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The numerous trees of the countryside were considered an impediment to the implementation of the new techniques. Land clearing was not long in coming. Entire groves of fruit-bearing trees were destroyed. Isolated trees and those bordering roads and pathways also fell victim to the destruction. During those first years after Castro taking power, the Che Guevara Brigade was created. This Brigade employed explosives and war tanks which, using heavy chains, razed entire forests across the whole island. Millions of trees which provided refuge to indigenous fauna perished along with the animals that depended on them for shelter. Many of the new agricultural methods failed but still left their mark on the process of deforestation.
The small farmers were the last to fall before the Great Landowner that is the Cuban state. The creation of cooperatives placed in the hands of the state the majority of lands that remained under individual private control. Once these lands became part of the state cooperatives, the few groves that remained were razed. The few farmers that did not join these cooperatives were pressured, in some areas, to cut down their own groves. Those that refused witnessed the withering of their fruit trees a few days later, the result of fumigation with tree-killing chemical agents. This method was employed in 1987 by the Civil Agricultural Aviation Administration (Empresa de Aviacion Civil Agricola) and the Miguel Soneira Rios Administration for Varied Crops (Empresa de Cultivos Varios Miguel Soneira Rios) in the Rio Seco region, near the municipality of Gueines. Many other places suffered the same fate.
At present, Cuban forests are possibly going through their worst time ever. The so-called "Especial Period in Time of Peace" has brought about the greatest exploitation of trees for firewood ever recorded in Cuban history. It should be noted that during colonial times and the first years of this century, coal was used to meet the energy needs of the populace and the railroads.
At the beginning of this decade, every municipality had worker brigades that had--and still have--the mission of supplying firewood to factories, hospitals, bakeries, dry cleaners, dining facilities, and other centers. Military units have their own suppliers of firewood. Public ornamental trees, as well as fruit and timber-yielding trees, are also used by these suppliers.
General Raul Castro--Second Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba, Vice President of the Council of State, and Minister of the Armed Forces-- declared in 1992 before the Integrated Eastern Forestry Administration (Empresa Forestal Integral del Este) that, for the final stage of the Special Period, "it is foreseen that trees in the forest reserve of the Southern Marsh [of the province of Havana] will be cut down for energy supply purposes." The work, according to General Castro, will be performed by prisoners from nearby penitentiaries. According to the general, this undertaking would provide firewood to the collective dining facilities that were conceived by the regime to feed the population in case of an extreme crisis.
Faced with the critical situation of the country's forests, the government has had to invest in a reforestation campaign. But, contrary to expectations, the campaign has been unsuccessful because millions of the trees planted have died from lack of care.
The deforestation of Cuba is having deleterious effects that will make themselves felt sooner or later. The soil is loosing its most fertile layers as a result of erosion from rain runoff. It is well known that trees and grasses, by means of their roots, hold in place the most fertile soil layers, thus preventing their erosion by runoff. In addition, forested lands receive the greatest amounts of precipitation--a factor which has an influence on climate. An example is the southern coast of the province of Guantanamo, between Imias and Maisi, which is undoubtedly a true desert. Within this region, which forms part of the SaguaBaracoa Uplands, there exits what is perhaps the greatest climatic-duality contrast in all of Cuba. To the north, in Baracoa, the rainy microclimate is characterized by high precipitation and luxuriant vegetation; to the south there is desert, where only some stunted vegetation and cacti exist. The southern watershed was cleared and is now desert. To the north, fortunately, not yet.
Speleology in Cuba was traditionally performed by hobbyists due to the lack of professional employment in that field. Consequently, all work in Cuban caves with regard to exploration, cartography, climatology, bacteriology, geology, archeology, and paleontology, has been performed by unpaid scientist and hobbyists.
During the mid-70s, there emerged many groups of young people that were interested in speleology, a science that combines sport, love for nature, discipline and camaraderie. These groups acquired ample knowledge of areas difficult to access due to the nature of their topography and subterranean interconnections. In the early 80s, the Armed Forces began to demand of these groups that they systematically turn over the results of their work, especially mapping data. The Army had come to realize that the spelunkers had more information about intricate areas than its own experts.
Around 1987, the National Special Speleological Formations School of the Territorial Troop Militias of the Armed Forces, was created. This school was attended by personnel selected by the Army and the Communist Party of Cuba. The goal was to create experts whose loyalty was considered more important than their knowledge and vocation. Few experienced spelunkers took part. The end result was foreseeable: civilians were barred from entering important caves and subterranean systems. This is the case with the beautiful Pio Domingo Cave, an important site of paleontological and archeological relics. The Great Cavern of Santo Tomas was also closed to civilian personnel. The first was taken over by the military and it is not known what goes on inside. The second now houses a military unit and the training practices carried out inside by the military school of speleology have destroyed stalactites, stalagmites and other secondary formations. Other valuable caves throughout the country have suffered the same fate. Many of them have been converted into depots for armaments, explosives, and chemical products, altering their natural ecosystems which are habitats for various members of Cuba's flora and fauna.
But not only the military is to blame for the destruction and pollution of the caves. Various livestock, agricultural and industrial enterprises discharge their wastewaters into caves and sinkholes. Among the examples that can be cited is that of Candela Cave, near Gueines, where tons of industrial wastes and dead cattle have been dumped, according to the "Alejandria" spelunking group. Another case, according to another such group called "Marien," is that of Tunnel Cave (located next to the town of La Salud, in the province of Havana) which is used by a cattle ranch to dispose of dead cattle. In other caves of the southern karst plain of Havana province, the group "Pedro Borras" found residues of strychnine, a highly noxious vegetal alkaloid. Other contaminants found are caustic soda and potash, discharged in the waste from sugar mills and other industries.
For its part, the "Martel de Cuba" spelunking group has made known the contamination of the southern groundwater basin, located in the province of Havana. Also, in the province of Ciego de Avila, spelunkers have observed the lowering of the water table, both to the north and south, and the general presence of pathogenic, noxious fungi in the caves. The group "Sama," from Sancti Spiritus, has noted the ecological degradation suffered by the northern coast of that region due to the emergence of fungi of unknown type. Meanwhile, spelunkers on the Isle of Pines have reported sources of water contamination and diesel fuel at the electrical plant in Sierra de las Casas, a groundwater recharge area.