Since the triumph of the Revolution, the government of Fidel Castro has carried out a policy worthy of little praise with regard to the natural riches of Cuba. It is sad to see the fate that has befallen the various sanctuaries for Cuban fauna and flora, principally due to governmental decisions such as the draining of the Cienaga de Zapata wetlands, the tree cutting programs carried out by the sadly much-touted "Che Guevara Brigade," the destruction of the Guanhacabibes forests, the disappearance of the renowned Mayari pine groves, and many other acts the listing of which would be an interminable task.
At the start of the so-called "institutionalization stage," carried out during the mid-70's, the Cuban regime decreed a law concerning the protection of air, water, land, fauna and flora. This law regulated the use and management of natural resources, but the violations of it by government institutions and officials are countless. For this reason, in present day Cuba, deforestation, environmental pollution and the disappearance of species are consummate deeds . The present "Special [Economic] Period" has caused an acceleration of this process, due to the energy and food crisis that exists in the country. The people, anguished by shortages, descend upon the countryside in search of wood for cooking and venture into forested and coastal regions-- habitats for numerous animal species--where they practice indiscriminate hunting to obtain food.
But perhaps it is the oil spills from production wells along the coast and the wastewaters from sewers that are the worst pollutants of the sand and the water of the beaches. The coastal area west of Havana has also suffered a similar fate. Highly polluted rivers, such as the renowned Quiba, spill their waters into the beaches of this region of the province of Havana. The contamination of the Quiba even prompted a popular song about it.
Meanwhile, even Varadero, one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, has not managed to survive the ecological chaos that reigns in Cuba. Much of its sand, previously so white, fine and clean, was also removed indiscriminately during these last three decades. A worse fate has been suffered by the southern beaches, such as Caimito, Rosario, Mayabeque, Cajio and Guanimar, famous for their medicinal waters, which have been impacted by discharges from nearby sugar mills. These discharges consist primarily of hydrocarbons and highly toxic chemical substances.
The construction in this region of three bull breeding centers created another overwhelming source of pollutants. Each one of these three centers discharged daily to the ocean an amount of waste comparable to that produced by a city of 100,000 inhabitants. To the south too, the extensive mangroves that served as spawning habitats for marine and other species have decreased considerably, and, consequently, the populations of fish, birds and mammals have diminished in that region.
The salinization of areas in Pinar del Rio and Havana worried the government, as it threatened to destroy some of the most productive agricultural regions of the country. The affected lands were not producing as before. Due to this situation, and without a serious study of ecological impacts, a new project called the Southern Dike was constructed. The Southern Dike has as its objective recharging the ground water system. But, in actuality, the waters used for recharge are loaded with chemical agents that will prevent making drinkable the already contaminated ground water. The danger that this dike represents is of incalculable proportions given that the contamination it causes affects the supply of drinking water to the city of Havana and nearby locations.
Another river that has a similar situation to that of the Almendares is the Luyano River, which spills its waters into Havana Bay. This small river has become one of the principal sources of pollution to the bay because it carries the wastes of numerous industries and sewers that discharge into it. But it is not the only river that has ruined the water quality of the bay. Another that performs an equally destructive function is the Martin Perez River.
The rivers of the southern Havana region, among them the two main ones, the Ariguanabo and the Mayabeque, are also polluted to an alarming degree. The Ariguanabo, which recharges the ground waters of the southern region, receives its main influx of contaminants from the town of San Antonio de los Banos. A few meters away from the river are the disposal drains of factories, among them a yeast plant and one that processes spices, as well as several automobile repair shops.
The Mayabeque River is in even worse shape. This river, considered the largest in the southwestern watershed of Cuba, has an extensive fluvial network that encompasses the municipalities of Gueines, San Jose de las Lajas, Jaruco y Madruga. The waters carried by its secondary tributaries have high levels of contamination. The industrial region of San Jose de las Lajas delivers to the river, via a secondary stream branching off the main tributary of the Mayabeque, the wastes of a milk processing facility, a paint factory, an aluminum processing plant, an asphalt processing plant, and those of the Institute of Animal Science (ICA), a center for the investigation of exotic and tropical diseases of cattle.
The ICA facility discharges into the Manposton River, at a point near its juncture with the Maybeque, wastes that are highly noxious for human health owing to the fact that the investigations performed at this center involved the slaughtering of sick animals. The water from this river flows into the municipality of Gueines, where it is distributed throughout the city and used to irrigate nearby fields. In Gueines there were as many cases of hepatitis reported in the first three months of 1994 as occurred in all of 1993. Other illnesses, of the ears, eyes, the mucous membranes of the lips and the liver, have been common among those who swim in the river.
Local environmentalists have petitioned the government to inform the population about the danger of these waters, but the authorities have refused to acknowledge said danger and have forbidden any type of publicity about the matter. Analyses of the river water reveal that it contains 1,150 fecal coliform bacteria [per 100 ml]. The maximum tolerated by humans is between 50 and 150.
(In the second part of this piece, the destruction of the forests and caves of Cuba will be discussed.)