2 July 2003, Rome -- Two nations share the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean Sea: Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Their parallel histories and realities meet along a single border and now they are overcoming cultural and linguistic differences to fight a common enemy: the deep poverty and deforestation ravaging swathes of the island.

Decades of uncontrolled exploitation of forest resources have left land arid and unproductive, especially on Haiti's side of the border.

The lack of any other agricultural alternative has made this area one of the poorest on the planet, forcing much of the local population into economic migration. Haitians flood across the border to neighbouring Dominican Republic or further afield to the United States. Dominicans, especially women, abandon their homeland to migrate to Europe or the United States.

The Global Mechanism of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), in collaboration with the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), is tackling this problem through a development initiative called the Border Action Plan or PAN-FRO (Plan de acción para la zona fronteriza).

The Border Action Plan (PAN-FRO) has been conceived of as a planning mechanism that seeks to address problems related to land degradation, drought, poverty and sustainable rural development, and importantly, the linkages with each country's Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP).

Weaving the fabric of society

"Right from the start we didn't want the outcome of this initiative to be yet another framework document with fixed terms and predetermined results," said Ana T. Sáez, Programme Manager for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Global Mechanism of the UNCCD.

"Instead, we were looking to create a planning mechanism, a social platform that would unite everyone involved -- those that live and those that work on both sides of the border. We wanted to involve both communities in identifying the problems that are stalling development in the region and, together, find solutions to those problems," she added.

FAO expert Luc Dubreuil of the Organization's Investment Centre explained that creating an alternative source of income for the people of the region could offer the solution to problems of land degradation.

"The area desperately needs well-planned and sustained investment to develop the income-generating activities of the population to benefit all households, including farming households, to halt desertification along the border," he said.

"On the Haitian border difficult living conditions -- both ecological and economic -- mean that many cross the border into the Dominican Republic seeking work, often as farm labourers. They are willing to accept less than the local farm workers in an area that already suffers from high unemployment, particularly among young Dominicans," Dubreuil added.

"For almost everyone who lives on both sides of the frontier there is no choice but to overexploit natural resources -- their earth and their forests, to supplement their income," he said.

Local development must be bolstered within a social framework and managed by those who live on both sides of the border, Dubreuil explained.

Official recognition

After two years of work in the Dominican Republic President Mejía has conferred official recognition by presidential decree to the Dominican Inter-Institutional Technical Group (ITG) on desertification. The Government in Haiti is undertaking the same process.

"Officially recognizing the ITG -- which is made up not only of government but also various social groups representing civil society, and development agencies who work in the region -- shows just how successful the initiative has been," said Sáez.

"It guarantees its independence, regardless of political change, and meansthat UNCCD will be high on the agenda in the long term," she added.

Recent developmentsonthe PAN-FRO have resulted in investment projects in the Artibonito River basin, which straddles both nations. Some of these projects have been funded by the Canadian development agency, the Organization of American States, and the German government development agency GTZ, as well as the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and FAO's Special Programme for Food Security (SPFS).

Investment is supporting a wide range of socio-economic activities at both the community and municipal level.

Today, with the continued support of the UNCCD Global Mechanism and FAO, PAN-FRO is taking its first steps. As a result, both countries are cooperating more than ever before.

Soon PAN-FRO initiative on both sides will join on a single, permanent platform so that border communities, local authorities and cooperation agencies from both countries can work together.

Nuria Felipe Soria,
Information Officer, FAO
tel. (+39) 06 570 55899
[email protected]