How the Caribbean’s charred forests end up firing America’s barbecues

By David Ferris, Nate Gronewold | 06/24/2016 07:51 AM EDT

Lust for charcoal is leading to murders, political unrest and the chopping of prime forests on the most populous island in the Caribbean, and a portion of the bounty winds up used to fuel barbecue grills in the United States.

Dominican park rangers destroy a charcoal oven while on patrol. Park rangers are charged with stamping out charcoal production while also regulating a quasi-legal charcoal trade.

Dominican park rangers destroy a charcoal oven while on patrol. Park rangers are charged with stamping out charcoal production while also regulating a quasi-legal charcoal trade. Photo courtesy of "Death by a Thousand Cuts."

Lust for charcoal is leading to murders, political unrest and the chopping of prime forests on the most populous island in the Caribbean, and a portion of the bounty winds up used to fuel barbecue grills in the United States.

That’s the conclusion of the directors of a new documentary called "Death by a Thousand Cuts" that will appear on TV networks this winter. It follows the repercussions of a murder, as well as the political and environmental toll of a little-known tragedy smoldering on the island of Hispaniola.

Hispaniola, one island east of Cuba, is a divided land with a tense border that sometimes erupts in violence. The western third is Haiti, a former French colony that speaks Creole, and the eastern two-thirds is the Spanish-speaking Dominican Republic.


Their diverging paths are written in their forests.

Haiti cut down almost all of its forests long ago to make charcoal. In the highlands, the Haitian side of the border has become a landscape of dry scrub where crops don’t grow. The mountains on the Dominican side, by contrast, are lush cloud forest, in a country where national parks are cherished jewels protected by the military.

The documentary exposes a troubling new two-headed dynamic. One part involves desperate Haitians foraging for wood deep into the Dominican Republic’s Sierra de Baoruco mountain range. They are clearing the trees with machetes and building ovens that slow-cook wood into lightweight black charcoal. It is then brought to Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, where it is sold on the street as a primary source of energy for residents still recovering from the devastating 2010 earthquake.

Jake Kheel, 39, a native of New York City who lives in the Dominican Republic and is one of the documentary’s two directors, said that in the four years he’s worked on the film, he’s started to see in Sierra de Baoruco the kind of creeping tree-cutting that denuded Haiti.

"You’d see patches of deforestation; you’d see a fire," Kheel said. He spoke during an interview at the movie’s U.S. premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival two weeks ago. "Over the years, we started to see more and more patches opening up, and more and more areas that were just bare."

The filmmakers took four years to make the movie, following the trail of charcoal on mules, on motorcycles, on cargo trucks, on the tops of crowded buses and on sailboats running contraband routes to Port-au-Prince. They flew drones near the Haiti-Dominican border and spent loads of time with locals in the mountains to gain their trust. Trust was key, since they were simultaneously investigating the murder of a Dominican park ranger by a Haitian carbonero, as a charcoal-maker is known in Spanish.

In the lowlands, they found another story unfolding, that of a larger charcoal trade. Trees are being cut and burned on a more industrial scale, sometimes on private land with plantations of fast-growing species, according to Yolanda Leon, an activist with a Dominican environmental organization called Grupo Jaragua. (Leon also appears in the film.)

The businesspeople obtain their permits from the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, which is the very agency tasked with enforcing anti-charcoal laws.

Charcoal production destroys forests and accelerates conflict in parts of Africa, from Somalia to Congo, where forests are adjacent to poor people who can afford no other fuel. But the Dominican trade is the only one to send a sizable portion of its loot to the United States.

U.S. Census Bureau and Dominican customs data show that from 938,000 to more than 2 million metric tons of Dominican charcoal has arrived at ports in Puerto Rico and Miami every year since 2012. This commerce is permitted under the terms of a trade agreement between the United States and the Dominican Republic.

A stark border

Kheel and his co-director, a Colombian named Juan Mejia Botero, said they were inspired in part to make their documentary by reading a Jared Diamond book entitled "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed." The book looks at why ancient societies failed, and one of its major themes is that island communities perished once their forests were gone.

Diamond’s book looked at the decline of ancient societies, like Easter Island, as well as the present-day plight of Haiti, which is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. An absence of forests has led to erosion, flooding and degradation of farmland and has changed rainfall patterns that contribute to the island’s current drought.

Oven mound
A charcoal producer surveys a charcoal oven mound in the Dominican Republic’s Sierra de Bahoruco. | Photo courtesy of “Death by a Thousand Cuts.”

The island of Hispaniola has a population of more than 20 million.

The island’s stark contrast — with Haiti bare and the Dominican Republic forested — is the result of decades of diverging approaches to forest and energy policy.

Both countries used to have depleted forests. But starting in the 1960s, the Dominican government made forest preservation a priority, setting aside the best areas as national parks and putting the army in charge of protecting them. In the 1980s, the government successfully dialed back demand for charcoal by offering subsidies for people to cook with propane instead. This "ecological subsidy" has grown and now costs the Dominican government hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars a year, Leon said.

Meanwhile, Haiti continued its reliance on charcoal even as its population grew.

The Dominican Republic is now 28 percent covered by forest — the second-largest canopy in the Caribbean after Cuba — while Haiti is less than 4 percent forest, according to data from Mongabay, a forest-protection organization.

The United Nations reports that 92 percent of Haitian households relied on charcoal for cooking as of 2012. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations estimates that approximately 10,000 bags of charcoal are burned in Haiti daily.

A solution to the Haitian population’s devastating charcoal addiction won’t be found unless a viable alternative is aggressively promoted. On this front, Haitian authorities appear to be doing little.

The U.S. Agency for International Development has taken on several initiatives, including building 400 horticultural greenhouses with the goal of freeing up hillside land for forest agriculture and reforestation, and planting millions of seedlings that it says have had a 70 percent survival rate. It also says it has converted 100,000 households from charcoal to cleaner cookstoves.

The United Nations has also made efforts in reforestation, flood control and increasing employment, though it has been hampered by discord within Haiti’s government.

In 2007, the United Nations’ peacekeeping mission to Haiti, which goes by the French acronym MINUSTAH, also helped locals establish a recycling center in Port-au-Prince that produced paper-based "briquettes" to be used for cooking. The briquettes also burned cleaner than charcoal, mitigating the threat of indoor air pollution, a top killer in the developing world (Greenwire, Nov. 9, 2009).

At the time, there was hope that the concept would spread throughout the country, but that didn’t happen, according to U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) official Guillaume Joachin. "The management of the paper briquette program was transferred to national authorities in 2012. But the initiative was stopped along the way," he said.

A few energy initiatives look to supplement Haiti’s meager energy supplies with hydropower. A miniature hydroelectric project was launched on June 15, Joachin said, a facility now generating enough electricity for 71 families. UNDP sees further hydropower potential in Haiti, estimating that the country could generate roughly 150 additional megawatts of hydroelectricity, triple the output of an existing Péligre hydropower plant in the center of the country near Mirebalais.

If anything, it appears the United Nations is encouraging the charcoal trade through certain reforestation initiatives. A June 5 overview published on the occasion of World Environment Day highlighted U.N. and Haitian efforts toward promoting sustainable agroforestry.

"UNDP helped to establish the ‘energy forest,’" Joachin noted. "It is localized in the northeast in a vulnerable community called Derac where charcoal trade is very important." Derac lies just on the border with the Dominican Republic.

The paper-briquette trial was launched by the violence reduction arm of MINUSTAH. The peacekeeping mission and nonprofits active in Haiti are also pursuing potential development and violence reduction projects along the border, mindful of the sometimes deadly clashes there resulting from Haitian charcoal production creeping into the Dominican Republic. For instance, three Haitian charcoal smugglers were gunned down in 2009 on the Dominican side of the border near Jimani. That outburst of violence prompted a temporary crackdown by the authorities (Greenwire, Dec. 14, 2009).

The black trade

With almost no attention, the Dominican Republic has become a significant exporter of charcoal to the United States and its territory of Puerto Rico — a remarkable development considering that Dominican charcoal is supposed to be illegal.

Charcoal is used to slow-smoke meats, and it brings a flavor to pork ribs like nothing else. Enthusiasm for charcoal-grilled pork isn’t just an American thing. In Puerto Rico, the "Ruta del Lechón" — the Pork Highway — is a string of villages known for the art of barbecue.

Starting in 2011, the Dominican Republic expanded what had been bustling exports to Puerto Rico into an escalating trade to both Puerto Rico and Miami, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau and from Dominican customs data acquired by Leon and the documentary team.

In 2011, the United States minus Puerto Rico received over 70,000 kilograms of Dominican charcoal, a trade that rose to 538,000 kilograms in 2014 and declined to 94,000 kilograms last year, according to Dominican customs data. U.S. Census figures show that most charcoal bound for the continental United States arrived at the Port of Miami.

During the same period, Puerto Rico imported up to 14 times as much Dominican charcoal as was received by the rest of the United States. It saw a peak of 1.9 million kilograms in 2013, according to Dominican customs data.

Trade information compiled by the Census Bureau shows how the Dominican Republic has risen to become a significant source of charcoal imports into the United States.

Mexico is far and away the largest source of foreign wood charcoal, supplying more than half the value of total U.S. imports in 2014 and 2015. But Dominican charcoal imports rose rapidly from nothing to levels comparable to imports from much larger nations such as Canada, Brazil and Argentina.

For example, the $533,041 in charcoal imported from the Dominican Republic in 2014 ranks with Canada’s exports to the United States of $634,737 that same year or $525,000 from Brazil imported in 2015.

Forest advocates may be alarmed to learn that the Dominican Republic, with its small island ecosystem, is exporting nearly as much wood charcoal to the United States in value as giants like Canada and Brazil. Still, a new international trade agreement may make it virtually impossible to legally halt this trade.

The United States spearheaded and joined the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR), a treaty that has been in effect since 2012. The Dominican Republic’s charcoal exports to the United States expanded by 154 percent that year, then fell slightly in 2013, but ballooned again in 2014.

Though hundreds of pages long, CAFTA-DR addresses the environment in just 13 pages. Deforestation or forest protection isn’t mentioned. The language is aspirational and nonbinding, encouraging cooperation on environmental efforts and deferring to domestic environmental laws.

Kheel, who has been in Washington, D.C., to coincide with the city’s Dominican Week, said that members of Congress have expressed interest in seeing the film, including Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). Durbin’s office had no comment on the subject, and Kennedy’s office did not reply to a request.

Back in the Dominican Republic, the filmmakers expect the response to the film to be outrage. It probes the racial and political faultlines around a cross-border murder and shakes Dominican assumptions that their prized forests are safe and that the charcoal problem is small. Many will be surprised to learn that the manufacturing of charcoal is happening not just at the hands of a few interloping Haitians but through a business network in the Dominican Republic with blessing from the government.

"Most Dominicans don’t know that this is happening, a little here, a little there, but they don’t know the scale, the level of complicity or the impact on the park," Kheel said.

The crew is arranging showings in cities and in the rural areas, including the Sierra de Baoruco mountains, where special screenings will be held for family and friends of the murderer and his victim, people whose grief is captured keenly in the film. Kheel said he has received feelers of interest from Danilo Medina, the president of the Dominican Republic, for a showing before him and his ministers — the very people the documentary accuses of being complicit in the charcoal trade.

"I don’t know if I’m more nervous to show it to the president in the palace or to some of the people we worked with," Kheel said.

A version of the film will appear this winter on Univision, the largest Spanish-language TV network in the United States, and on Pivot, a network owned by Participant Media, according to Vanessa Reyes-Smith, a consultant with Pivot. The original, longer version will be screened at a New York film festival later this year and in Washington, D.C., in July as part of the city’s Environmental Film Festival.