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Dominica: one project that preserves the people

On Friday, August 17th, 2007, Hurricane Dean barrelled through the mountainous island of Dominica. Lasting for eleven hours, it was the longest recorded hurricane in 76 years. The famous rivers of Dominica became deadly forces of destruction, growing larger by the hour, and carving new paths through the rugged landscape. Homes were swept away by powerful mudslides, while the endless entanglement of the rainforest blew, cracked, broke apart, and flailed helplessly in the 200 km/hr winds.

In its path, Hurricane Dean left behind devastation and debris, but it also left behind a resounding message: Nature will always have the last word.

In light of this, it seems only fair to Nature that we live in synergy with her. When the next storm hits, though the damage is tragic, we will learn to accept the realities of Nature’s potential ferocity. Not only that, but as Dominica digs itself out from the rubble of the Hurricane, and the rubble of years of economic hardship, it can potentially profit from a lucrative industry that brings people in close quarters with the natural world.

What does this synergy look like? It looks like a campground nestled comfortably beneath the canopy of the Dominican rainforest. It looks like a bamboo tree-house suitably camouflaged and elevated high off the forest floor. It looks like a local woman cooking a traditional dish over a wood fire as resident insects and animals provide an exciting and exotic soundtrack.

What I am describing here is the Rosalie Forest Eco Lodge, an eco-centre and accommodation for tourists nestled innocuously in the rainforest near Grand Fond, Dominica.  The property owner and manager, Jem Winston, purchased the land in order to save it from logging and his eco-friendly leanings were implemented into his accommodations from the very beginning. I had the pleasure of camping at the Rosalie Forest Eco Lodge for nine nights this past winter, and experienced first-hand what it means to live intimately with Nature.

When you arrive at the Rosalie Forest Eco Lodge you cannot see your accommodations until you have hiked fifteen minutes up a trail that gradually narrows to a winding path amidst tall trees. The trees are signposted to direct you to your designated forest home: one of two tree-houses, a small lodge, a traditional Carib round house, a dormitory, or a tent. At the nexus of these winding paths is a communal area and kitchen offering separate cooking facilities to guests and to the local village women, who prepare meals for guests who wish to indulge in the local fare. The forest facilities are powered by wind turbines that are installed a hundred feet up in the air. There are dry, composting toilets on-site and a shower made out of a damaged water cistern that offers excellent views of the canopy via its open top. Not to be forgotten is the ‘Mermaid Pool,’ a widened portion of a nearby river that offers excellent swimming and an area to bathe using Dominican-made biodegradable soap.

Jem Winston employs eco-friendly tactics in all aspects of the operations at the Rosalie Forest Eco Lodge. While some of these tactics are fairly obvious, such as the large solar panels bolted to the exterior of his home, others would go unnoticed if they were not pointed out. The entire septic system, for instance, is located underground and is completely self-decomposing. As well, the wood provided for the buildings comes with a guarantee that each tree has been replanted. However, Jem’s definition of eco-tourism goes far beyond the natural environment. In his words, “eco-tourism is the conservation and preservation of the land, the air, and the people.”

For me, the final word in his answer was the most compelling. People.

The Caribbean is most famous for its white, sandy beaches and blue waters, as well as its large-scale, all-inclusive, five-star resorts. The chain of islands is also home to beautiful natural ports that attract large cruise ships and chartered boats. Every day thousands of cruise ship tourists flood onto the docks of major cities only to walk within a two kilometre radius amongst American stores and beach-side bars before returning to their hotel on the sea. Whether on a boat or in one of these all-inclusive resorts, visitors who patron this kind of tourism will hardly see the people whose land they have temporarily called home for the holidays.

Tourism is an important industry for the Caribbean. Without it, many countries would be in a difficult economic position. Dominica, however, is still struggling to promote itself as a tourist destination. At present it hosts a few cruise ships every week, and is only in the planning stages for all-inclusive resort development. Unfortunately, if it begins to adopt the same tourism style as other Caribbean destinations, Dominica will also follow the pattern of disconnecting its tourists from experiencing the local, Dominican way of life.

The Rosalie Forest Eco Lodge does just the opposite. In an effort to practise sustainable tourism, Jem and his team apply numerous strategies to bring guests closer to the ‘local experience.’ Jem hires only local villagers to work in the areas of cooking, security, construction, maintenance, and guided tours – a team that is made complete with the participation of short-term volunteers from abroad. Guests to the Rosalie Forest Eco Lodge have the opportunity to learn about the local area and cultural practices through close contact with the staff, which thus enhances and preserves the day-to-day life of the village community.

Avoiding the walled-in effect plaguing all-inclusive resorts, the Rosalie Forest Eco Lodge provides its guests with a fully immersed local experience that can go beyond the lodge property itself. Jem provides a home-stay program to guests wherein they pay to stay in the village of Grand Fond with a family. Ten village families have volunteered their homes for the home-stay program, and are scheduled to collectively host over thirty guests in the upcoming months. Jem expects the home-stay program to expand through the participation of foreign university and school groups.

Grand Fond is a small community planted awkwardly at the top of a large hill in South East Dominica. The simplicity of the small, concrete homes is hidden behind bright pastel hues of pink, blue, green, and yellow. Clothing lines full of contrasting patterns and faded t-shirts line the yards as chickens and goats roam aimlessly between homes and across the street. The homes double as stores, though you wouldn’t know it to look at them. It is quiet in town but a passer-by will offer a friendly nod and “ya alright.” Often you hear the sound of a machete chopping in a yard nearby long before you see the person tending to their garden. Some people are just sitting around, and seem to be doing nothing in particular. If you were to ask them what they are doing, they would simply say “I’m here!” It is into this world that Jem positions the tourists that are participating in the home-stay experience.

To Jem Winston, the home-stay program is the epitome of eco-tourism. It puts money into the community through the simple and effective means of promoting the tourism of ‘everydayness.’ There is no demand for the villagers to perform in any way, or employ a user-friendly approach, which is typical to the tourism industry. In fact, they are told to go about their everyday business – their laundry, cooking, planting, and socializing – as though their guests were not there. This will give the tourist an authentic local experience. Villagers in Grand Fond are naturally friendly and helpful people, so the guest will in no way feel invisible. On the contrary, visitors will feel drawn to participate.

The home-stay program is a great way to give back to the community. In an age of foreign-owned businesses, Jem, originally from Britain, understands the importance of keeping money in Dominica, and furthermore, in the community in which he has built his accommodations.

In addition to the home-stays, the Rosalie Forest Eco Lodge offers half-day activities that include harvesting coffee, visiting the local elementary school, herb farming, and practising with the local calypso and reggae band. Each of these activities, suggested by the villagers themselves, comes at a cost to the visitor, which is given directly to the community members who participate.

Jem Winston not only employs eco-friendly practices, but also teaches the community about incorporating these practices into their daily activities. He offers environmental consultancy services, educational tours of his property, leads workshops on sustainable living and eco-friendly practices, and frequently performs hands-on demonstrations using items that are already available to villagers. Using copper pipes, black paint, and an old gas tank, for instance, Jem can demonstrate how to create a cost-effective and eco-friendly water heater.

In providing opportunities and contributing his expertise to the local community, Jem Winston provides a sense of empowerment to people who might otherwise feel that they have nothing to provide to the tourism industry of Dominica. With an establishment like the Rosalie Forest Eco Lodge, Jem feels that he cannot go wrong: the villagers are empowered, the guests are enlightened, and he has the satisfaction of providing that opportunity.

By incorporating the use of hydro, solar, and wind energy to power the facilities on his property, Jem has not overlooked the natural forces available for eco-friendly practices. This past August, however, he was given a violent reminder of the destructive forces of Nature when the Rosalie Forest Eco Lodge was subjected to the assailing wind and rain of Hurricane Dean. As I walked around the property with Jem he pointed out the damage caused by the hurricane. In a sort of cruel irony, Nature proved her point once again. Among many other damages, the river that was once the source of hydro-power for the property destroyed the hydro-power infrastructure, wiped out a portion of the access road, and cut a new course through the garden. Dean also toppled a tree onto one of the tree-houses, damaging it beyond repair.

I was impressed with Jem’s outlook, however. “Anything is possible, if you want it to be,” was the last thing he said to me as we concluded our tour. Despite months of repairs and new projects ahead, Jem Winston understands, and accepts, what it means to live in Nature and live by her rules.

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