The turquoise paint is peeling from the exterior of Pedro Ferreira’s small farmhouse. The wood structure is filled with cracks and holes permeate its rusted metal roof. For Ferreira, the house where he and his family once lived is a reminder of what life used to be like in Zambrana, a rural village in the Dominican Republic just two miles from the Pueblo Viejo mine.
“Here, all the houses were like this,” he says. “Dirt floors, flimsy roofs. It was very difficult. That is why I didn’t tear it down. It’s a reminder for people to see how things can change.”
Ferreira, President of the Zambrana-Chacuey Farmers Association, which consists of 4,500 families spread across 28 communities, has spearheaded a massive agro-forestry project that’s transforming this impoverished region. Muddy, barren fields have morphed into tree-filled groves. Thick, droopy plantains intermingle with spikey cacao—two of the many types of trees now harvested by Association members. There are avocado, guava, cassava, mango, almond, coconut, and acacias, the latter imported in the 1980s from Africa and now thriving here in the Dominican.
Today, just six years after it was launched, the agro-forestry project is self-sustaining.
The project, which launched in 2011, began as a partnership between the Association, Barrick Pueblo Viejo and ENDA, a non-profit dedicated to fostering sustainable development. Its primary objective was to transition communities away from livestock farming to an agro-forestry-based economy.
“Livestock farming involves the clearing of trees, which deprives the land of moisture,” says Welinton Otanez, Corporate Social Responsibility Supervisor at Barrick Pueblo Viejo. “Over time, as livestock farming predominated in this region, the land has decayed.”
Local waterways have also been impacted as the dearth of trees exposed the water to the searing sun increasing the rate of evaporation. Soil degradation also pushed farmers closer to nutrient-rich lands near these waterways, posing an additional strain on the water ecosystem.
Barrick contributed $3 million over a three-year period to the project, which helped fund the planting of hundreds of thousands of trees and the reclamation of thousands of hectares of land. The project also supported training on how to plant, maintain and harvest the various trees. Farmers learned to plant strategically, positioning fast-growing plantains next to slower-growing cacao to provide the right amount of shade for the cacao to grow optimally. Newly-planted trees now shade river basins and water levels are recovering.
The project also funded a timber and woodworking business run by an affiliate of the Association. The timber, which includes highly-prized Honduran mahogany, pine and acacia, is sourced locally and exported countrywide. The number of trees felled is closely regulated by the government. Some of the timber is crafted into furniture at a warehouse in Zambrana that includes a sawmill and ovens to rid the wood of moisture. The furniture is sold locally and across the country, creating yet another revenue stream for Association members.
Today, just six years after it was launched, the agro-forestry project is self-sustaining. Funding from Barrick is no longer required thanks to revenue from crop yields. Support from ENDA is no longer necessary because arborist expertise among Association members is such that members now train each other.
“We are grateful to our partners because we’ve taken 4,500 families who were very poor and helped improve their livelihoods,” says Ferreira, as he opens a cacao pod on his farm and tastes one of the seeds. “There were only three cacao plantations left in this area before the project started. Today, we have 3,000 hectares of plantations.”
The agro-forestry project is one of several major initiatives that underscore how Pueblo Viejo works with local communities to create sustainable benefits.
“These projects really epitomize Barrick’s approach,” says Peter Sinclair, Chief Sustainability Officer at Barrick. “And that is to build strong, trust-based partnerships with our host communities, work with them to increase capacity in areas that they prioritize, and ultimately reach a point where our financial support is no longer needed.”
To be sure, not all projects generate results as quickly as the agro-forestry initiative. Some can take a decade or more before they become self-sustaining; some never do. “Our goal is to do everything we can to leave the community better off than when we arrived,” Sinclair says. “And by that I mean from a long-term economic, social, and environmental perspective.”
Ferreira says Barrick has shown that mining can co-exist with local communities. “We have always had a collaborative relationship and they’ve had a positive impact on the community,” he says.
Ferreira, who is 66 years old, has spent most of his life working on behalf of his community, and he shows no signs of slowing down. He says the Association’s long-term goal is to industrialize the production of cacao, a key ingredient in chocolate and the biggest revenue generator among local tree crops. This effort would involve the creation of a cooperative that would allow Association members to sell cacao in larger volumes and target international markets. While Barrick is no longer funding the agro-forestry project, the Company continues to work closely with the Association to help it realize its goals.
“They are with us every day,” Ferreira says.
A lifelong resident of Zambrana, Ferreira has wise, friendly eyes and speaks proudly of raising six children here with his wife, Leonides Lampala Ferreira. “They all have professions, but they also make time to come here and work with me,” he says, standing beside his old wood house, which is just several feet away from his newer and larger concrete house.