HAVANA TIMES — “By the time communism is achieved we will have put behind us the era of social revolutions, but, then, we will have an immense, a great, an infinite revolution ahead of us, the revolution against the forces of nature. And the revolution of nature will be eternal! – Fidel Castro, during an address to students of the University of Lomonosov, former Soviet Union.
“May you dam more and more rivers every year, so that, in the end, not one tiny stream of water is without its dam, until we have managed to keep every last drop of water from reaching the sea. That is the great goal of this organization, its final objective.” – Fidel Castro, Address for the Second Anniversary of Cuba’s Water Resources Institute.
Dams often upset and damage both the natural and human environment. The Ejercito Rebelde dam, Havana’s largest artificial water deposit, is no exception to this rule.
For its construction, the inhabitants of an old town named La Chorrera had to be re-located. A wealth of building materials were squandered in the erection of a massive concrete wall, and the Almendares (Havana’s largest river), along with the forest belt that accompanies it all the way down to its mouth, were irreparably damaged.
What’s more, during the rainy season, the dam overflows and obstructs traffic on the 100, a busy avenue in Havana.
In short, a real slap-dash job (and there’s more to tell, believe me), but the dam was built and, according to the hydrologists, it plays an important role as a support structure for the severely deteriorated* Vento-Almendares basin, which supplies nearly half of the capital with drinking water.
If the dam is a fact of life and is of vital importance to the city, then the logical thing would be to take care of it. Has anyone, any ministry or institution been entrusted with this task? I am sure one has in writing but what I’m asking is whether any concrete steps have been taken in this direction.
Reservoirs, rivers, dams, lakes and water basins must be surrounded, where possible, by a forest belt. We’re not talking about some trees planted near the shores of these bodies of water, but about an entire ecosystem designed to prevent the erosion and dislodgement of soils, the build-up of sediments on the river bed, and the thickening and contamination of the water. The trees keep the river alive and healthy.
That is why there are laws and regulations which prohibit and persecute the felling of these forest belts and any human activity that endangers it, particularly when the quality of an entire city’s drinking water is at stake.
The Ejercito Rebelde dam has not been too fortunate in this regard. In the 80s, some State company planted thousands upon thousands of seedlings in the area surrounding the vast artificial puddle.
Those who planned and carried out this reforestation initiative must have been working just to fulfill a State plan, for they planted a single species of trees, a species which, to make matters worse, is invasive and classified by botanists as harmful: Leucaena (ipil-ipil).
Another fine mess, but unfortunately not the last.
No one paid much attention to the young trees, which were left to their own resources. But after they had become tall, strapping specimens, the unchecked felling of the trees for personal profit began. The loud din of the chainsaw, ax or tree falling in broad daylight did not suffice to rouse the forest ranger, who never arrived at the scene. He must have been busy in his office, rushing the end-of-the-month report…perhaps there was no forest ranger.
Even a forest composed of invasive or undesirable species has value. Innumerable animal and plant species co-existed in its shaded bosom. It was also a welcoming, fresh, almost magical place. Whenever I had some free time, I would take a walk there, alone or with friends.
When people began cutting down the trees, I looked for a way of alerting the institutions responsible for its care. Some years ago, I managed to get a hold of some high Forestry Service officials, including the provincial head office. I gave them the lowdown about what was happening, but things have actually gotten worse since.
After the State began to lease the land surrounding the dam, the terrain began to be partitioned. Now, barbed-wire fences prevent access to the area and cows graze on the ground that was once a forest of key hydrological importance.
It looks as though one does not need the violence of capitalism or a neo-liberal government to deliver the nation’s resources to private interests, through the mediation of a mob of bureaucrats. Apparently, it does not matter if the quality of a whole city’s drinking water is what’s at stake.
*To get a sense of the seriousness of the problem, I recommend reading chapter 2 of GEOCuba’s Report on the Cuban Environment, published in 2009, when the situation was not as alarming as it is today. Below are some notes I extracted from this document.
- According to data furnished by the Special Green Areas Plan Progress Report (DPPF, 2001), only 13 % of the area surrounding the Almendares-Vento Basin in Havana is forested. This is not even remotely enough, considering the erosion problems in the area.
- Owing to the magnitude and extent of the damage, the Almendares and its sub-basin are considered to be severely damaged.
- In the last 5 years, the capital’s deforested area has grown by nearly 1,000 hectares. In addition to this, according to the same source, 333 hectares of forest area have been damaged since, 13.7 hectares as a result of forest fires, and 319.3 hectares as a result of other practices, such as the mismanagement of plantations and lack of care and preservation measures.