The Miami Herald
Thu, May. 13, 2004
Legislation reducing national parks passes

The Dominican House has approved a bill to reduce national parks despite the criticism of environmentalists and foreign governments.

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic - (AP) -- The Dominican House has approved a bill that would sharply cut the size of a handful of national parks despite pointed criticism by environmentalists and several foreign governments.

The House of Deputies passed the proposal 89-21 in a session late Tuesday night. It now goes back to the Senate, where it was passed in April, for action on amendments.

The bill would open up protected areas along beaches for resorts and would make mining possible in some wild forests.

In a letter to President Hipólito Mejía dated Friday, ambassadors from the United States, the European Union, Great Britain, the Netherlands and Canada said the proposed law would damage tourism and urged that it be rejected.

But Mejía, running for reelection Sunday, has expressed support for the bill. Both chambers of Congress are controlled by Mejía's Dominican Revolutionary Party.

Environmental groups estimate that passage of the bill would cut protected areas in the Caribbean nation by between 12 and 19 percent.

The Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with largely deforested Haiti, is in contrast a country with some of the largest remaining wilderness areas in the region.

Besides environmentalists, those opposing the bill have included the country's largest tourism and restaurant organizations, the Catholic Church and the environment secretary. The Dominican Environmental Consortium plans to challenge the bill in the Supreme Court, consortium executive director Rosa Alameda said.

Revolutionary Party Deputy Christian Paredes said lawmakers had made ''significant modifications to the bill'' that would protect areas like the Pomier caves, thought to have some of the most extensive examples of prehistoric art in the Caribbean. The caves are near San Cristobal, about 20 miles outside Santo Domingo.

Dominican Liberation Party Deputy Minu Tavarez Mirabal countered that the modifications were introduced so quickly that deputies didn't have time to study them.

Amendments were added on Tuesday after lawmakers, under pressure from many groups, on Monday allowed one day of public testimony.

Mejía and legislators in favor of the changes argue that development would boost tourism and allow poor rural towns surrounding the parks to prosper.

Called the Protected Areas Project, the bill would most heavily affect the National Eastern Park and Lake Enriquillo. The 166 square mile Eastern Park would be reduced by (27 square miles along the country's east coast. The 193 square mile Lake Enriquillo and surrounding areas, known for its crocodiles and flamingos, would be cut by 77 square miles.