A Circle of Learning

Tierra Finca Negra 1

Giacomo Delgado

Altair Rodriguez’s experience with Finca Tierra Negra, her agroforestry project in the Dominican Republic, is more than just a lesson in good restoration, it's a lesson in life. For more than 100 years Altair’s family has looked after this piece of land. Over generations, it has been stolen, returned, divided, sold, protected, converted, ignored, and tended to. After a century of repeated lessons and re-discovered wisdom, Altair has begun to close a loop. Much like the nature that drives and sustains us all, Altair’s story is really a circle; one of knowledge, experience, and learning.

Finca Tierra Negra 2
Altair Rodriguez

The story begins in the first half of the last century with Altair’s great-grandfather. He was having incredible success growing cacao and other crops sustainably, in the way that it had been done for hundreds of years. In fact, he was so successful that he managed to amass an incredible 1,000 hectares of land, which simultaneously provided for his family and protected the Earth. 

However, when the authoritarian Trujillo government seized control of the country in the 1930s, Altair’s family was driven from the island and their land was seized. Altair’s family spent years in exile in Venezuela, waiting for a change in leadership that would allow them to return home. When the dictatorship finally started to lose power and Altair’s family was allowed to return in the 60s, they were given back some of the land that had been stolen from them. By this time, Altair’s great-grandfather had passed away in exile, so it was up to Altair’s father and his siblings to tend the land. But times had changed socially, economically, and even ecologically.

It was no longer as common to grow products in the way that Altair’s great grandfather had, planting edible and non-edible species together in a diverse ecosystem of Caribbean Forest. “Cacao had stopped being profitable, so people simply burned the agroforestry systems and replaced them with monocultures of yucca and plantain,” Altair says. Even within her own family, the pressures that the exile and dictatorship had created caused many of her family members to sell their pieces of land to larger producers, who quickly stamped out the biodiversity of the forested land with industrial agriculture. Slowly, the 1,000 hectares became a few hundred, and then a few dozen, until only 60 hectares remained between her father and his twin. 

Remembering how their own grandfather had tended to the land, it pained the siblings to watch the forest disappear into neatly ordered rows of cash crops, but they needed to put food on the table for their families too. Eventually, they decided to convert half of the 60 hectares to intensive agriculture and protect the other half. What remained was a small oasis of forest saved from the encroachment of tilled soils and chemical products. On these last 30 hectares, they could preserve the legacy of their father and grandfather and provide a small patch of forest for their children to explore. It became a place for weekend gatherings and family reunions. But the wounds of the past remain. “It’s hard for my father and my uncle to involve themselves in the future of this place,” Altair admits. “They still have an emotional hole.” 

Finca Tierra Negra
The Finca and the forest, side by side

Altair grew up visiting the land on weekends and holidays, but as a teenager growing up in a rapidly modernizing Santo Domingo, her interests were pulling her in other directions. “Honestly, I liked it for the family side of things because we inherited that history,” Altair says of the Finca “but other than that I didn’t love it.” 

She decided to travel to London to study human rights and development, but towards the end of her studies, Altair was exposed to the idea of agroforestry and suddenly something changed: “You know that moment where everything just clicks?” She tells me about the moment where she had a profound realization: “If the way that we produce food is so toxic and so destructive to the natural world, the workers and even the people that are consuming it…there’s no way that we survive as a species on this planet”. It was clear to her that she needed to return to the Dominican Republic, to work on those abandoned 30 hectares and finish what her family history had started so long ago.

Nervously she broke the news to her father, expecting him to encourage her to pursue the job opportunities that her foreign university degree could provide to her. Instead, “the day that I told him I wanted to dedicate myself to this…his eyes widened, and he said: Really? That would be incredible!”. So, Altair got to work, going back to the land that she had known all her life but that had fallen into disrepair over the years. 

Altair’s plan was to create a system that worked, both for human beings and for the environment on which they depend. In her own words: “In order to sow to eat, first you have to sow to regenerate the soil and to feed all the other life”. She began with cacao and thought that she would find all the answers she needed in the Dominican Republic, a lush island nation with a long history of agricultural production existing alongside (and within) tropical forests. Instead, Altair found a few scattered agroforestry projects and advice that didn’t seem to follow the philosophy of restoration. “Even if cacao is never planted in monoculture, the mentality is one of monoculture.” Her fellow farmers were planting to maximize yields, planting one or two other species of cover crop alongside the cacao simply out of necessity, not to heal the land.

So, Altair embarked on another adventure. She traveled to Mexico and Costa Rica to learn from agroforestry and permaculture projects that had been working for decades to move the needle towards a more sustainable way of producing food. Altair is incredibly knowledgeable, talking confidently about the dynamics of a healthy ecosystem, the microbiology of the soil, the injustices that agricultural workers are often subject to, and the inherent inequity that is built into our global economic systems. Restoration to her is more than a change in practice, it’s also a change in mindset: “Many people still think that agriculture and the life of those in the countryside are underdeveloped,” Altair says. “Agriculture is what sustains us and there is so much to be redone and redesigned in the way we interact with the countryside.” Now it’s been three years since she started rehabilitating those 30 hectares of land and even though each year is better than the last, she still feels that she has a long way to go.

Restor has become an indispensable tool for her as she continues along this journey. She imagines what it might have been like if Restor existed when she first began her work. “I found a small project nearby that I didn’t even know existed!” She proclaims, “I’ve been looking for a platform like this for years!” There’s a lot Restor does for Altair today, it saves her from having to invest her limited time and resources in developing a website and gives her a platform on which to store her data. “The incredible part about this is the connection, connecting projects even in the same country,” she says, “and then the aspect of accessing sources of funding both directly and indirectly”. However, what really draws her to Restor is our shared vision and Restor’s dedication to restoration practitioners all around the world. Restor has committed itself to growing and building with our community and Altair says she can really feel that, from the way the platform is built, to the fact that we offer personal calls to any organization that needs it. “I was thrilled to find this platform and see that it was still developing and knowing that you could get involved from the very beginning.” It's always encouraging to get this type of feedback. “You all are responding to an urgent need to catalyze and move this initiative forward.” 

Altair’s story mimics Restor’s own in many ways: we are both trying to access the knowledge that has already existed for centuries, and bring a community together to rehabilitate not just the land but our relationship to it. We both have a long way to go, and our work will probably never be complete. However, we have the wisdom and experience of the generations that came before us and the strength and encouragement of a passionate community. Together we will continue to push forward and fix what has been broken for far too long.

Visit Altair's restoration site on Restor.