For three weeks, I stayed in a dormitory on the Meeting God in Missions’ compound about half a mile outside of Hato Mayor del Rey, the capital of the Hato Mayor Province in eastern Dominican Republic. Surrounding us for 100 miles in every direction was a sea of sugarcane—sugar that once cut, processed and packaged would end up on shelves in the United States. Turning off of the main government paved roads onto dirt paths that led us deeper into the fields, we came across villages known as bateyes that almost exclusively were Haitian. The men in these Haitian families would work up to twelve hours manually cutting sugarcane with machetes earning 5-10 USD a day—barely enough for one meal for a family. Lacking documentation and money, most batey residents lacked access to any form of healthcare.
While in the Dominican, I traveled to a different batey each day with a team of local translators, American and Dominican doctors, nurses and other volunteers to provide basic medical care. Using my experience as an Emergency Medical Technician, I triaged patients based on their vitals, symptoms and medical history. Working with limited time, medications, and equipment in less than ideal circumstances gave me a new level of appreciation for the complexity of global health issues. It also frustrated me. Science and technology are pushing modern medicine forward at a faster rate than ever before and yet entire villages suffer from unmanaged hypertension and diabetes—diseases that can be easily controlled. Barriers from access to medications to cultural differences prevent improved care for these patients, yet improved living and working conditions alone would rectify most of the situation.
Despite my desire to separate myself from hardships faced in the Dominican Republic, I came face to face with America’s role during my research. After significant pressure from NGOs and advocacy groups, the US Labor Department recognized in 2013 that the conditions in the bateyes violated the free trade agreement between our countries and committed $10 million dollars over the next four years to improve the worker’s lives. Four years later and the bateyes look the same. I found myself questioning what role I as an American citizen, as a consumer of Dominican sugar, and as a healthcare provider play in enabling the continued exploitation of sugarcane workers. I am still asking myself the same questions and most likely will be for a while as I continue to reflect upon my experience.
Read more at my blog: http://uniendolasmanos.middcreate.net/
This project is supported by funding from a Middlebury College Community Engagement Cross Cultural Community Service Grant.