Sierra de Bahoruco, Dominican Republic, Eladio Fernandez

Forest conservation in the tropics – troubled waters

When it comes to the conservation of nature, Theodore Roosevelt walked the talk. Twenty-sixth President of the United States, he created 150 National Forests and five National Parks, plus the first 51 Federal Bird Reservations (wildlife refuges), and other protected areas as well. Every year millions of people from around the world are able to visit areas set aside for the conservation of nature in the U.S. thanks to the ethics and foresight of this man. For his actions he is remembered as a conservation hero for nature.

Eligio Vargas was a park guard in the Sierra de Bahoruco National Park, Dominican Republic. His job was to find people who were cutting the forest illegally and report them so that the park could be protected. Illegal cutting in Bahoruco is rampant for the illegal charcoal trade.  In neighboring Haiti, where the forests are almost totally gone, Haitians often cook on charcoal made from forests in the Dominican Republic.  In January 2012 a group of men cutting forest to make charcoal attacked Eligio with rocks and sticks, and when he tried to fight back they slashed his throat with a machete and let him bleed to death in the forest he was trying to protect. For his sacrifice he is remembered as a martyr for nature.


Sierra de Bahoruco, Dominican Republic, Eladio Fernandez
Forest in Sierra de Bahoruco, Dominican Republic. This is the type of forest being cut for the illegal charcoal trade. Photo © Eladio Fernandez.


Martyrs for nature like Eligio are all too common in the developing world. The conservation of nature works by a whole different set of rules than those we are used to in the United States, Canada, or Europe.

If we look at nature conservation in the Dominican Republic as a simple fact sheet, what we see doesn’t appear all too different from the United States or many developed countries:

  • 31 national parks
  • 30 national monuments
  • 123 designated conservation units overall, declared by government acts for the protection of nature, wildlife, water, and for the enjoyment of Dominican men, women, and children.

On the surface it sounds a bit like the vision of Teddy Roosevelt. On the surface only. Lift up the thin sheet of facts and the reality of nature conservation in Latin America is dark, complex, and downright dangerous.

In poor countries like many of those in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, an entire family may live on only a few hundred dollars a year. You heard right. When a family is that poor, the forest is life. Wood builds houses and cooks food, wild animals are eaten, and the conservation of nature for its own right is a concept that few have ever heard of.

Try this for a minute: Close your eyes and think of what a national park looks like in the United States or Canada. What do you see? Roads, a visitor center, campgrounds, rangers in smart uniforms, signs telling us what we can and cannot do and exactly where and when we can or cannot do those things.

Go to a national park in a developing country and the view is quite different. There are villages, clearings, crops, and people trying to make a living. If there is a forestry office it may or may not have a truck. A park guard like Eligio likely has no uniform. People are living on the edge, and when push comes to shove, nature takes a hit.

The Dominican Republic is no exception. It’s a beautiful country filled with warm people who will invite a total stranger into their house for a cup of coffee. Many of these people live off the land in national parks and other protected areas that are just as endangered as the wildlife that live there. Canopy Watch International is headed there in April to put some images to this story. Please stay tuned.


Hispaniolan Trogon (Priotelus roseigaster) is only found on Hispaniola. A threatened species, Sierra de Bahoruco is a good place to find it. Photo © Eladio Fernandez.
Hispaniolan Trogon (Priotelus roseigaster) is found only on Hispaniola. A threatened species, Sierra de Bahoruco is a good place to find it. Photo © Eladio Fernandez.

To read a little on Eligio Vargas, click here.

To see a video on the death of Eligio Vargas and the illegal charcoal trade, click here.

Photos courtesy of and copyright by Eladio Fernandez.  You’ll love his photography – click here.

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