CCJ Fellowship: Plastic’s out, and sustainability’s in, Saona Island leads by example

In May 2023, Saona Island pledged to eliminate single-use plastic within 60 days, marking a significant move within the Dominican Republic's main tourism hub.

What is justice, if not the opportunity to redeem places that once represented pain? Transforming despair into opportunity and never forgetting the truth while still moving forward and doing better than our ancestors did

In May 2023, the communities of Catalina and Saona islands, two of the Dominican Republic’s smaller dependencies, vowed to eliminate single-use plastic within 60 days. According to the Ministry of Tourism, the Punta Cana International Airport (PUJ) welcomed 25,127 flights in 2022, outpacing arrivals to Santo Domingo Las Americas Airport (SDQ) in the capital city. While the initiative deployed a few months ago on both islands isn’t the first of its kind, it is the first to take place within the sphere of the Dominican Republic’s main tourism hub.

In May 2023, Saona Island pledged to eliminate single-use plastic within 60 days, marking a significant move within the Dominican Republic's main tourism hub.
Saona island’s coastline

It’s important to note that eliminating single-use plastic is a first step in a wide-reaching plan. According to Diario Libre, the project’s long-term goals include converting fishing boats into electrically powered vessels, following Saona’s transformation into the western hemisphere’s first island powered in its entirety by renewable energy as of January 2023. This remarkable step forward, led by the InterEnergy group, came two years after it became Latin America and the Caribbean’s first company to join EV100, a corporate initiative whose members commit to fully transitioning to electric vehicles by 2030.

In May 2023, Saona Island pledged to eliminate single-use plastic within 60 days, marking a significant move within the Dominican Republic's main tourism hub.
Solar panels in sight, alongside signage guiding visitors to the church, lagoon, police department, infirmary and school

If successful, these initiatives could positively impact the lives of the island’s nearly 500 denizens, which is important considering how little the island has been at the forefront of countrywide discussions. While at the centre of Dominican media now, reports signal that the island did not have widespread internet until 2019, placing it significantly behind in terms of connectivity and information access when compared to the rest of the country. Now, Saona Island is one step closer to not being left behind.

However, this contemporary identity makes us wonder: What was the island’s past like, given the country’s existence as a colony for nearly four centuries? Can a small dependency pack as much sordid history as its larger counterpart?

In pre-Columbian America, Saona was known as Adamanay, or “Shelter Island,” amongst the Taino. The first Taino that lived on this island were the Cayocoa, led by the warrior Cotubanamá, and the Eastern National Park’s namesake since 2014. Said tribe used to live in nearby Bayahibe, a current tourist hotspot, but fled to Adamanay when the Spanish made landfall on September 14, 1494, nearly two years after their first expedition in what was known as Ayiti and then renamed Hispaniola by the Spanish.

According to a paper titled Theodoor de Booy: Caribbean Expeditions and Collections at the National Museum of the American Indian, Cotubanamá’s treasures and the legacy of the Taino who once lived there were not found until 1913, when Dutch-American archaeologist Theodoor de Booy unearthed them. Here, we can observe a trend of researchers from other countries finding significant pieces of other countries’ histories, which our ancestors were usually unable to do because of limited resources and insufficient technological advances.

Its current name, far from its indigenous origin, is reportedly due to Michele Da Cuneo, who accompanied the Spanish during this second trip. Upon sighting the island, he allegedly claimed that Saona was as beautiful as Savona, his hometown in northern Italy. As Spanish evolved throughout the centuries, inhabitants dropped the “v” and started calling the island Saona.

This wasn’t, however, the last time that settlers would want to claim Saona for themselves. Between 1940 and 1945, during the dictatorship of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, the United States intended to colonise Saona and turn it into a military base. Trujillo, who was uncharacteristically against this decision, negotiated for said base to be located in the north of the country.

In 1944, concerned that other countries would attempt to invade Saona, Trujillo resettled 14 families from Samaná, which relied on agriculture and fishing just like Bayahibe, over to Saona, ensuring that the island had permanent inhabitants. As a result, these new settlers created the Mano Juan community, comprising the island’s first permanent inhabitants in centuries. To help them acclimate, he built houses, a school, a hospital, and a church (perhaps to help cement the Concordat that he signed with the Catholic Church in 1954?) and facilitated boats to fish and travel, as well as animals such as horses, donkeys, and pigs for transportation and husbandry.

In May 2023, Saona Island pledged to eliminate single-use plastic within 60 days, marking a significant move within the Dominican Republic's main tourism hub.
Mano Juan community

As far as authoritarian figures are concerned, though, these apparently good intentions had a more sinister underpinning: Trujillo wanted to build a prison on the island, where he intended to lock up those who opposed his dictatorship. These plans never saw the light of day, though, because he was assassinated on May 30, 1961. Years later, on September 16, 1975, President Joaquín Balaguer created Cotubanamá National Park through Presidential Decree 1311.

However, that didn’t mark the end of Saona’s challenges.

Since Saona is part of the Cotubanamá National Park, a category II protected area, only research, education, recreation, and ecotourism are allowed, while infrastructure is limited to that which focuses on protecting the park.

Furthermore, tourist activities are limited to 4:00 p.m., after which visitors require permits from the Ministry of Environment to stay overnight. While done to preserve the island’s natural integrity, this places inhabitants in a precarious position whenever hurricanes, storms, and other phenomena occur. In September 2022, after Hurricane Fiona devastated the eastern region of the Dominican Republic, 47 of the 69 houses on Saona Island had to be rebuilt due to extensive damages, uprooting over 200 people from their homes. While there is a strong focus on preserving the island’s essence, Saona’s two communities, Mano Juan and Catuano, must be at the forefront of any policymaking that involves nature and people coexisting and benefiting from each other. Balancing the island’s status as the country’s most visited national park with its role as the only protected area with permanent residents places it at a challenging but promising crux, one in which sustainable development can and must be achieved in order to safeguard nature and protect people’s livelihoods.

History is part of who we are, but it doesn’t define us or limit what we are capable of.

Saona Island is in an ideal position to test out projects that could be widely implemented in the rest of the country as far as ecotourism is concerned. This policy-driven and people-first approach could involve policies such as limiting the number of visitors during the high season, diversifying the island’s economic activities while bolstering nature-based solutions, and reinforcing housing units in a sustainable way that does not leave a negative environmental impact.

While the topic of reclaiming pieces of our history comes up, part of this process could involve enabling a temporary exhibit with different pieces, obtained from museums around the world, of the Dominican Republic’s first peoples. This exhibit could take place in the Museum of the Dominican Man, one of the country’s cultural bastions, and proceeds related to this separate exhibit could directly benefit the Mano Juan and Catuano communities.Development is not a monolith, and climate justice certainly isn’t. What worked in a time prior to dangerous anthropogenic activity is not what will work in a time in which vulnerability has skyrocketed and climate emergencies have proliferated alarmingly. Preserving Saona Island’s natural beauty and ecological relevance must go hand in hand with further dignifying the lives of people who have lived there for decades. These are people who have foregone the relative comforts of an urban lifestyle for a peaceful existence that truly goes hand in hand with living in harmony with nature. Let us not leave them behind and showcase how Saona can continue to lead by example.


This story was published with the support of the Caribbean Climate Justice Journalism Fellowship, which is a joint venture of Climate Tracker and Open Society Foundations.

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Gabriela Taveras Ruiz

Gabriela Taveras Ruiz

Gabriela is a young professional who is skilled in advocacy, research and climate change. She holds a Graduate Certificate in Tropical Forest Landscapes from Yale University, a Master of Arts in Development Studies (majoring in the Environment, Resources and Sustainability) from the Graduate Institute in Geneva, Switzerland, and a Bachelor of Science in Diplomacy and International Relations from Seton Hall University. She grew up in the Dominican Republic and has worked for institutions such as the United Nations, the United Kingdom’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the U.S State Department.

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