Isbel Diaz Torres
HAVANA TIMES, Oct. 3 — In the park located in the far-western Havana community of Santa Fe, not a single tree has been left standing. In a shocking tree felling operation carried out recently, the area was cleared for a residential complex that will serve officials of the Ministry of the Interior (MININT).
Planning restrictions exist in the village of Santa Fe city due to its difficulties in accessing drinking water and electricity, the community architect explained to us. The area is also one of the most vulnerable to the rising sea level and consequent ocean flooding.
Nevertheless, there was another area available for development at the end of the neighborhood. That area, known as “El Roble,” possesses firm ground, contrary to the marshy soil at the former park site, which is also located in a “wind tunnel” where cold fronts from the north enter the community.
El Roble, of course, lacks a high profile when compared to building housing on the town’s centrally located Fifth Avenue.
Our delegate knew nothing
Lazaro E. Delgado, the young delegate who represents District 64 (the area that includes the former park) was not informed of the clearance action – not before it or after it taking place.
“Law 91 establishes that the delegate must have knowledge of everything that happens within their area of responsibility. But in this case, since they were from MININT, and they have that freedom…or they take it…or someone gives it to them… they don’t have to take the community into consideration,” he stated.
Delgado supposes that the process went through a rigorous review mechanism because the area is a fairly high profile one; all of the official delegations that visit the Latin American School of Medicine come through there, in addition to it being the home of Commandant Ramiro Valdes, one of the “historic leaders” of the revolution and currently the Minister of Communications and Computer Science.
“I can’t imagine them having done anything without authorization from the Physical Planning office. Santa Fe and Jaimanitas are considered “frozen areas”; everything is under the control of MININT. “Anything 500 yards from Fifth Avenue, coming inward and on both sides of the street, all of the housing here is under MININT control, as is the land,” explained the delegate, who is the community representative by the direct vote of residents there.
“Since they’re with MININT, just like the FAR (the army), they can come in, cut everything down and leave; they don’t have to be accountable to anybody,” the delegate emphasized, evidencing his disgust with the procedure applied in this case.
Delgado detailed a previous experience he had with a construction project of the Ministry of International Relations (MINREX) only a few blocks from the park site. “This was just like in the case of the MINREX people, who simply handed me the authorization form from Physical Planning, the work plans and the construction license to build on that land.”
He also pointed out that: “Construction work creates noise and dust, and is a general nuisance. The difference was that when the people from MINREX finished, they repaired what they had damaged, and they cooperated with senior citizen’s home next door to reduce any inconvenience.”
Nothing like that was done by those overseeing the work by MININT. “These people started out badly,” he complained. The delegate added that not even Zenaida, the president of the Popular Council, gave him any information with respect to all of this.
What can be done?
According to the testimonies of area residents, children in the vicinity filled the holes with stones to hamper the progress of the work, while they yelled at the crew not to cut down their pine trees.
Another resident commented: “I began telling everybody in the neighborhood, ‘We’re going to write letters. I myself will deliver them personally, and we’re going to take action.’ But no one did anything.”
“Residents have gone to them before, but they don’t care about us,” the president of the CDR complained.
According to testimony, Marta (Dinaidis’ grandmother) had commented on her block that they were going to rally the whole neighborhood and that they would take to the streets with signs and posters – news that upset the crew leader to no end.
When being interviewed, the older woman admitted to us that she had really thought about: “calling journalist Gladys Rubio to tell her the story, but my husband told me not to get involved in all of that. He said I was too old and that it was going to affect my health since I was really upset.”
In any case, the crew leader, a colonel, confronted her and told her that they weren’t obligated to communicate anything to the community. The elderly woman then called this state security functionary a “21st century predator.” With that, he demanded that she quit complaining so much because with the clearance they would be eliminating mosquitos in the area.
Dinaidis’ granddaughter, the mother of a two year-old boy, was concerned about the effect of flooding. The grove had served as a drain, but with it to be occupied by buildings, when it rains the water will move toward the houses in the village since the area doesn’t have a sewer system.
Up until now, the only practical action that has been taken was by the activist Patricia Alonso and other youths, who were so indignant that they sprayed graffiti on a wall close to the site. For a short time on Fifth Avenue one could see the words “Develop Sustainably,” along with the drawing of a cut down pine tree.
Because of the audacity of such an inoffensive protest, the youth wound up in the police station that night, where they were ordered to paint the wall the next day to eliminate the environmentalist demand.
A casuarina tree isn’t a pine
The casuarina is an exotic tree that originated in Australia and the Pacific islands. It reaches a height of up to 100 feet, but its foliage makes people confuse it with a pine tree, which is why it’s sometimes called an “Australian Pine.”
The species was brought to Cuba with the purpose of using it for its hard wood. It’s used for the construction of fences and the production of coal because it’s a high-quality fuel. In addition, its bark can be used for medicinal purposes in treating diarrhea.
All of the people interviewed agreed that the trees that were cut down weren’t even used to benefit of the community. They were simply hauled out to a dump.
Casuarinas also act as windbreak and for serving as screens against salty air blowing in from the sea. Likewise, they resist dryness and can grow well in poor subsoil with a saline base, which is why they’re appropriate for reforesting coastal areas.
Nevertheless, their extensive and uncontrolled use throughout the island damaged the sand in areas that were historically beaches, compacting the ground where these were planted.
On the other hand, affected swamps (like those of Santa Fe) are better suited to more aggressive and less demanding non-native species like the casuarina. In that environment, the species is able to multiply spontaneously and develop large and healthy populations, to the detriment of autochthonous species.
The control and evaluation of the placement of this species are indispensable measures. Nevertheless the strategy for the management of casuarinas in coastal areas should not overlook their social-historical function.
A corner for saving
The work undertaken was overwhelmingly unpopular, in addition to having potentially negative environmental and social consequences. According to specialists, this transformation could cause changes in the soil, implying significant deterioration in nearby natural resources and affecting the ecological balance of the area.
“The park had constituted a barrier to the activity of waves. By having eliminated it as an obstacle to natural drainage, this destruction greatly increases the area’s vulnerability to erosion and flooding,” noted engineer Gertrudis Valdes Hernandez (a researcher with the Institute of Geophysics and Astronomy) in a letter he delivered to local authorities.
“With so many places existing where people dump waste or that are full of marabout bushes, why not cut the marabout and build there? – not where we have beautiful pine trees and where people breathe another type of air,” nostalgically commented Ayme, the president of CDR No. 5. In her opinion, officials were tempted by the prominent location on Fifth Avenue, and this was decisive in MININT selecting the site.
“I had a soccer field developed there. Now the kids are asking me where they can play, and it’s true that they don’t have anywhere to practice,” protested the young delegate, appealing for balanced action that responds to social needs while at the same time respecting nature.
Patricia Alonso, who had requested to attend the “public” meeting carried out by the delegates of Popular Power and other actors from the community, was prohibited from participating. Along with her family and residents from the area, she still hopes to reforest at least part of that corner of Santa Fe so that it always remains green.