Granma and Deforestation

Erasmo Calzadilla

Pons, Pinar del Rio. Photo: Caridad

Every time I visit the mountains of Pinar del Rio, I run into “Mr. Deforestation.” Here I find increasingly younger trees being felled with chainsaws, along with large patches of protected-area land being ploughed under, and more and more pillagers having a field day without too many apparent difficulties.

The last time I found the situation so depressing that I decided to do a story for Havana Times, but since I didn’t have any photos I decided to hold off. Later, the Granma newspaper got the scoop on me with their feature “SOS: Razing the Forest” (“Sos: arrasan el Bosque).

Usually when an official Cuban publication talks about the matter, it’s to praise how well official reforestation efforts have increased forested areas since 1959, praising the “political will of the government” and so on. But the article on November 18 was different, which is worth celebrating.

But it could only be celebrated up to a certain point. While it covered the issue with more realism than is usual in that paper, its analysis was so superficial that one had the feeling that it was almost a whitewash of those ultimately responsible for the situation.

Granma reported that in the protected area of ??Pinar del Rio known as Mil Cumbres, sophisticated illegal logging operations have laid waste to the forest there. The story highlighted how the devastation has reached the level of making it difficult for these areas to produce enough seeds for replanting.

All state agencies and local farmers are in hot pursuit “tras la huella” (“On the Trail,” the name of a popular TV police series), but they haven’t been able to stop the felling since the timber thieves are using modern equipment (chainsaws and cellphones), as well as increasingly complex strategies (guard points, nighttime operations, etc.).

On top of this, the local authorities believe that part of the problem is the overly lenient punitive measures applied against convicted offenders.

This was how the story was approached by the “communist” daily, sounding more like the latest episode of a TV cop show.

Granma often refuses to accept the systemic dimension of problems facing the nation (maybe because this would be like cutting off its own limb).

Here I propose discussing three half-truths in that article.

First: These law-breaking loggers are sophisticated criminal outfits that operate under the cover of darkness…

I usually travel to the mountain reserves of Pinar del Rio once or twice a year, only for a few days and not penetrating too deeply into the mountains.

Even still, in the plain light of day I’ll often run into people engaged in these and other illegal activities detrimental to the ecosystem.

These are folks who have no relation to the image of accomplished hi-tech outlaws; instead, they’re simple, friendly, local-area farmers.

To me it’s always clear that these people wouldn’t run the risks of breaking the law or damaging the environment if their economic situations weren’t so precarious.

Maybe in some specific region there exist villains like the ones painted in the Granma article, but those colors are not what abound – at least not in the various areas I’ve visited.

Second: All institutions are struggling with the problem

The loggers I’ve periodically stumbled upon weren’t held up in any caves. They were hauling their loads along open trails at the rate any ox can plod. I do indeed suspect that all institutions are struggling – but each for a part of the difficult-to-obtain wood.

In a supposedly protected area — with two shifts of forest rangers — it’s highly improbable that a city boy like me would always run into bandits in the middle of their destructive work if there wasn’t something funny going on.

If things are so open and brazen, it’s clear that everybody and their mother are involved – yet Granma feigns innocence.

Third: One of the main causes of deforestation is the rising price of wood.

This was stated by one of the officials interviewed by the “official organ of the PCC,” though the journalist writing the article didn’t pursue this notion. To this I would add:

– True, the price of lumber has gone up, but so has the overall cost of living, making the situation of Pinar de Rio campesinos increasingly more difficult.

– Illegal wood harvesting feeds a whole network involving everyone from the loggers to the forest rangers, truck drivers, police officers, carpenters, craftsmen and the end consumers. This means that those officials whose precise role it is to prevent deforestation are active accomplices. Only widespread and systemic corruption allows something like this to occur.

A possible solution

Almost everyone I’ve talked to about this agreed that it would be best if the farmers in the area were involved in caring for the forest. But for such an activity, there would have to be economic incentives for them.

Right now no one bothers to plant trees because the mountains belong to no one, therefore anyone can come along and harvest the fruits of such an effort. But what if each family or community had an assigned area where they were allowed a certain level of harvesting? In this case the locals themselves would become most zealous guardians of the forest.

This is so obvious that even a child could think of it, yet Granma sees no other solution than to hunt down the wood Mafiosos and slap them around with increasingly severe penalties.