By Daniel Benitez (Cafe Fuerte)
HAVANA TIMES — The once-hated marabou brush has become something of a commodity as a source of raw material for some Cuban farmers, who are using the plant to produce vegetable coal and export it to European countries for millions of dollars.
Last year, Ciego de Avila’s Empresa Agroindustrial Ceballos, the largest vegetable coal producer on the island, exported a total of 29 thousand tons to countries as distant as Italy, Greece, Turkey and Syria, reporting profits above 9 million Cuban Convertible Pesos (Some 10.5 million USD).
According to a recent report published by Cuba’s National Information Agency, Italy is the country with the highest demand for the product. Apparently, cooking their world-famous pizzas using vegetable coal produced from Cuban marabou significantly increases their quality, owing to a slower cooking process.
Exports on the Rise
More than 40 thousand tons of vegetable coal are produced every year in Cuba to satisfy the country’s demand and cover export needs, which have skyrocketed over the past three years.
Apparently, the properties of vegetable coal produced using marabou are appealing for buyers abroad.
Maximo Lozano, an expert at Cuba’s Empresa Forestal Integral, explained that the coal produces a blue flame, without smoke or ashes, making it appealing for importers.
Today, Europe clients purchase more than 30 thousand tons of vegetable coal a year. The price of one ton on the international market is around 300 dollars.
In 2013, Cuba exported 70,200 tons of bio-coal to Italy, Canada, Portugal, Spain, France, Greece, Germany, Belgium, Israel and Turkey, up 32 thousand tons over the previous year.
Raul Castro’s Criticisms
The much maligned marabou, an exotic species that has taken over large expanses of land throughout the country, is now being celebrated by the country’s agricultural industry. In his July 26, 2007 speech, President Raul Castro vehemently attacked the brush, launching a nationwide campaign to free over 1,300,000 hectares of land from the plant.
The invasive plant can grow as high as five meters and is notorious for the hardness of its wood and the long thorns that sprout from its branches, making its cutting and handling a complicated process.
Despite the high profits obtained by the government through the export of this bio-coal, farmers who produce the coal face such problems as lack of files to sharpen their work tools and a shortage of sacks used to store and transport the product.
Though salaries in the sector have gone up, they are still inadequate owing to the risks that coal makers are exposed to.
China and Canada
Since 2013, Cuba has been negotiating two multi-million-dollar agreements with Chinese and Canadian buyers to take full advantage of the marabou brush in the province of Las Tunas, where over 100 thousand hectares are covered by the plant.
The deal with Chinese companies, valued at some US $45 million, includes technical assistance and the assembly of three land preparation brigades equipped with brush harvesters. The vegetable coal will be packaged and exported or converted into energy at a bio-electric plant located in the town of Majibacoa.
A Canadian company is exploring the possibility of extracting biomass from 22 thousand hectares of land.
Gliola.com, a web-site belonging to a Panamanian company with Italian capital (based in Cuba for over 10 years), estimated that around six million hectares of land on the island have been overgrown with marabou.