great anticipation to the healing that is to come.
Scott Sabin is the executive director of Plant With Purpose. He holds a master of arts in international relations and lives in San Diego, California, with his wife and two children. Plant With Purpose is a Christian nonprofit agency dedicated to reversing deforestation and poverty by transforming the lives of the rural poor. Plant With Purpose operates reforestation and community development programs in six countries around the world, including a new project on the Dominican-Haitian border. Please visit www.plantwithpurpose.org for more details.