In 2012, Eligio Eloy Vargas, nicknamed Melaneo, a park ranger in a Dominican National Park was found murdered with a machete.
At the time, he was on patrol investigating an illegal charcoal production site run by Haitians coming across the border into a protected Dominican forest.
His murder becomes the starting point to investigate the larger story of increasing tension between Haiti and the Dominican Republic over illicit charcoal exploitation and mass deforestation: the alleged murder weapon itself being the same tool used to chop down Dominican trees by the thousands.
With stunning cinematography, Death by a Thousand Cuts investigates the circumstances of Melaneo’s death and the systematic eradication of the Dominican forests. The film interweaves the many sides of the story of Melaneo’s murder told through his Haitian wife, his brother, a local reporter and a park ranger.
Environmental activist Yolanda Leon helps reveal the complex web of relationships in which the people living on the border find themselves.
Industrial-scale Dominican complicity in illegal charcoal production and mass deforestation is exposed. The impoverished Haitians’ fight for survival leads to scapegoating, xenophobia and clashes between communities affected by the Dominican Republic’s anti-immigration policies.
By Jake Kheel, Juan Mejia and Ben Selkow
In the five years we have dedicated to making Death by a Thousand Cuts, we have witnessed the forests on the Haitian-Dominican border disappear slowly. In a process that was at times frustrating and at other times exhilarating, the story we wanted to tell grew and became more complex as we pursued different leads along the border.
We journeyed by truck, motorcycle, motorboat, makeshift sailboat and helicopter, following the charcoal trail to try and understand the driving forces behind what has become a very important and lucrative – but destructive – industry.
The Dominican Republic and Haiti make for a unique case study of how the exploitation of natural resources can directly affect the fate of a nation. The two countries share the island of Hispaniola, but their economic outlooks are starkly different – in large part due to how they each have managed their natural resources.
Haiti has a forest cover of less than 2 percent and is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. The Dominican Republic, with roughly 25 percent forest cover, has one of the strongest economies in the region and is seen as a model for natural resource protection.
In Haiti, charcoal made from trees is the primary source for cooking fuel. With no viable alternative, Haiti is becoming increasingly dependent on Dominican forests to produce charcoal to supply its markets.
The forested area on the border of the Dominican Republic, including but not limited to the Sierra de Bahoruco National Park, is being exploited to produce large quantities of charcoal. Charcoal producers find remote patches of forest, clear vast quantities of trees to make charcoal ovens and then smuggle the product back to Haiti in sacks for sale.
Our four-man field production team consisted of co-directors Jake and Juan, director of photography Juan Carlos Castaneda and field producer Juan Yepes. We worked leads and filmed in remote locations all along the border. After long, hard days of filming, we would transcribe notes and send photos of the day’s work in the only internet cafe in town to Ben, who helped us track the developments of the story.
Our search for information about the murder of Melaneo led us to cross the border from the Dominican Republic to Haiti and back half a dozen times, often accompanied only by local guides and a train of mules carrying our gear.
The simple narrative we expected was that the main culprits in destroying Dominican forests were poor Haitians looking to meet their country’s high charcoal demand.
But as we began to investigate the reality on the ground for this film, we quickly found that this idea – while not entirely inaccurate – was definitely incomplete.
We learned that many of the largest charcoal-smuggling operations on Hispaniola were actually facilitated and paid for by select Dominicans, who controlled production and directly benefited from it.
Both Dominican and Haitian charcoal producers struggle to make a living from charcoal, but often work for powerful Dominican merchants. These influential figures have not only increased charcoal production along the border area, but at times have also managed to acquire permits from the Dominican government, making it a quasi-legal activity.
The role of influence, trafficking and corruption in the deforestation along the border became more and more clear to us.
At its core, this film is a cautionary tale of how the increasingly fierce competition for natural resources combined with swelling wealth inequality can create fertile ground for civil strife. This combination of factors is at the heart of many international tragedies, even if at first glance they appear to be ethnic conflicts.
Venezuela, Brazil, and South Africa come to mind. In the rising tensions between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, we see these dynamics at play in real time.
Credits: Directors – Jake Kheel and Juan Mejia Botero; Producer – Ben Selkow; Producer – Jake Kheel Executive Producers: Jeff Skoll, Belisa Balaban, Christy Spitzer Thornton, Isaac Lee, Juan Rendon, Eric Douat; Editor – Adriana Pacheco; Cinematographer – Juan Carlos Castañeda; Composer – Daniel Miller; Co-Producers: Nadia Pollard, Juan E. Yepes; Consulting Editor – Mark Becker
For more: http://deathbyathousandcutsfilm.com