Guest Essay by Kip Hansen
Palko Karasz, writing in the New York Times, with a degree of insensitivity bordering on blatant intentional libel, reports: “Come for the beaches, say tourism ads for the Dominican Republic. But it has some beaches you might want to skip right now. The Caribbean nation is known for sapphire seas and ivory beaches, but it is grappling with waves of garbage washing up on its shores, a vivid reminder of the presence of thousands of tons of plastic in the world’s oceans.”
The NY Times article is “Wave After Wave of Garbage Hits the Dominican Republic”, published yesterday in the Times’ AMERICAS section. There are photos of a massive shore clean-up, with government employees raking up huge piles of floating plastic trash mixed with seaweed. Most of the article is based on a rabidly biased blog post from an anti-plastics activist group Parley for the Oceans.
It appears, at a quick glance, that Karasz has allowed himself to be gamed into the story by Parley for the Oceans. Karasz is “a digital editor for The New York Times, based in the London newsroom. He is part of a digital team that covers live news, including recent terrorist attacks and elections across Europe.” Environmental news is not his beat…the Caribbean is not his beat….oceanic plastic is not his beat.
Karasz is gamed first and foremost into including “Those piles [referring to the piles of trash in the photos below], most notably the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” are usually far from human settlements, to say nothing of resort destinations.” Karasz’ link leads to another misleading NY Times article from earlier in the year, featuring blow-ups of Petri dishes full of itty-bitty pieces of plastic — the shocking finds of a study that finally included the weight of floating masses of lost fishing nets in the calculations, allowing them to claim “The ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ Is Ballooning, 87,000 Tons of Plastic and Counting”.
The proper reference for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is NOAA’s “How Big Is the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”? Science vs. Myth” — whose iconic authoritative answer is “There is no “garbage patch,”.
Here’s a collage of the photos offered by The Times:
Notice that the story isn’t “Massive Clean-up underway on Santo Domingo Beaches”– instead Karasz echoes Parley for the Oceans blog post nearly word for word — Parley describes Playa Montesionos as an “apocalyptic scene – wave after wave of plastic debris rolling in at Montesinos Beach in the capital, Santo Domingo“ language mirrored by Karasz in the title of his NY Times piece. Karasz then goes on, falling into the trap, with “But instead of visitors relaxing on Montesinos Beach in the capital, Santo Domingo, there has been an altogether different scene, one unlikely to wind up on a postcard: Hundreds of city workers and volunteers who have been waging an uphill battle against wave after wave of sludgy garbage.” Oh, really?
Where is Montesinos Beach?
Playa Montesinos is a little patch of sand built up on the breakwater that protects the cargo ship docks of Santo Domingo — one can drive down next to the fence by the docks — which are heavily guarded. Truck drivers congregate here to eat their lunches while waiting to enter the docks to pick up cargo. In the following blow-up, you can see the white-roof on the left side — the upscale restaurant “D’ Luis Parrillada”.
You will see no lounging tourists and see the beach as it usually is — clean and beautiful. [ These satellite images are taken at random and picked for publication based on their being cloud free.] I have parked where the cars are on the right, waiting to be able to enter the dock area and pick up a life raft that had been shipped to us. I have eaten in the restaurant. This part of town (north of the playa) is Colonial Santo Domingo, with lots of beautiful buildings going back hundreds of years and well worth visiting. It is not, however, near any tourist hotels and the beach is normally as you see it above, empty of people.
The Dominican Republic is a “developing nation” — meaning that is has all the problems and difficulties of other developing nations, including problems as simple as “picking up and disposing of the trash”. The Dominican Republic is in the path of tropical storms and hurricanes, that regularly sweep over Santo Domingo dropping an average of 57 inches of rain a year.
When those torrents of rain come down, they sweep the streets of the slums up-river into the Ozama and its tributaries, washing into the river all the plastic refuse and trash on the streets, many of the houses of the poor, and sometimes whole neighborhoods. Everything that floats comes downstream and enters the ocean between the Naval Officers Club on the east and the cargo docks on the west. The winds and waves are both normally from the south, and blow all the floating material onto the beach — not just at Montesinos, but all along the generally rocky shore of the city of Santo Domingo. The trash gets mixed with the floating seaweed that is driven ashore by the same forces.
Karasz does quote one Dominican “The plastic waste washing onto Montesinos Beach comes from the Ozama River, which flows into the Caribbean nearby”, one of those in charge of the cleanup, Gen. Rafael Antonio Carrasco, told Reuters.” [More correctly, the quote if from Brigadier General Rafael Antonio Carrasco Paulino, the executive director of the Civil Defense.]
Relying on Cyrill Gutsch, the founder of Parley for the Oceans, who is based in New York, Karasz parrots “It happens pretty much all the time if there is a strong rainfall or a storm,…The phenomenon is not confined to the Dominican Republic, and can be seen in many developing nations with a coastline. “Everybody uses the rivers and the beaches as dump sites.” and “What is happening in the Dominican Republic is only a small symptom of the larger global problem”, Mr. Gutsch said. Plastic dumped in and near rivers washes into the ocean, and only a small percentage bounces back onto shore. The majority makes it to the high seas.”
Based on my personal experience living in the Dominican Republic for ten years, it is absolutely untrue that “Everybody uses the rivers and the beaches as dump sites.” While there is a tendency to be a “little loose with litter” and municipal trash and garbage pickup systems leave a lot to be desired, none of the governmental entities actually use rivers or beaches as “dump sites” — anyone caught using a beach as a dump site would be arrested if reported. Neither does the Domincan Republic allow the dumping municipal trash “in or near” rivers. Sanitary land fills in the DR may not quite up be to US or European standards, but every effort is made within their economic reach to be responsible.
The assertion by Cyrill Gutsch that “only a small percentage bounces back onto shore. The majority makes it to the high seas” is unsupported by evidence and certainly is not true for the Caribbean which I sailed up and down for years — there is very little floating plastic off-shore — sighting anything big enough to see with the naked eye is an “event” often leading to changing course to get close enough to check out the identity of floating entities. We did see, on one occasion shortly after a hurricane, a refrigerator sans door, floating 50 miles offshore.
So, despite what this one activist organization publishes, and games a London-based NY Times journalist into repeating, here’s what the beaches of the Dominican Republic really look like — “scout’s honor” — I have been to each of these many times and always found them just as pictured:
Sosua Beach — North Shore (I lived in Sosua for a year, while my youngest son, now a Captain, attended an International High School):
Bavaro Beach — a beautiful, all-inclusive report on the East Shore:
Macao Beach — East Shore:
Playa Rincon – faces the Atlantic on the north side of Samana Peninsula:
And then there is this beautiful, rarely visited prefect pink sand beach called Playa El Valle — facing the Atlantic:
The two “businesses” shown by Google Maps demonstrate the entrepreneurship of the Dominican people. They are, in reality, just two beach shacks — one nominally a “bar and grill” and the other a “restaurant” at which Josefina will fix you a meal, if she’s there. Although not an authorized port for foreign vessels, we anchored there under Safety At Sea rules for “any port in a storm”. The locals arranged a horseback riding tour for us.
Pay no attention to the libelous reports in the NY Times. There are hundreds (literally, hundreds — I have pictures — lots of pictures) of equally beautiful, near empty beaches in the Dominican Republic — vacation packages, including airfare, are available very inexpensively to lovely all-inclusive resorts.
Or, like my family, go on your own, sail down or fly, stay in native hotels where you will be treated very well.
The Dominican Republic is beautiful. Visitors Welcome.
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This is really a lesson in junk journalism. It appears that a journalist in London was ‘touched’ by an activist group in New York to write a hear-say story about something in the Dominican Republic — a story bound to scare away tourists, on which a lot of their economy depends. Oh, the trash did wash down the Ozama, it does every heavy rainfall, and the government cleans it up. It does not affect tourist beaches.
The same thing happens in the Phillipines, all over Southeast Asia, Malaysia, etc. Not as bad in Africa which doesn’t have as many huge cites along the coasts.
If I hadn’t had the personal experience in the DR, I wouldn’t have spotted the fake news aspects.
Lesson To Be Learned: Whenever an activist organization is involved in a news story — check and double check the “facts” — it’s easy to be burned.
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Late Addition: You should also read my previous essays on pelagic plastic:
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