Destroying Woods for Officials Homes (I)

Isbel Diaz Torres 

“When I went out there this past weekend and saw all of that, it made me feel like crying, said Patricia Alonso.

A grove of casuarina trees was completely cut down this past July 11.  This happened in the coastal town of Santa Fe, to the west of the Cuban capital.  The action was carried out by a crew from the Ministry of the Interior (MININT), leaving the area’s residents in no less than a state of shock.  All they could do was realize their impotence in preventing such devastation.

Patricia Alonso and her family are currently attempting to file a complaint over what happened, though they’re still not completely clear where to turn.  This was why they first went to an environmentalist group called “El Guardabosques” (the Forest Rangers) with the hope of finding some response to their complaints.

Alonso said: “When I went out there this past weekend and saw all of that, it made me feel like crying.”  She, together with familiar and friends, had worked on the design of that and other public works campaigns for the village.

The stand of trees, which had been located in an impacted depression, was one of the most significant green elements in the Barlovento portion of the town.  It had constituted a characteristic symbol for the roadway axis and for the general urban area.

A blue metal hut revealed the presence of a security post.

Along with Patricia, activists from El Guardabosques and I went to the precise area looking for information.  We wanted to quantify the real impact of the despoilment.

Yet there was no remaining trace of what had once been an urban forest of drooping casuarinas trees.  A wide yellow embankment now occupies the entire block that faces the Fifth Avenue thoroughfare.  At the bottom, a blue metal hut revealed the presence of a security post.

A young guard dressed in a military uniform stated to us with resolve: “This is going to be for military housing… for the Coast Guard.  They’re going to be two-floor MININT structures.”  His information was corroborated by the locals who, living only yards from the site, have been the most vulnerable actors in this drama.

Indignant neighbors 

“Kids from Jaimanitas and Santa Fe and all the young people in the neighborhood used to play in those woods.  It was a pine grove with grass where foreigners would come and spread out to have picnics.  Everybody liked the little forest.  It was pretty and gave us relief from the summer heat. ”

That was how one of the neighbors referred to it, though she asked not to be identified so as to avoid any problems.  “These woods were planted by Celia Sanchez herself as a part of her “amor libre” project, and none of that has been respected.  That was done 41 years ago.  Celia was the one who ordered the forest planted there.”

Celia Sanchez Manduley was an active participant in the Cuban Revolution and was an intimate friend of Fidel Castro, with whom she founded the July 26 Movement.  After the 1959 victory she maintained a low political profile, though she had tremendous influence on the Cuban president, for whom she served as his secretary until her death in 1980.

“These woods were planted by Celia Sanchez herself as a part of her “amor libre” project, and none of that has been respected,” one resident said.

No one has found information on why it was referred to as the “amor libre” (free love) project, but that certainty exists in the imagery of area residents.

Another one of the neighbors gave details about how the felling occurred: “In one day they completed the whole job.  They got here at 7:00 in the morning.  My little boy jumped out of bed screaming: ‘Oh, mommy, they’re going to cut down the forest.’  His shrieks were absolutely harrowing, he was wailing.  I went outside to call the neighbors, but everyone just stood there astounded.  Then they started calling the soldiers everything – jerks, idiots, stooges, puppets…  But that same day they began to fill in and level out the whole tract.  It was criminal. ”

“They cut down our woods and they left numbers of little dead nestlings.  I don’t know how they can talk so much about ecosystems, the environment and all that, and then come out here and destroy everything,” said another young woman — visibly indignant — as she joined in the conversation.

Even a fumigator who had happened by and heard part of the interview said out loud: “They’ve wrecked this damn place.  Look, it’s awful the way they left it – and it used to be so pretty. ”

In the house on the corner lives another one of the families that has shown some of the most consternation over what happened.  Dinaidis and her grandmother Marta gave us photos and made some chilling comments.

“My little boy is turning two, and now he’s traumatized with what happened.  He doesn’t stop asking: ‘look momma, they cut down the pine trees.  Where are they?  Where are the pines?’” explained Dinaidis, someone for whom the grove was also an effective buffer against hurricane winds and the salt air.

“In one day they completed the whole job.”

Marta, for her part, wonders how the Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment (CITMA) ever “approved of such nonsense.”  As she put it: “If everyone on TV and the media talk constantly about global warming and protecting the environment, how was this possible?  That forest served as a kind of lung for this area,” the old woman argued.

Dinaidis’ grandmother told us about some of her exchanges with the MININT colonel who was managing all the work and who showed her the authorization form from CITMA.  According to that official, the work was permitted under articles 5 and 6 of his document.  However, “When I asked him what those stated, he closed the file and took it away from me,” Marta said.

According to a letter written by Patricia Alonso and engineer Gertrudis Valdes Hernandez, a researcher at the Institute of Geophysics and Astronomy, the buildings are being constructed in a depression that floods to form a temporary pond when there’s strong rain.

“This area contains several covered drains that feed into the underground water system that drains out into the sea, which is why its geological foundation is very fragile and vulnerable to the impact of construction,” affirmed the specialist in the letter.  He added that the land is highly susceptible to sinking; therefore the project still requires an environmental impact assessment.

Local authorities left in the dark 

“They didn’t say anything and nobody knows anything.  They showed up all of a sudden and started cutting down everything.  At that same time this white dust started coming out and floating around.  At no time did they ask what the residents thought.  This has hurt everybody because that grove was the life of everyone over here.  The kids don’t have anywhere to go anymore; they used to go there and spend whole days at a time.  They played soccer in the clearing, and baseball too, it was good for everything.  If they had asked before cutting it all down, maybe there would have been a solution, but now it’s too late; it’s all over and done with.”

Those were the words of Ayme, the president of the neighborhood Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) No.5, where the former grove was located.

“The buildings are being constructed in a depression that floods to form a temporary pond when there’s strong rain.”

She described how the residents had complained about the way the head of the operation acted toward them.  “They think they’re the owners of the earth and they talk to people any way they feel like.  They even threatened us saying that if we continued protesting then we were going to pay.  The only thing I could think to do was get the heck out of there,” said the president of the CDR.

Related to this, another resident commented, “The CDR here is good for nothing, because officials don’t raise anything with the organization, with the neighborhood or with anybody at all.  They say this is for the Coast Guard and that’s supposed to be enough.  The president of the committee is a deadbeat and the residents are a bunch of pushovers,” commented the first resident interviewed, and now we could corroborate her words.

“In the afternoons people used to sometimes sit out under the pines, everybody did – so this hurt everybody.  A few months ago we had the delegate’s report-back assembly meeting, but nothing was said about the matter; nor was there mention of it in meetings of the Cuban Revolution Veterans’ Association,” Ayme stated, still distraught by the high-handed way in which the clearcutting was carried out.

The comments made by the local delegate of Santa Fe District 64, the actions taken by the community, as well as the details concerning this act of deforestation will be presented in the second part of this report.

(to be continued…)