A multitude of elements make the Dominican Republic a unique country in terms of its environment. From the lusciousness of the sands of the Baní dunes to the Pico Duarte, the tallest mountain in the Caribbean, it is impossible to resist the great diversity of landscapes, climates, and ecosystems which exist on the island. Indeed, being an island entails a high degree of vulnerability for this marvelous territory and the people who live there. Therefore, taking charge of its protection and appropriate enjoyment represents an act of caring for both present and future generations.
The island of Santo Domingo or Hispaniola is a piece of land located in the center of the Greater Antillean islands, between Cuba, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico. The island is shared between two nations: the Dominican Republic and the Republic of Haiti.
Hispaniola includes diverse climatic zones with unique biological characteristics. This means that in a relatively small portion of territory (76,192 km2 to be exact) one can find species of flora and fauna endemic to temperate, dry, and tropic climates, among others. For this reason the island is commonly referred to as a “continent in miniature”, since in its territory the most highly contrasted and varied landscapes in all of the Caribbean can be found. Its topography is formed by a succession of mountains and valleys, with impressive contrasts in altitude; from Pico Duarte (link in Spanish), at a height of 3,098 meters, to Lake Enriquillo, located 52 meters below sea level. These unique contrasts give way to highly varied vegetative landscapes, forests, savannahs, and steppes.
Diverse geological processes formed Hispaniola as we know it today. Millions of years ago, since the second age of the formation of the Earth, there were two islands which with the passage of time united to form Hispaniola’s mountains, valleys, plains, watersheds, and coastal borders. This, complemented by conditions of altitude, both dry and humid temperatures, and soil composition, transformed Hispaniola into an island with a high grade of endemicity.
(Geological formation of Hispaniola. Source: GFDD)
An endemic species is one which is found in its sole habitat and nowhere else on the planet. Because it is an island, endemicity is reinforced in Hispaniola due to the sea, which acts as a barrier to the distribution of species found on the island.
Hispaniola is characterized by having an abundance of endemic species, especially reptiles and amphibians, and occupies second place for endemicity of vascular plants in the region, with more than 6,500 species (39% of the total). In the case of birds, endemicity is found in the Dulidae family, which has only one species: the Palmchat (Dulus dominicus), the national bird of the Dominican Republic. Returning to reptiles, the Jaragua sphaero or dwarf gecko (Sphaerodactylus ariasae), an endemic species of reptile which is considered to be the smallest in the world, inhabits the island of Alto Velo.
The regions of Hispaniola with the largest number of endemic species (May, 2001) are the Baoruco Mountain Range, followed by Los Haitises National Park and the Ebano Verde Scientific Reserve. Other areas with a high index of endemism are the Loma Quita Espuela Scientific Reserve, Jaragua National Park, and the Cotubanamá National Park, formerly the National Park of the East.
(High Endemicity Zones. Source: Atlas of Biodiversity and Natural Resources)
These and many other ecosystems have been altered by the actions of humankind to the point of creating a significant threat to the equilibrium of our natural resources and the services they provide to us, such as water. For this reason, the Caribbean possesses dozens of highly threatened species, such as the Hispaniolan solenodon or agouta (Solenodon paradoxus), the West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus), and the Ridgway’s hawk (Buteo ridgwayi). It is the Dominican Republic’s intention that with the creation of the National System of Protected Areas (SINAP) the majority of these ecosystems will be conserved.
Indeed, environmental concerns like this echo around the world, which is why the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has classified areas in which large quantities of endemic species and special and vulnerable ecosystems can be easily affected by human activity as biodiversity hotspots. To date, 34 such places exist around the world, the Caribbean being one of them.
(Map of hot-spots classified by the IUCN. Source: IUCN official website)
As can be seen above, the island of Hispaniola falls under this classification. The technical compromises required of policies when operating under guidelines for conservation and sustainable development are even greater when on the international level our ecosystems and natural resources are valued and declared as relevant not only for those who live on the island of Hispaniola, but also for the inhabitants of the rest of the world.
It is important to emphasize when speaking about the environment that nature knows no borders (link in Spanish), and that the ecological wealth enjoyed by Hispaniola benefits the Dominican Republic as much as the Republic of Haiti, seeing as both countries share the same island. The environmental policies determined by each countries’ governments are what distinguish the quality of the environment in one country as compared to the other, and as can be seen, decisions made in one country can positively or negatively affect the other. It is therefore the job of Dominicans everywhere to fight so that more and more neighboring governments include best practices and environmental policies in their agendas that assure the quality and availability of environmental resources in their lands.