Cuba’s National Treasure, its Sandy Beaches, at Risk

By Ivet Gonzalez (IPS-Cuba)

A man picks up empty cans at the beach in Guanabo, Havana.  Photo: Jorge Luis Baños / IPS

HAVANA TIMES – Recycler Antonio Fernandez picks up cans and plastic bottles from a pile of garbage on Guanabo’s sandy beach, which he puts in a bag so he can then sell them and make some extra cash, in addition to working as a guard in the Cuban capital.

“This situation is caused by the carelessness of people who come and, instead of enjoying this place, only tarnish the environment,” Fernandez told IPS.

In just two hours of walking along this iconic beach on the Havana coast, the worker was able to collect a whole bag of waste, which he collects at home to sell on, an average of 20 kilograms per week.

While he washes his hands in a pool of water in the sand, Fernandez talks about the decline of this natural resource in Cuba, which is public property, by garbage that contaminates it, although there are other factors that harm its conservation in this Caribbean country where tourism is a strategic sector in the economy.

“Back in the old days, everything was different, people behaved differently. The only way to keep the situation under control is with better education and law-enforcement,” Fernandez said, who lives in a neighborhood in the Habana del Este municipality, which has 26 kms of sandy beaches where the capital’s residents and visitors go to bathe.

The result of a combination of factors such as human actions, poor management, scarce or zero maintenance and climate change, the Cuban archipelago is suffering from coastal erosion and is losing between one and two meters of its coastline every year, with 430 meters of sandy beaches, which need large investments for conservation efforts or to restore sand dunes.

A group of persons walk on a path made to protect the sand dune of Guanabo, Havana. Photo: Jorge Luis Baños / IPS

Scientific sources say that just over 80% of Cuban beaches are showing signs of erosion.

A state and national program to recover sandy beaches up until 2030 was even launched in 2017, which includes sanitation and rehabilitation efforts for sand dunes and rebuilding footbridges, giving special attention to international resorts such as Varadero, the cays on the northern coast and the eastern province of Holguin..

Up until now, the Mario Oliva Perez ship has been the greatest investment in this regard, which has a huge machine with a great dredging and sand extraction capacity so as to restore dunes, where many species live and are a natural barrier to protect life further inland.

However, these actions still haven’t spread to less touristy resorts and some beaches are falling into such decline that their recovery has been put off.

“Our mission is to recover the Guanabo area, which is a beach that the population loves so much and is asking for us to study,” Yesenia Ibanez said, the head of the Environmental Unit at the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment in Havana, when talking to IPS.

Made up of the Bacuranao, Tarara, Megano, Santa Maria del Mar, Boca Ciega, Guanabo, Veneciana, Brisas del Mar and Rincon de Guanabo beaches, the eastern coastline of Havana is protecting this natural treasure, unlike the western coast of the city, which is made up of reefs and few accumulations of sand.

Ibanez revealed that Guanabo had to be divided into two stretches for investigation because it had fallen into such great decline. The first investigation will come to an end in 2020, and the second stage will begin this same year, “which studies the land and sea because buildings have popped up everywhere after meteorological events took place.”

Publicly funded and at the Unit’s request, these studies are currently covering 6500 meters of the 26 km-long sandy coastline, which represents 25% of the total. “These results will be handed to the body that will be responsible for recovering the beach,” Ibanez explained, who hopes this will be the local government.

These areas form part of the 262 coastal settlements in Cuba, where 193,000 people live, who need other types of adaptative measures in order to tackle climate change, some of which are radical and involve relocating. In the capital, some buildings have been slated for demolition and coastal protection and rehabilitation efforts are underway.


Ruins of what was a home built close to the beach in Guanabo, Havana. Photo: Jorge Luis Baños / IPS

Waves crash against an old building in poor repair which is the home to 10 families in Guanabo. “The foundations on top of the sand are exposed… the sea has gained ground, eroding all of this area… a person could stand underneath,” pensioner Lazaro Leyver said, who lives in one of the apartments.

“There is a project to recover the coast and to knock everything down here, including this building, but it seems like it will take a while,” Leyva pointed out, who is sorry about having to leave in the face of the danger of another meteorological event. Next to the building, there is the ground floor and foundations of another building that was knocked down.

The Guanabo landscape contrasts with the stretches of beach in Santa Maria del Mar and Boca Ciega, where the environmental agency has been implementing a recovery project ever since 2011.

“Dunes have been kept in this area as they were, with their footbridges,” Solveig Rodriguez explained, the Havana delegation expert of this Environmental Agency. “We carry out maintenance works twice a year, around May and November,” he pointed out about the project.

High dunes with vegetation crown the 1063 meters that join the two recovered areas in Santa Maria del Mar, in front of the Tropicoco hotel, and in Boca Ciega, where Hotel Itabo guests go. Wooden footbridges allow access for beach visitors, and signs (many of which are damaged) ban pollution of the beach.

After Hurricane Irma struck the Havana coast in 2017, the protection sand dunes offer became clear in recovered stretches. “The sea didn’t go inland and flood, nor did sand get swept away to the streets and homes,” Rodriguez remembers.

A man walks near a sign that says “Protect the beaches” in Guanabo, Havana. Photo: Jorge Luis Baños / IPS

A house belonging to domestic worker Hilda Rosa Reyes lies between a street and the Boca Ciega dune. “It protects us… before, the street and even our backyard would fill with sand, we had to use shovels to get it all out and repair walls and the gate,” she said, although she said that the problem of trash in the area still persists.

Up until now, Decree-Law 212 about the Management of Coastal Areas, in force ever since 2000, sets regulations, but observers and even government authorities note that they aren’t strictly enforced, as well as other environmental laws on this Caribbean island.

Cuba is also taking part in the regional project “Impact Assessment of Climate Change on the sandy shorelines of the Caribbean: Alternatives for its control,” which the Association of Caribbean States has been coordinating since 2017, so as to protect this key natural resource in an area that relies on tourism and is the victim to extreme weather events.