The Killing of Havana’s Ceiba Trees Continues

Isbel Diaz Torres

Activist Jimmy Roque near the remains of the ceiba at 31st and 44th streets in the Playa neighborhood.

HAVANA TIMES — The chainsaws of Cuba’s Ministry of Agriculture have killed another ceiba in Havana. This time though, along with my friend Jimmy, I had the opportunity to talk with the person responsible for this latest murder.

I found out about the incident from my friend and fellow environmentalist Gonzalo Miyares Moran, who text-messaged me saying, “Did you know they cut down the ceiba tree at 31st and 44th street?”  He then added, “I just passed by there, only to find the sad stump.”

Three years ago that same specimen was the victim of an attack that was reported by the “El Guardabosques” (the Rangers) organization in our Bulletin No.2 / October-December, 2009.

Back then this involved “ring-barking” (the removal of a strip of bark from around the entire trunk).  At that time, I sent in a formal complaint saying: “Up until now the ring-barking — though broad and deep — has not been finished.” However, shortly after that the work was completed.

Ring-barking is used when the size of a tree makes rudimentary logging simply impossible. Done with a machete or a similar tool, the bark is stripped away all the way around the trunk to eliminate the conductive tissue that carries nutrients from the roots to the branches.

As a result, the upper part of the plant doesn’t receive those nutrients and dries out, which is what apparently happened after three years in this case (another ceiba in the St. Augustine neighborhood survived after being drastically pruned).

When we see a case of ring-barking, there’s one thing we know for sure: the action was not legally authorized. The entities that deal with the management of urban trees don’t employ this technique. That’s why, whenever trying to find the perpetrator of such an act, they almost never show their face.

Three years ago this same tree was reported by the “El Guardabosque” (the Rangers) organization as a victim of an attack.

As the beautiful ceiba in question was growing on a site where I could see it on my way to work (I could always see it through the window of the P5 bus), for several days I was aware of what was happening.

During our on-site investigation, a local resident revealed to us the person who had committed this crime. That person had apparently argued that they were bothered by the leaves that fell from the tree’s branches during a particular time of year.

The perpetrator, a senior citizen, was leaving his house just as we were taking photos of the remains of the ceiba. He looked askance at us in the distance, but he didn’t come over to us. We were the ones who had to walk over to him.

We wanted to know what had made him kill the tree, but of course we didn’t make the accusation in that manner. We only said that we were from an environmental group and that we wanted to know what had happened to the ceiba.

The man told us, elusively, that “the people from Agriculture [I think he meant the State Forestry Service (SEF) in Havana] had cut it down because it had dried out.”

We then noted that the SEF had perhaps completed the work that someone else had started by the ring-barking of the tree. The resident then proceeded to offer a new argument: “Maybe this was done by those people who had been putting religious sacrifices and offerings at the foot of the tree.”

I know this sounds crazy, but the person in San Agustin who set fire to the ceiba near my house said something similar. As he put it: “Maybe it was caused by a candle that one of those Afro-Cuban Santeria believers placed at the base of the tree…” It’s very easy to blame someone else who doesn’t even know they’re being accused.

The ceiba on 31st and 42nd, actually had a piece of rebar driven into its trunk, but there was no indication that it was the work of some Afro-Cuban ritual or anything like that. What I have learned has only indicated to me that people of this type of spiritual belief system are quite respectful of ceibas.

The person responsible for the crime was leaving his house just as we were taking photos of the remains of the ceiba.

After listening to his labored explanations, with him unable to even look us in the eyes, the resident back peddled to his initial position: “This was done by Agriculture, they were authorized to do it,” he said, hiding behind the protection of the government.

We, for our part, assured him that we would proceed with reporting the incident – whether or not it was legally protected by some document signed by the SEF.

We feel that, in principle, the SEF along with El Guardabosques are responsible for ensuring these things don’t happen and that they don’t go unpunished – and much less in a place so central in Havana as the Playa municipality.

We maintain that if they could come and cut down a tree that was already dead, they could easily find out who was responsible and at least give them an educational talk about their incorrect action.

But this didn’t happen. The government’s action only reinforced the certainty of that resident that the tree should have ceased to exist.

In this way, the idea that traditionally existed in the popular imagination about the strength of the ceiba becomes compromised, destroyed, and the species continues to be massacred in Havana – a city that was founded in the shade of a ceiba at the “Templete” of Old Havana.

The tree’s only defense, the myth of its sacredness, is no longer enough to ensure its survival. Ceibas continue to die in Havana.

But I’m not getting tired. I will continue to condemn these acts of violence. It seems that very few people listen, since they’re focused on the difficulties of day-to-day survival.

However, to paraphrase the great Juan Gelman: “I sit at the desk and write.”


4 thoughts on “The Killing of Havana’s Ceiba Trees Continues

  • Grady: I understand the difficulties on having trees in the cities. Havana is an old city, and we have a huge amount of trees, which need to be replaced. It’s a hard task to accomplish, but institutions and persons should learn how to manage it together.
    Of course, some times the tree must be removed, but in my judgment, the cut was not necessary this time.
    Your idea of a candle-light memorial is great, although authorities probably will disapprove it. I’ll talk to some friends, and see their opinion. Thanks.

  • Kathy: Thanks for your comments. I’m afraid we have enough TV programs about the benefit of trees in Cuba, but most of them are boring. Maybe if we could show the real damage that people and governmental institutions are doing to trees in the cities, the alarm could really transform the perception.

  • Sometimes beautiful trees have to be cut down because they are diseased or deteriorated, and may fall on property or people, especially during storms. This is normal procedure in cities and beside highways. It is regrettable, but can’t be helped.

    On the other hand, there are many emotionally damaged persons–usually men, but not always–who destroy trees in order to fulfill a clinical-level need to feel potent. It happens in the US and perhaps everywhere.

    Like you, I feel that a tree is one of the most magnificent and useful things on the earth. None should ever be cut unless it is absolutely necessary. Perhaps, Isbel, you could organize a candle-light memorial to mourn this fallen beauty, and to publicize the need to love and protect those trees still standing.

  • Isbel, thank you for your continued concern for the Ceiba Trees of Havana. I am very disheartened to learn of the ongoing murder of these beautiful , magnificent trees by some misguided ignorant people. Do they not know the trees are a blessing, not a problem? They provide oxygen for the neighbourhood polluted with deisel fumes and other toxins. Not only are they healthy for the people around, they are good for the soul ! One only has to behold their strengh and beauty to experience peacefulness. Perhaps a program of TV, informing people of the benefit of these trees would be helpful. I hope there is a way to stop this practice and SOON!

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