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FEATURE STORYAugust 5, 2022

The importance of Dominica's Indigenous Kalinago community in the protection and sustainable management of the fragile tropical rainforest ecosystems

Kalinago community in Dominica

Photo credit: Ministry of Environment, Rural Modernisation and Kalinago Upliftment/The Commonwealth of Dominica

Imagine a place where forested mountain ranges descend rapidly into clear turquoise waters. Where coves are ringed in cliffs sprouting waterfalls of vegetation, and where there are people whose connection to this verdant landscape is as inextricable as it is long.

The Commonwealth of Dominica is an island nation in the Lesser Antilles in the eastern Caribbean. Geographically unique, Dominica hosts nine volcanoes, seven mountain ranges, and one of the most heavily forested landscapes in the region, which is home to considerable biodiversity. Although the majority of Dominicans live on or near the coast, the country has a strong connection to its mountains and forests, which are particularly significant for the island’s Kalinago population, the only Caribbean community directly descended from the indigenous people that populated the entire region before colonization.

Over 60% of Dominica is covered by forest. From the high-altitude cloud forests to the low-lying woodland and much in-between, the country is a hub for forest diversity that changes according to the variable terrain and altitude. But as is the case worldwide, these valuable ecosystems are facing degradation and fragmentation from unsustainable development, agricultural expansion, pollution, sedimentation and erosion, and the introduction of invasive species. The growing frequency and intensity of climate-related events, such as the devastating Hurricane Maria in 2017, also cause significant ecosystem damage.

With the absence of a formal timber or wood-based industry, Dominica’s financial reliance on forests may seem low, but almost all economic activities are highly dependent on the services provided by forest ecosystems. Forests are essential for sectors like tourism, agriculture, and water management, and approximately 20% of jobs in Dominica are indirectly linked to forests. This is especially true for the Kalinago, whose livelihoods rely heavily on healthy ecosystems for subsistence agriculture and non-timber forest products, such as the larouman reed which is used to make and sell traditional handicrafts.

Our forests embody the heart of the country’s well-being
Cozier Frederick
Minister of the Environment, Rural Modernization, and Kalinago Upliftment

Dominica has declared its intention to become the world’s first climate resilient country, and one step is to modernize its forest sector and create a long-term vision for sustainable forest management and entrepreneurship. With the support of PROGREEN — a multi-donor trust fund administered by the World Bank — the country recently released the National Forest Policy, its first formal policy for managing forest resources since 1949.

Forest resources are our best opportunity to enhance socio-economic development and are our foundation for implementing climate change mitigation and adaptation
Cozier Frederick
Minister of the Environment, Rural Modernization, and Kalinago Upliftment
Carvings made by Kalinago people in Dominica

Carvings made by the Kalinago indigenous people in Dominica. Photo credit: Valentina Futac

The new National Forest Policy holds particular significance for the Kalinago, given their economic and cultural attachment to the country’s forests. The handicraft industry, for example, uses traditional knowledge and tools to create jewellery, carvings, baskets, and small house items, and is a vital revenue source solely reliant on specific indigenous trees. Likewise, vines, stalks, and leaves from the cocorite palm are made into ropes and nets, and dye made from the annatto plant is used for pottery, sun protection, and body paint, which holds great significance in Kalinago culture.

Dominica’s Kalinago population is around 2,200 (last surveyed in 2011), with the majority living in eight hamlets scattered across the Kalinago Territory on the east coast of the island. The communities are some of the poorest in the country, and it is hoped that actions taken as a result of the National Forest Policy will create new sources of revenue for the community.

The most profitable future for our communities, is to develop a diverse set of activities based on farming, tourism, traditional crafts, and community based natural resource management
Lorenzo Micah Sanford
Kalinago Chief
Dominica's Atlantic cost

Photo credit: Valentina Futac

The National Forest Policy, as well as a series of associated forest sector engagements, spurred new discussions around how the Kalinago can expand economic productivity, while also maintaining traditional tools and knowledge. One example is the potential creation of a forest management certification and standards for non-timber forest products, such as traditional Kalinago crafts. These verifiable standards would cover both environmental and social aspects to ensure local community access and indigenous peoples’ rights are respected.

But the creation of the National Forest Policy is an accomplishment in itself. In a country where forest governance is dated and the institutional framework is complicated and fragmented, involving different ministries with various responsibilities, the process of developing and approving this Policy meant bridging sectoral gaps. This brought together key stakeholders, including communities and civil society, to engage in critical discussions around how to equitably and sustainably manage this valuable resource from ecological, economic and social perspectives. The Kalinago have been, and continue to be, instrumental in forest planning thanks to the direct involvement of Kalinago Council representatives in the development and approval of the final Policy.

Looking to the future, the Policy not only provides a roadmap for Dominica's forest-reliant communities, but also a framework to protect forests and their role in building Dominica’s climate resilience. Thanks in part to PROGREEN’s technical and financial support, the Policy helps identify immediate and concrete measures for forest-linked livelihoods, biodiversity protection, and economic development, including directly involving the Kalinago through reforestation, capacity building, and the recognition of traditional crops and heritage in sustainable forest management. The Policy, along with a series of planned PROGREEN-supported technical studies, are critical inputs to a new Global Environment Facility (GEF) supported project focused on leveraging eco-tourism for biodiversity protection. The project aims to work with the Kalinago community to invest in nature-based tourism opportunities, map and demarcate the Kalinago territory (essential for sustainable forest management), and revive traditional knowledge, tools and practices through sustainable livelihood programs that simultaneously promote community-driven development and biodiversity protection.

The consultative process for developing the National Forest Policy was extensive, and the Kalinago community were actively involved many of the discussions. But now we have talked and agreed on the way forward, we are ready to start doing.
Lorenzo Micah Sanford
Kalinago Chief


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