Thursday, July 12, 2007

Second Day Thoughts

(Apologies for the delay in getting this one on-line...)

Blog Entry #1

It’s hard to believe that we’ve only been here for two full days. It’s an easy place to adjust to. Everything is absurdly beautiful and quite luxurious. We were met at the airport and whisked here directly, setting the standard for the over-the-top ease of existence that I’m afraid the group seems to be adjusting to quite easily. With the gorgeous Caribbean views, the many available activities (some at additional prices), the possibility of establishing an exchange trip here for Poly students and the continual intellectual stimulation (to borrow a phrase from the Brady Bunch) it’s easy to feel that one has stumbled into a pretty sweet situation. And all the people are great (fun, smart, easy to talk to) which has not always been the case on past “teacher trips.”

However, there is something (genetic?) that always makes me look for the dark cloud over any silver lined experience. In this case, it has been the Punta Cana Resort and Club’s claims of sustainability in their operations. I do see some significant gestures that have been made. Clearly there is sacrifice and altruism (as well as some self-interest) in the resort’s choice to establish schools that all their employees can attend, so one feels that the Kheel family, at least, are genuinely moral people. And they have stated, in various ways, that they are committed to sustainability in the running of their resort. There are many signs that attempts have been made to “put their money where their mouth is.” There is an organic garden (really more like a small farm) growing food that is served at our meals. There is the Biodiversity center, where our class meets down the hall from a full-time researcher and below a residential hallway for American university students who come here to study ecology. The brochure touts the fact that on the Corales golf course “a plant nursery has been started, as indigenous bushes and trees will be planted throughout the course” and that “Paspalum Supreme, a new variety of water-conserving, low maintenance grass, will assure players of a finely textured playing surface.” And there is the Ecological Park we’re scheduled to visit tomorrow, a “600 acre private reserve.” So it must be acknowledged that they’ve done a lot more for the biosphere than your typical Holiday Inn or Motel 6.

But I can’t ignore the troubling signs. The Punta Cana Resort and Club’s “Navigator” brochure says the Ecological Park contains “the natural beauty that inspired us to first settle here in 1969.” Certainly, if the Kheels and Frank Raineri, their development partner, had never been so inspired there would be a lot more natural beauty here today. The corals wouldn’t be suffering from overuse and from effluent running off the golf course into the water. The ground would not be covered with plants imported from other places, no doubt sustained by artificial fertilizers and “protected” from weeds by chemical herbicides. Fossil fuel burning vehicles wouldn’t be zipping around in a constant whirl of consumption. The coastline would be full of mangrove and other appropriate tidal plants to smooth the transition from land to sea, and to protect the island from the threats of tropical weather. Instead, it has a scenic carpet of transplanted sand, an unnatural concentration of coconut palms, and virtually non-stop human traffic. There are other strange choices for a place that claims ecological awareness, such as a dearth of vegetarian options on menus that entirely lack the words “organic” and “locally grown” (why lose the opportunity to boast and educate)? Many of the indoor spaces seem overly air-conditioned, we get tiny bottles of shampoo and conditioner in our rooms which need to be thrown out every third day, the biodiversity center seems to employ no full-time scientists environmental scientists with advanced degrees and the new golf course promises to be a major environmental problem, even if it sports a fancy new grass and it’s edges are decorated with native plants.

The low point in my personal assessment of the local environmental health came yesterday, when 40 minutes swimming on the featured beach with a mask and snorkel didn’t bring me across the path of a single fish. However, this morning I was assigned to do a natural observation, so I stood for about twenty five minutes in the shallow water of a beach that was labeled “temporarily out of service.” The strange signage seems to be related to the small protected bursts of mangrove, which may be there to forestall erosion and provide some protection during the next hurricane. The area is also rich in what I believe to seaweed, algae and beachgrass, although it is only about 200 feet away from the “pristine” (empty) water and sands I was surrounded by yesterday. I knew something was up when after about 30 seconds I heard what seemed like a fish splashing loudly, and then I heard another within a couple of minutes. During my brief time there I heard at least 10 such loud splashes and saw two crabs, at least 15 small white fish, 10 larger grey fish, and a striped white fish swimming around my feet for a minute or so (a nice gift from Mama Nature).

I felt increasingly relieved and excited as I stood there and nature performed, modestly but consistently, around me. Does this mean that the resort would only have to plant a swath of seagrass to get a sizeable population of aquatic species returning? And does the resort have much incentive do such a thing when the average tourist would probably prefer a “pristine” stretch of white sand and “clean” clear water, unsullied by the plant and animal species that would have been found there forty years ago? These questions are hard for me to answer, but I do have a model for a simple experiment that intrigues me. I’m thinking I’ll try to do surveys of the shallows in the beaches that are being used and those that aren’t and see whether the unused beach areas are, as I would expect, much richer in animal life.

Anyway, as an opportunity to explore an ecosystem this has been a decidedly mixed experience, but in terms of an experience that’s given me plenty to think about, I’d have to say “so far so good.”

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