Dirt, Sweat, Seeds, Photography and Podcasting: Volunteering with Cabarete Sostenible
During my time in Cabarete, Dominican Republic, I had the opportunity on several occasions to – literally – get my hands dirty, my camera capturing, and my bilingual passions for food systems and local, community-based, sustainable agricultural projects activated. My volunteering included a variety of activities, people and resulted in help with maintenance in the garden/farm, hundreds of photos for the organization and a podcast episode for my show, The Caylena Podcast.
As part of my nomadic journey, it’s important to me to get involved with local communities and organizations, to help out how I can with my gifts and passions, to contribute to the places I visit, rather than simply take – and to learn how things really are in the place. For being a small, rural and rather touristic place in the Dominican Republic, Cabarete is very lively and has a handful of NGOs present – mostly related to education, the arts and activities for the youth. Though I heard about Cabarete Sostenible early during my stay in the town, I didn’t get involved until much later, due to various personal reasons, but I am so glad I did.
Located on the northern shore of DR, about an hour – hour and half east of the city of Puerto Plata, Cabarete itself consists of a few neighborhoods which are very drastically different in terms of socio-economics, quality of buildings, culture and population demographics. It seems as though the area is split relatively evenly – in terms of population numbers – between tourists/expats from the US, Canada and Europe and the Dominicans and Haitians that support tourism – though I don’t have actual data to support that. Additionally, there are some Dominicans that come for a weekend or other short stay to visit the beaches. That said, due to the transience of the area and the inaccuracy of government Census reporting systems, and issues like lack of official street addresses, the official numbers are unclear at best. The contrast between the neighborhoods really is quite stark and renting an apartment for which I paid $300/month, while knowing that the majority of locals who lived in the area would not even earn that in a month, was an uncomfortable fact I was confronted with daily. The economy in the area is based heavily on wind-surfing, wellness/yoga/massage type resorts, as well as having a lively social dancing community – ironically, mostly amongst the international population. The beachside restaurants and bars, abuzz with tourists during high season (winter months of the northern hemisphere), are virtually dead during low season (summer months in the northern hemisphere).
I was immediately interested in Dominican-led Cabarete Sostenible when I learned about its projects with community gardens and farms to grow local produce to provide food assistance to those struggling to access nutritious foods due to economic concerns. Started during COVID, in conjunction with other local NGOs, to provide immediate, emergency food support, their current projects reminded me a lot of a few organizations I spoke with on my previous podcast, such as Newburgh Urban Farm and Food Initiative and Manna Food Center – which is not a farm itself, but a food bank that is focused on food recovery and distribution, as well as education about nutrition, located in Maryland. The first few times I volunteered, I participated with other long-term Cabarete visitors, helping out on the farm – where the project is more acgri-reforestation and permaculture oriented – reinvigorating the soil using techniques including cultivating crops/plants that occur naturally in the ecosystem and which grow quickly, to then cut and use as organic material/compost to improve the health of the land – in order to eventually have the plot producing local produce in a more natural, organic & abundant way. While I was on the farm, I helped with basic maintenance, including weeding and harvesting black beans. It was the first time I saw where black beans come from and could appreciate just how much effort goes into producing even one bag of beans. I also saw a cotton plant for the first time. By this point, I was more used to seeing banana and plantain trees, of which there were some around. Another tree was the breadfruit tree.
In addition to sweating in the hot sun while working a bit on the farm, I also helped in the community garden – which had a variety of plants, including tomatoes, corn, florals and herbs, greens… The produce in the garden is harvested sometimes for locals and sometimes sold in markets or converted to products to be sold/given away. In the garden, I helped with a variety of projects, which my personal urban balcony garden back in Newburgh had prepared me for: transplanting sprouted seeds, shoveling compost, and weeding. It is always a nice, grounding and peaceful experience to connect with where food comes from. And it was nice to be part of a group who respect the land/nature and as we plant seeds, set an intention and observe gratitude for the bounty of the plants.
Outside of physical labor, I had the opportunity to document various aspects of this organization’s important work, through my photography and podcasting. I captured various activities and plants on the farm and in the garden, as well as a professional development event for team members, a fundraiser for a partner organization, and a market day. If I’d stayed longer, I would have also loved to capture one of their famous Margarita Happy Hour events, which uses a featured ingredient grown in the garden in the margaritas, as well as to witness the food distribution and talk to the recipients. They are also in the process of developing wellness and entrepreneurial programs that will be accessible for locals.