Hispaniola is not a very big island. It is shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Neither is a rich country, though the Dominicans may be slightly better off. Death By A Thousand Cuts is a documentary charting the contemporary relationship between the two neighbours told through the illegal charcoal industry. Charcoal does not seem very interesting. It is once one realises it is a gangster business that is a fight for mere survival for the bottom rung.
“Death By A Thousand Cuts feels like a portent of the future”
The film takes the murder of a park ranger as its narrative framework. They are not ordinary park rangers on Hispaniola. The Dominican Republic’s rangers are a paramilitary force waging a war against the deforestation of their nation by charcoal producers. Haiti only has two percent of their forests left, their neighbours have ninety per cent. This is not the clear cut tale of virtuous lawmen taking on the villainous slash and burners. Mejia Botero and Kheel do sterling work in contextualising the situation. For the Haitians it is a matter of subsistence, environmental concerns are not exactly pressing when choosing whether your children eat today or not. On the other side of the border, there are Dominicans exploiting the situation for their own profit. Cartels run the industry using Haitian labour to smuggle out the charcoal for huge profits. I do not want to delve too far into the story as I would much rather you watched the film for yourselves. However, special attention must be paid to the role of ethnicisation on the island and the stoking of tensions between the two peoples. The documentary makers wisely brush over the historical animosity, realising that this is a crisis of a very modern making. The economic pressures bearing down on the communities are the real drivers of conflict, not events from decades before.
This is not to say that there are not free agents roaming on this field. The central murder case demonstrates that in spite of all the societal forces acting on the individual, they still retain choice. It turns out the dead ranger may have been torturing those he caught and his murderer could be a good man, so long as he does not drink. Cultural attitudes towards masculinity and the value of work are brought to the fore of their struggle, more so than economics. This may provide context, yet not every ranger is abusive, and not every charcoal producer is a killer.
Fundamentally, Death By A Thousand Cuts feels like a portent of the future. It demonstrates how the consequences of environmental mismanagement can spiral to such a degree that it causes not only the economic destruction of a people, but also dangerous ethnic division that could ultimately lead to genocidal violence. This documentary should be seen not only as a sad indictment on the failure of authority on Hispaniola, but also as a parable on how we manage our environment. Please watch this film to understand what lies ahead of all of us if we do no change our course.
Image: Juan Mejia Botero & Jake Kheel