Guayabal is a small town of approximately 2,000 people that is located in the southwest of the Dominican Republic near the border of Haiti. The town is situated in a valley surrounded by beautiful tree covered mountains. One would think that this would be a perfect spot for people whose livelihoods depend primarily on subsistence farming. The reality of Guayabal, however is something different. While the lush mountains around receive plenty of precipitation throughout the year, the valley is dry and sun-scorched. Even the rain that does fall in the mountains does not funnel into the valley as one might assume. Instead, it filters into groundwater aquifers and the majority of this water is not accessible until it surfaces as a spring at the low side of the town.
In the 1970’s, a large pump station was installed in order to bring this spring water back up to the town so they could irrigate their lands for better crop production. For many years this irrigation system helped turn this valley from brown to green. However, as a result of inconsistent power supply to the town, as well as improper protection and maintenance, the pumping station eventually fell into disrepair. After many years of this system being inoperable (with no way for the farmers to make the necessary repairs) the people of Guayabal lost their agriculture production and their hope that it could ever be restored. Many of the area farmers began trekking into the mountains in search of land that would be more productive despite being harder to farm. Others left their homes and families in Guayabal in search of greater opportunities in Santo Domingo or even migrating across the Atlantic Ocean to Spain.
Several years ago, World Vision began working in Guayabal with their child sponsorship program. As they began to assess the felt needs of the community, agricultural production was one that immediately rose to the top. Together with the community and government agencies, they began to explore the possibility of rehabilitating this irrigation system and more importantly setting up appropriate systems for ongoing maintenance and sustainability. In the past, the community relied completely on the government to operate and maintain the irrigation system. They are beginning to discover that this arrangement only works as long as the current government has the political motivation and funds necessary to make it a priority and this irrigation system has not been a government priority for over 15 years! During that same time, however, the government did manage to fund the construction of a very nice baseball field with lights in the town! I’m sure there are designated funds streaming into the DR from the US MLB to build baseball fields as a means for recruiting, but it does make you wonder why the irrigation system wasn’t a greater priority.
While it would seemingly make things much simpler to completely divorce any reliance from the government, the reality in the Dominican Republic is that some level of government partnership remains a necessity and they do not need to burn those bridges. Now, as the country is nearing elections and as the community has continued to petition them to help rehabilitate this irrigation system, some politicians have made a few attempts to indicate that they are now motivated to get involved. World Vision has also stepped in to help provide some of the initial funding for the community and is doing an incredible job trying to navigate the murky waters of partnership between community, government, and NGO. In doing so, they called on the help of EMI to determine the feasibility of the current approach and to provide recommendations for rehabilitating the system.
This was no small task, but we had the perfect team for the job. At EMI, we often talk about the miraculous ways that God brings together the perfect teams for specific projects. This project was no exception and definitely worth mentioning. Among the 7 team members we had a combined experience of over 175 years in 98 countries. We had 2 of our most experienced agricultural engineers, one of our most experienced civil engineers, an electrical/mechanical engineer who actually began his working career in agriculture, and a surveyor who also specializes in agriculture irrigation projects and who had spent several years working on an irrigation project just across the border in Haiti (less than 20 miles away)! I should also mention that this team came together in record time for a non-disaster mobilization.
Shortly after arriving in Guayabal, we began to gain an understanding of the political climate in the DR as well as the tangled history of this system. We had been on site for approximately 2 hours when we were escorted into the equivalent of a city council meeting and were asked by a regional politician to give our opinions on why his assessment for the rehabilitation of the system was the correct way to proceed. I don’t know for sure the motivation in putting us on the spot like this in a public setting (knowing full well that we had just arrived), but I can only assume that it was an effort to strong-arm some political will. Thankfully, we were able to gracefully inform him that we would be evaluating the system over the course of the next week and would present our findings at that time to the community.
In short, during our assessment we ended up confirming the suspicions held by World Vision and the community that a major component of the proposed solution was not only a poor design, but would be setting them up for certain failure. After all, the goal is to help establish sustainable systems that can be maintained by the community and not perpetuate their total reliance on others. As stated before, the reality is that the government must be involved in this project, but by bolstering the capacity and knowledge of the community they will be able to effectively partner with them going forward for sustainability instead of being dependent on them.
Another concern that we had with regard to sustainability beyond the hardware and design of the system was the local farmer capacity and particularly the presence of young farmers who would continue working this land into the future. Our surveyor, Kevin, had a great conversation with a couple of the younger men that were there and their story gave us hope. These young men had come back home because they heard the irrigation system was going to be rehabilitated. Kevin asked them the current value of the land they were standing on, which was not a particularly good piece of land in relation to other parts of Guayabal. The men replied with a number representative of this type of land. Kevin then asked them what the current value would be of the best lands in Guayabal and they replied with a higher number. Kevin then asked what the value would be for irrigated land in Guayabal. They laughed as they responded saying,