Isbel Diaz Torres
Together as a group of environmentalist friends, we tried to determine the environmental impact of the 100th street dump located to the west of the Cuban capital. The attempt was not completely successful since we were kicked out of the place by its “owner.”
The handling of solid waste in all cities around the world is a true headache. It’s not an easy task, especially when the lifestyle imposed on us by the West is one of voracious consumerism and total indifference in the face of the havoc we have caused.
Gigantic trash dumps are physical evidence of this state of things. In Havana we have three major ones, but the largest is the one on 100th Street. According to information we exchanged before venturing to enter the dump, residents of the capital surpass the average amount of garbage produced by each resident on the island. People in Havana produce 1.5 pounds of waste daily, and it’s still not known how this problem is going to be addressed.
These dumps occupy large stretches of open areas. There are several strategies for processing garbage in these, though almost all imply the release of toxic substances into the atmosphere. Polluting gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and chlorofluorocarbons contribute to the greenhouse effect, while ammonia and heavy metals present dangers by their leaching into the soil and water.
This leaching or draining can cause pollution and the reduction of oxygen levels in groundwater. This is why it is necessary to waterproof the base when setting up a dump. I don’t know the design of the 100th Street dump, but studies confirm that substances have leached from there and have now polluted the nearby reservoir as well as the Almendares River and the Vento Aqueduct – of which each is a supplier of water to large parts of the capital.
Likewise, studies have revealed that heavy metals have now entered the food chain. Vegetables from farms near the trash dump possess levels of these substances above those considered acceptable for human health and biodiversity. The fumes and dust from the dump are also deposited on cultivated land; therefore vegetables receive pollution through both the soil and the air.
The city proper is not three miles away — as newspapers claim — but very close by. In addition to this, animals that graze peacefully in this area are the potential bearers of toxic illnesses and substances. This was quite probably the case with the herd of cattle that we ran into upon our arrival. The herder admitted to us that there were also 54 goats and 73 rams there.
Perhaps this was what was so worrisome to comrade Maritza de la Paz, the administrator of the dump facility. Once she was informed of our visit, she came running to immediately expel us from her dump. “You’re invading my dump,” she told us. It’s worth pointing out that to get there we didn’t have to climb any perimeter fence or gate; there wasn’t even a simple sign there to discourage our access.
Although fairly excited, the comrade was kind. The only detail that I requested of her was to explain how this was “her” dump; I thought that it was “ours,” consistent with the idea of socialist property and a sense of collective ownership… Nonetheless, I got my explanation: “There’s a thing called a ‘sense of ownership,’ and the person with the “resolution” saying she’s in charge is me. The ‘sense of ownership’ is mine,” she spit back defiantly.
In a disciplined manner, we all left immediately. In our retreat, a group of “illegal” workers who were heading toward the dump with sacks asked us, “Is there an inspection going on there?” When we told him that there wasn’t and that the only one there was the administrator, they responded, “Ah, good, there’s no problem with her” and they continued walking toward that area.
The administrator had been clear in telling us that “you people can’t invade land that’s already government property,” but apparently the many people who work there every day — illegally — are not invading, at least not according to the concept of that administrator.
The reality is that these men and women survive thanks to that work, which has great value. They recycle. They rummage through the waste to collect raw materials and then sell these to the government. They put their health at risk to do what the dump facility should probably be doing. Maybe the dump should employ them to guarantee them protection and optimum hygienic conditions, to unionize them and give them incentives. The public service message about conservation that comes on TV so often should be replaced by one for recycling.
What’s more, the biogas plant that was set up at the dump in 2008 is not producing electricity or fertilizers. It barely transforms any methane from green garbage that is brought there from across the entire city. This gas (highly flammable and polluting) is transformed into less polluting carbon dioxide. German technology, Chinese donations, Swiss and UN financing, and Cuban technologists traveling to China to train for this.
Those of us interested in environmental protection want to find out from close up about such sources of pollution that have impacted our urban, semi-urban and rural landscapes for years. We want to rekindle the desire to do things for the city, its people and the environment of which we are a part.
Perhaps there doesn’t exist a “resolution” that specifically names us for this, beyond our personal resolve to defend what is beautiful and oppose what is poorly done.