A city’s poor dig in their heels on trees

Times Staff Writer

To escape her stifling apartment, to unwind from her monotonous job, to tune out the squalor, noise and crime all around her, Josefina Filmont has long taken refuge in the cool, green embrace of the old mahogany trees skirting the fortress built here by the son of Christopher Columbus.

So when, without any public debate or notice, a city chain-saw crew showed up one day in late May and began felling the stately trees of her favorite park in the Colonial Zone, the 50-year-old clerical worker felt her last nerve snap.

“Those trees belong to the people, not the government!” fumed Filmont who, like most Dominicans, had suffered in silence through decades of official indifference to the working class. “They are the air we breathe and the only natural thing we have to enjoy here.”

Appalled by local officials’ plans to replace the European and African vegetation introduced by conquistadors 500 years ago with “native species,” Filmont joined other angry residents of the capital who lashed themselves to the threatened trees.


The acts of civil disobedience staged by a new grass-roots alliance calling itself Santo Domingo Somos Todos, or Santo Domingo Is All of Us, appear at first glance to be a classic conflict between tree-huggers and the self-styled forces of industrial progress.

But in a city, and country, with no history of consulting the public, the assault on the shade trees also has become a lightning rod for the pent-up frustrations of the urban poor who feel that authorities consider them a blight on their own landscape.

“The mayor has a vision for the city, but it’s one that doesn’t include workers. He wants a city that looks like Miami, that will be attractive to tourists,” said Hecmilio Galvan, an economist and founding member of Santo Domingo Is All of Us.

Thousands of towering trees with long branches and copious foliage have been felled in the last two months along the city’s traffic-clogged thoroughfares. Stumps protrude like giant stubble from the steep slope of the park overlooking the port. Skinny adult palms plucked from inland forests have been set in the holes created by excavating shade trees, buttressed by wooden braces in soil cleared of verdant ground cover.

Along the busy Avenida Mexico, more than a mile of resplendent foliage flanking the busy thoroughfare has been mowed down, as have the shade trees that filled the median strip. Activists say they’ve been told that the trees had to go because city buses were grazing low-hanging limbs and sidewalks were being deformed by bulging roots.

But the protests appear to have halted the felling, at least in the leafy splendor of the historic Colonial Zone.

Little has been publicly disclosed about the tree-replacement project, and Dominican newspapers, reliant on the political establishment for their revenue, have ignored one of the most defiant challenges ever mounted against authority in this city of more than 2 million.

“It’s not exactly about the trees,” transport contractor Joel Mendez said of the unusual backlash. “People feel marginalized. They are tired of never being consulted.”


In a May manifesto, about 100 founding members of Santo Domingo Is All of Us accused the city’s top elected official, Roberto Salcedo Gavilan, of seeking to drive the poor out of public spaces.

Salcedo, a mayor-like trustee of the capital’s governing council, already has persuaded the council to ban vendors from the sun-bleached stone walkways of the Colonial Zone, claiming they were an eyesore and a deterrent to tourists. Although Dominican coastal resorts attract 3.7 million vacationers each year, few venture into a capital that is a teeming slum except for a few blocks around the Spanish colonial landmarks.

The city also recently prohibited the sale or public consumption of alcohol after midnight on weekdays and special tourist police patrol the streets to clear loiterers.

And access to the 9-mile Malecon seaside walkway, sandwiched between the Caribbean shore and the city’s high-rise hotel strip, has been blocked for all but hotel guests, a move the civic association says aims to banish Dominicans from the beach. Wooden-slat park benches on which homeless people slept at night have been replaced with wrought-iron seating uncomfortable to lie on.


“Maybe it is not very attractive to have homeless people sleeping in public. But where else are they to go?” Galvan demanded.

He pointed to piles of uncollected garbage, sewage running in open gutters, battered buses bursting with passengers and rampant gun violence and wondered aloud why the city government was focusing its meager finances on a face-lift.

“This is not the No. 1 problem in Santo Domingo. It’s not even the No. 50 problem,” he said.

Amparo Chantada, an urban planning engineer and a driving force behind Santo Domingo Is All of Us, said the new “touch of Miami” image seems intended to shield visitors and the Dominican elite from the city’s ubiquitous poverty.


Chantada also argued that the massive tree felling has endangered wildlife by destroying habitat, and contributed to air pollution and greenhouse gases.

“We have become a bad example in a world preoccupied with global warming,” Chantada said.

The new activists have taken their cause directly to their countrymen with weekend marches and Internet lobbying through their blog.

When Filmont and other residents put themselves between the chain saws and the trees, an emissary from Salcedo’s office defused the unanticipated standoff by inviting the demonstrators to City Hall for “dialogue” a few days later, the tree advocates said. But when they showed up at the appointed time, the mayor was absent and a functionary showed them a PowerPoint presentation on how the palms, as trees native to the Caribbean, were more appropriate to the city’s ambience.


Salcedo has not responded to a request for an interview or publicly explained his tree-replacement objectives in any detail.

Since the protests, other members of the city government have distanced themselves from the tree-swapping project. The council president, Gabriel Castro, told a radio interviewer that Salcedo hadn’t consulted the collective municipal government before embarking on the plan. The national environment minister, Jose Manuel Mateo, noted that Salcedo hadn’t obtained the necessary permits. Even the dominant force in the national government, President Leonel Fernandez’s Dominican Liberation Party, has urged authorities in the capital to heed the voice of the people.

Activists believe they have at least temporarily halted cutting of the oldest and most valuable trees in the Colonial Zone, including the majestic, centuries-old descendants of seedlings brought by Columbus on his fourth voyage to the New World. Those imports tower over popular gathering places in front of the First Cathedral of the Americas and along Calle de las Damas -- the Western hemisphere’s first paved street, built in 1502.

But they add that they cannot let their guard down.


“We need to keep the old trees. They give more air and their roots hold more water,” said Pascual Chala, a government-licensed tour guide in the Colonial Zone. “Palm trees are preferred by the elite but they aren’t the ones spending their time in our public spaces.”