Death by a Thousand Cuts

Around the world, economic inequality combined with rising population is driving environmental degradation. A microcosm of this situation can be seen on the island of Hispaniola along the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Following a complex and turbulent shared history, the fortunes of the two countries diverged sharply after the U.S. occupation of the island in the early 20th century. The Dominican Republic rose to be one of the strongest economies in the Caribbean while, beset with corruption throughout the government, Haiti became the poorest.

Cut down for fuel by the poverty stricken people of the country, only 2 percent of Haiti’s original forests remain. Meanwhile, the government of the Dominican Republic, after witnessing a decline in the country’s own forests, pushed through an aggressive conservation and reforestation plan in the mid-1900s and, as a result, saw the country’s forests rebound. Tensions between the two countries have risen in recent years as the lure of fuel just across the border has driven an illicit trade in charcoal by Haitians cutting down Dominican trees.

This is the world the award-winning new documentary, "Death by a Thousand Cuts," plunges us into. The film examines the broader causes and effects of deforestation along the border while chronicling the investigation into the 2012 murder of a Dominican forest ranger, Melaneo Vargas. A fascinating glimpse into a world most of us rarely see, the film is also a stark reminder of the toll poverty can take on the natural world.

Combining interviews and observational footage of a number of people directly affected by the border tensions — including Melaneo’s widow, brother, and mother, friends and neighbors of his alleged killer, Dominican forest rangers, Haitian smugglers, biologists, and activists — the film creates a comprehensive view of the reality on both sides of the divide.

From Haitian smugglers, we hear of the struggle simply to feed their families, and their limited options. We meet Calina, Melaneo’s Haitian widow, now shunned by her husband’s family and fearing deportation, and Chichi, Melaneo’s brother, haunted by the killing and the fact that the killer is still free. Through Doctor Yolanda Leon, a Dominican environmental activist, we learn of the two realities of charcoal smuggling: the individual, small-scale smugglers who dip across the border and return with a few bags of charcoal, and the larger, more industrial scale operations run by cartels and abetted by corrupt Dominican officials. Haitian biologist Jean Wiener guides us through a look at the reality of deforestation on his country’s side of the border.

The film boasts vibrant, beautiful camerawork, and some truly startling images, such as one aerial view of the forested hills of the Dominican Republic in the foreground with the completely denuded brown hills of Haiti rolling across the background. The impressive cinematography is accompanied by a beautiful, evocative score, and the doc is crisply edited.

A beautifully filmed look at a seemingly inescapable and destructive situation, in the end, perhaps "Death by a Thousand Cuts" poses more questions than it does answers. What can be done? As Wiener asks at one point, “With all the international aid coming into Haiti for all these years, which has been billions of dollars, why hasn’t the country been able to find a way out of this web?” It is one of many similar, seemingly intractable situations around the world. No doubt, if there is to be hope of solving any of them, awareness is the first step, and thorough, well-made docs like "Death by a Thousand Cuts" are excellent places to begin.

On Thursday, Feb. 9, at 7 p.m. at the Emerson Center, The Bozeman Doc Series will present the Montana premiere of "Death by a Thousand Cuts." Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are available at the door or before the show at Cactus Records and Movie Lovers. Tickets are also available online at, where you can also buy season passes and seven-film punch cards, learn more about the series, and view trailers for upcoming films. The series will continue every other Thursday through April.