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Mines like this one and other companies often sit on top of the Layou River.
Mines like this one and other companies often sit on top of the Layou River | Photo courtesy of Richie Ferrol

Environmentalist in Dominica sheds light on failing Layou River, government missteps

I remember when the mining of the Layou River began. A huge flood in the river brought down a significant amount of sand which had to be extracted. After the reparative extraction was complete, they just kept digging. They dug into the river and the flood plain, destroying the river basin.

environmentalist Atherton Martin
Interview Subject
Atherton Martin is a Dominican agronomist and environmentalist. He was instrumental in forming the Castle Bruce Farmers Cooperative in 1972 as a result of a longstanding labor dispute, then serving as president of the Dominica Conservation Association (DCA), one of the few environmental NGOs in the country.

As an agronomist, he also worked with small farmers and producer cooperatives, served as General Secretary of the Dominica Farmers Union, and helped establish and manage Farm-to-Market, Ltd. Martin also served as the President of the Caribbean Conservation Association and Executive Director of The Development Institute, advising various national, regional, and international institutions. 

He served as chair of the Development and Planning Corporation of the Dominica government from 1995-1997 and has twice served in the country’s cabinet, as Dominica’s Minister of Agriculture in the 1970s and as Minister of Agriculture, Planning and the Environment in 2000. From 1983-1991 he ran the Caribbean program of The Development GAP, after developing a Caribbean program for the American Friends Service Committee. He was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 1998, for his efforts on protecting tropical forests from environmental threats due to planned large copper mining operations.
Background Information
As recently as September 2020, black oil spilled into the delicate Layou River.

The Regional Observatory on Planning for Development in Latin America and the Caribbean outlines specific guidelines regarding development of land and preservation of the environment.

Experts point to land development without concern for the environment as a top cause of the drying up of Dominica’s rivers, including the Layou; and village residents themselves have spoken out about the environmental impact and how it affects their livelihoods.

ST. JOSEPH, Dominica – For four decades, I successfully led protest actions against businesses and government agencies for violations against the environment in Dominica. One such focus includes speaking out about overmining operations on the Layou River.

I received death threats for speaking up against these violations by certain individuals affiliated with investors and government agencies. This is the harsh reality of activism in my country. Notwithstanding their rigorous efforts to isolate me, I continue to speak out.

A storied history of environmental activism, opportunity, pushback, and threats

As a highly respected professional in the international community, I feel proud to receive invitations to meetings with organizations like the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). When speaking on environmental issues and agrobusiness, I do not feel shy. I present my thoughts about the right and wrong way to proceed.

In the 1990’s and 2000’s, I began rigorously defending Dominica’s rivers. My company created the 20-year integrated development plan and process, based exclusively on sustainable environmental development principles. The contract and my work, financed by the European Union, tolerated no politics in the process. As a result, people who supported the government issued threats on my life. I did not care; I continued to defend the environment in the face of death.

I remember when the mining of the Layou River began. A huge flood in the river brought down a significant amount of sand which had to be extracted. After the reparative extraction was complete, they just kept digging. They dug into the river and the flood plain, destroying the river basin.

Groups of conservation associations, ecotourism societies, members of the fishing village of Layou, and others assembled. No one person or group solves these problems alone. The problems remain too multifaceted. Creating solutions which include everyone with a vested interest creates powerful partnerships.

I recall, also, when Hurricane Maria devastated Dominica in 2017. International agencies rushed in and requested my attendance immediately. The invitation came from the international community – not my government nor the forestry department. It is frustrating to think politics would exclude critical people from participating in the healing of our land and our nation.

Years of disasters reveal a crisis, yet experts remain marginalized

The majestic Layou River remains threatened today, perhaps more than ever. You have a destroyed river basin and ongoing issues from an oil spill. You have violations of environmental laws around the 2009 construction of an asphalt plant on the riverbank. During the construction of that plant, and the erection of mining companies, I saw no environmental impact assessment studies. Yet, the heavy machinery rolled on site. That work ensued in a vividly conspicuous manner.

Another issue affecting the health of the river and its wildlife includes failures to properly track, monitor and dispose of oil waste appropriately. I see a systemic failure to implement proper land use planning in sensitive areas.

It occurs to me that the general population may not comprehend the science of how rivers replenish themselves. People do not know how that process impacts their survival, and that of our forests, wildlife, and waterways. I see people taking the existence of rivers for granted in Dominica. Perhaps it is because we have so many of them.

The villagers in Layou rely upon the river for the livelihoods. They say the river is in danger. | Photo courtesy of Richie Ferrol

The strategy to solve these issues today must include the conservation and preservation of natural resources. However, it must do so in the context of diverse shared interests. Yet, officials ensure people like me remain uninvited to any discussion about rivers or environmental conversation. The exclusion feels personal.

It seems like government personnel in the divisions of forestry and physical planning purposefully neglect their responsibility by marginalizing experts. Ultimately, they undermine the country’s development, endangering the natural resources which keep us alive and healthy.

A call to the people, a warning for the future

Today, my resolve remains absolute despite being pushed out of meetings of significance and in the face of discreditation. Punishing experts like me actually punishes the country by excluding a wealth of experience. I see how petty political differences stand in the way of good policy and leadership practices.

I ask the people to consider that violations and insulated discussions serve only personal interests. They do not serve the interests of Dominica. What good comes from maintaining control and focusing on profits?

Great progress is never a one-man show. It requires partnerships – partnerships we have lost. It hurts me to watch; to know intelligent and learned people cannot see it. Yet, I see a small amount of water in a river where a deluge used to be. That flow has declined to a trickle and the damage continues. We will lose the river. One day, only a dry canal will remain.

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Richie Ferrol is a well-respected professional in the Commonwealth of Dominica. He serves as a journalist, formerly with the WICE QFM radio station, and has covered topics such as crime, politics, social crises, and disasters. Richie conducted thorough coverage on the Layou River Fiasco involving WAVE and a well-known businessman, as well as major coverage on Dominica’s Renewable Energy prospects in 2020 and 2021 respectively. Richie now works as a freelance journalist with a strong interest in stories which focus on climate justice, the environment and its preservation, human interest stories, ecofriendly community-based programs, and environmental advocation. Richie boasts more than seven years expeirence in the media industry.