Friday, October 19, 2007

Alumni Update: Melissa Watson in the Dominican Republic

This just in from Melissa Watson, IPE Class of 2004.

As of November 7th, I will have officially been living and working as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic on year and two months—only 13 more months to go! The town where I live, Enriquillo, is situated at the southern edge of the lush and fertile Bahoruco mountain range, where the steep slopes flatten out into the dry, arid desert plains of the Pedernales Penninsula. It is amazingly beautiful, and often unbearably hot (at least for my Spokane-bred, redheaded, easily-sunburnt self). Fortunately I can escape up to the coffee farms whenever I need a break from the heat!

As a Community Economic Development volunteer here in the DR I was assigned to work primarily with two groups: Cooperativa de Mujeres Amor y Fe (Love and Faith Women's Cooperative) and Cooperativa de Café Organico del Sur (Organic Coffee Cooperative of the South). Each group has, in its way, taught me much about community organization and working in the Dominican Republic and about development work in general.

The women's group (currently working to become an official cooperative) originally formed to benefit from a pregnant cow "chain" project funded by a Spanish NGO. 14 members received pregnant cows last October and are expected to return the calves, once grown and pregnant, back to the cooperative to be given to another member of the group. The project, though small, is an excellent opportunity for the women, as the cows can provide them with a source of income; however, it is also a challenge because it is a long-term project and the women have little incentive to continue meeting and working as a group. That is where I have stepped in, generating interest by offering income generation workshops where I teach them how to make products such as floor cleaner, candles, recycled paper, etc. and also teaching a small business course. The paper project in particular has sparked a great deal of interest, and we have started selling 100% recycled handmade stationary and cards at artesan fairs and in the local community. The women like it because it requires minimal capital investment (we use old papers, cornstarch, leaves and petals, a blender, and handmade screens fashioned from pieces of old mosquito net and wire) and they can make sheets throughout the day while they work around their homes. I love the project because it's creative, unique, and there's a great potential for success.

The 132 members of our coffee cooperative, COOCAFESUR, cultivate their café high in the mountains that jut dramatically up from the aquamarine waters of the Caribbean Sea. They are young (founded just 3 years ago with the help of a former Peace Corps volunteer) and their farms are already certified organic; unfortunately they lack the funds to build the infrastructure to fully process their own coffee, and thus cannot yet sell collectively as "organic." That is one of my main focuses this year: helping find funding to construct the necessary buildings and equiptment to process the coffee. We're also planning a post-harvest composting latrine project due to start this spring. The coffee they grow and roast here is excellent, and I absolutely love spending time up in the mountains on the farms, learning all about coffee and practicing my Creole with the Haitian migrant workers—yet another interest (int'l labor migration) cultivated during my years at UPS that I'm surrounded by daily here, in addition to coffee and women's development.

If you'd like to hear more about my work and life in the Peace Corps--or if you have any suggestions or tips--please check out my blog ( or shoot me an email at Gracias!

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