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Eco-activist Esteban Polanco believes that the value of water surpasses that of gold, and that even the threat of violence will not deter him from his cause.
Environment World News

Eco-activist Esteban Polanco believes that the value of water surpasses that of gold, and that even the threat of violence will not deter him from his cause.


While traveling from his residence in Loma de Blanco, a peak located in the heart of the Dominican Republic, towards the neighboring town of Bonao, Esteban Polanco was assaulted by a gang of roughly 10 individuals. They launched a fiery explosive device at the vehicle he was riding in with two of his offspring, before fleeing the scene. The family managed to escape unharmed, but Polanco sustained severe burns.

“He recounted the near-death experience in the 2007 incident and mentioned that it took a year for him to fully recuperate. Some of the offenders were eventually incarcerated, but not all of them.”

Polanco sees IT as a severe form of revenge for his activism as a prominent defender of land and water in the country. He leads a group of farmers called the Federation of Farmers Towards Progress (La Federación de Campesinos hacia el Progreso) and they have been challenging governments and influential businesses for many years. They gained recognition for stopping an international mining company from destroying and exploiting Loma de Blanco.

Polanco, aged 62, was raised in an isolated community called Loma de Blanco. He has vivid memories of having to cross the river 21 times in order to reach the nearest town. In his youth, he assisted his father who was a farmer, and later pursued a career in education where he worked as a teacher for 12 years. He is known for his cheerful and amiable demeanor, but he becomes passionate and spirited when discussing environmental protection and the injustices faced by his community.

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His organization remains committed to protecting the land, rivers, and rights of community members. Additionally, it provides training for environmental advocates from neighboring regions and nations.

Latin America is consistently found to be the world’s most dangerous region for activists. In 2022 88% of the global total of 177 murders of land and environmental defenders occurred here.

According to Polanco, the current circumstances are particularly perilous for defenders. Mining companies and ranchers are constantly depleting resources and becoming increasingly hostile. We must continue to resist with even greater determination, as they are encroaching upon areas that are even more vulnerable than the ones they have already exploited.

In 1992, the government of the Dominican Republic gave Hispaniola Gold Mine, a subsidiary of a now-defunct Canadian company, an exploration permit in the Madre de las Aguas region (also known as “mother of the waters”). This region encompasses Loma de Blanco and is where the River Yuna, the second longest river in the Dominican Republic, is located.

The situation was reminiscent of the biblical story of David and Goliath. The federation’s members had to travel on foot or by mule, going from village to village, in order to warn residents about the potential hazards of mining. They also held meetings and workshops to educate people. According to Polanco, they saw themselves as the last line of defense against the mining company’s attempts to enter their land.

The group examined legal implications on mining and its impact on the environment. They teamed up with geologists to gain a deeper understanding of rock formations. “We acquired knowledge and compiled a newsletter outlining 10 reasons why permitting a mine would not be feasible,” he elaborated.

A huge gold mine within a forested landscape

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Polanco enlisted the support of prominent activists and environmentalists, including Aniana Vargas, who is considered a national hero, in their battle.

In 1997, following persistent efforts and demonstrations by thousands of individuals from various locations in the nation, government officials informed the federation that the mining corporation had abandoned its intentions.

Luis Carvajal, coordinator of the environmental commission at the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo, reflected on the campaigners’ success, stating that it brought about the potential for the implementation of an environmental law and shifted the dynamics of the environmental movement within Dominican society.

Fernando Pena, from the National Space for Transparency in Extractive Industry, a group of over 100 organizations that oversee the effects of mining in the Dominican Republic, states: “The feat achieved by the federation was immense. It served as an inspiration for others.”

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Currently, the main office of the federation is located in Loma de Blanco, situated on top of mountains adorned with abundant, vibrant plant life. This region contains seven hydroelectric dams, producing over half of the nation’s sustainable energy. The federation has been established there for 28 years, after obtaining government authorization to preserve the area.

The group’s members have played a role in recent environmental conflicts, including efforts to designate the nearby Lomo Miranda area as a national park due to its valuable reserves of ferronickel.

An eco lodge has been constructed to attract tourism and showcase the innate offerings of the natural environment. In addition, they produce their own coffee, educate farmers on maximizing land usage, and provide training for crafting bamboo furniture.

Esteban Polanco smiling and holding a young goat in an open barnView image in fullscreen

In February, the ministry of the environment and natural resources invited Polanco to assist in organizing local communities to aid forest firefighters in preventing destruction and handling fires. According to authorities, humans are responsible for 68% of these fires.

The organization informs youth in nearby areas about the significance of preserving natural resources, specifically water. They conduct educational activities and events, host professionals and scholars to deliver lectures, and are currently establishing an agroecology school to educate individuals on food sovereignty and protecting water, mountains, and the environment’s diverse flora and fauna.

Defenders of the land and water from various regions of the United States and Latin America have gathered to study the tactics employed by the federation in safeguarding themselves and the natural world. One such individual is 28-year-old Esther Giron, co-founder of Aquelarre RD, a local feminist group in Bonao, who finds inspiration in their efforts.

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“When I learned about the federation, I came to understand the deep-rooted and anti-colonial nature of their struggle for the protection of water, land, and life,” she explains. “I came to realize that our political efforts must begin within our own communities and, most importantly, we must work alongside women who face greater barriers.”

Despite the constant danger of environmental devastation, Polanco finds comfort in the growing public recognition of the importance of preserving the environment. He hopes that future generations will carry on the battle.

“Presently, there are youth members from our neighborhood and neighboring towns who are resolute in ensuring the protection of Loma de Blanco,” he expressed. “We must not permit the exploitation of any susceptible mountain that provides vital water resources to our nation for mining purposes, as for us, a single drop of water holds more value than an entire ounce of gold.”

Source: theguardian.com