by Tim Shenk
Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations
A half-dozen protestors were injured and several more were jailed Sunday during a peaceful rally for the preservation of Loma Miranda, a mountain in the Dominican Republic’s central range. The protest was called after arsonists allegedly set fires May 7 on the mountain under exploration for ferronickel extraction. Government officials were opaque in their response.
On Sunday, Dominican National Police and the Army fired shots attempting to disperse the environmental rally at Loma Miranda. They wounded six, including university professor Juan Alberto Benzan and Sixto Gabín, president of the Asociación Dominicana de Profesores in the city of San Francisco de Macoris.
Mobilizations were led on Sunday by Catholic priests Rogelio Cruz and Nino Ramos, as well as participants in a longstanding protest camp on the mountain. Protestors denounced that forest fires had been set intentionally at three or four strategic points on Loma Miranda last Thursday, May 7 at around 9 a.m.
Facts in the unfolding case of alleged arson seem to implicate agents tied to FALCONDO, the Dominican subsidiary of the transnational mining company Glencore Xstrata, with potential complicity or cooperation from government agencies.
“First,” said Father Cruz in an interview with Telenoticias 11, “only FALCONDO’s heavy machinery has been allowed on the mountain.” Official explanations claim that this machinery was required to dig trenches to control the spread of the fire.
Cruz responded, “The trenches these tractors have dug have not been in areas necessary to detain the forest fires. Rather, they are digging only in the areas where the mining exploration studies have been done, and where they’re planning future roads to connect mining operations.”
Photos circulating on social media document civilians being held up by members of the armed forces and the Ministry of the Environment, as the former tried to reach the blaze to help control it.
University professor Rafael Jimenez Abad noted that it took more than six hours for the Ministry of the Environment to send the first helicopters carrying water to fight the extensive fires. He suggested that this lengthy delay could imply government complicity and the fires could be part of a “strategy to degrade Loma Miranda, to eliminate one of many arguments against its exploitation.”
Conspiracy theorists these activists are not. The Dominican government and transnational actors have used similar tactics in the recent past to depopulate areas for mineral extraction and high-end tourism industry development.
Loma Miranda has been the center of controversy for the past four years, as broad sectors of Dominican society have opposed FALCONDO’s mining exploration and exploitation concessions for myriad reasons. Defenders of Loma Miranda have noted that the mountain is the source of an extensive watershed that feeds the country’s largest rice fields and other produce in the provinces of La Vega and Monseñor Nouel. They also cite endangerment to the variety of flora and fauna unique to the mountainous region.
After widespread protests last year, the PLD-controlled Dominican lower house passed a bill that would have made Loma Miranda a national park. A week later, on September 3, President Danilo Medina used his executive power to urge the Senate, also controlled by his party, the PLD, to annul the law. Twenty-six of 29 senators voted on the president’s recommendation to annul the law. In the months since, the fate of the mountain and those who depend on its rivers has been unclear.