Reforestation: Cuba leads the way

Before 1492, what is today the United States had about 1 billion acres of forests. From 1600 on, at least 286 million acres were destroyed. In a 1763 letter, Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Cleared land absorbs more heat and melts snow quicker.”

Because of colonialism and the growth of capitalist extractive corporations, forests that formerly drew carbon back down were decimated. This deforestation is a part of the crisis of global warming — in addition to the massive increase of carbon in the atmosphere. The world needs reforestation.

Cuba is doing it!

Cuban reforestation began in the Sierra del Rosario region in 1968; with support from the revolutionary government, local villagers decided on a plan.

The area had been denuded during Spanish colonization, over 400 years from 1492 to 1898. The invaders cut down the original forest to raise livestock and set up plantations. The indigenous trees cedar, ebony, mahogany, majagua and others – no longer grew there. By the mid-1800s, the soil was degraded; deforestation continued into the early 1900s for cattle grazing and hog raising. Impoverished rural people worked for ranchers or burned trees to make charcoal. By the time of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, nothing was left except isolated palm trees.

Socialist Cuba saw the need to implement social and economic projects in rural areas. The Sierra del Rosario Plan was one of those projects. The reforestation plan, launched along with establishment of community services, would improve soil quality and provide important work for people in the area. 

Founded in 1971, Las Terrazas was named for the terrace planting system, and included an initial 5,000 hectares (12,355 acres) in the eastern part of the mountain range. Scientists assisted in determining which Indigenous trees to plant, and the villagers initially planted 3,000 mahogany, hibiscus and teak trees. Within eight years, people in the valley had planted 6 million trees. 

The Cuban government stated that fruit trees should be planted among the other species to feed the people. Some 80 percent of the food eaten in Las Terrazas is locally grown. All of it is organic, including bananas, pumpkins, grapefruit, avocados, oranges, mandarins, mamey – and all is grown between the forest trees.

Las Terrazas was built to provide electricity and piped water, with day care centers, schools, family doctors, dentists, a clinic lab and a pharmacy. The project improved conditions for local families, who were joined by scientific personnel, public service providers and artists. 

People raise livestock for meat, and a lake was constructed to farm fish, including trout, tilapia and other species. The village later added an ecomuseum, a cinema and a discotheque.

Indigenous ecosystems restored

Indigenous mammals, plants, birds and insects, many of which had become endangered under centuries of environmental exploitation during colonialism, began to return – and Indigenous ecosystems began to be restored. Today Cuba has 131 species of birds, 26 of which are indigenous to Cuba; the rest pass through on migratory routes to their nesting areas. There are 33 reptilian species, including 17 snakes and 11 lizards. Some of the world’s smallest mammal species live in Cuba – the endangered Cuban solenodon, the jutía conga and jutía carabalí – have returned to the forest.

In 1985, UNESCO recognized the reforestation project as the Biosphere Reserve, and added 25,000 hectares (61,776 acres) of Sierra del Rosario to the original 5,000. Since then, UNESCO has recognized five more biospheres in Cuba.

During the Special Period, after the loss of trade with the USSR and Cuba’s other former socialist trading partners, combined with the U.S. tightening its blockade, the revolutionary government supported ecological and cultural tourism and doubled the focus on sustainability. Tourism profits in Las Terrazas were used to build a library. Also in the Special Period, growing organic became mandatory.

The Buenavista Coffee Plantation was restored from the ruins of one of the colonial coffee plantations. Locals planted coffee trees and began to harvest shade-grown Arabica Las Terrazas coffee. Honey is also locally produced.

Las Terrazas was the first model for reforestation in Cuba; it has inspired another 11 reforestation projects. The other 11 communities meet periodically at Las Terrazas to exchange indigenous seeds to promote biodiversity and trade food produce. UNESCO has recognized Cuba’s reforestation programs for their principles of incorporating scientific knowledge and traditional practices to strengthen community involvement in strategic planning. To date more than 7 million indigenous trees have been planted, and a great amount of biodiversity has been recovered. 

U.S. Solidarity delegation visits Las Terrazas

The 50th Venceremos Brigade visited Las Terrazas July 28. We met Ida, our local guide, at the village, and then she took us to the Rio San Juan. The biosphere is a popular vacation site for workers in Havana. The river San Juan is fed by sulfur springs and is regarded as a mineral treatment. We joined many Cubans swimming in the river and enjoying the forests on their national holidays.

The three green gardens of Las Terrazas support the schools and community as the primary food source. Villagers grow fruits, flowers and plants with medicinal uses in herbal infusions and vitamin supplements. Kindergarten children have their own garden where they learn to grow food, which they eat at lunch and snack times. The children even learn to make herbal infusions with various flowers, such as chamomile, and guava. 

The Ecological Research Center belongs to Cuba’s Academy of Science. Specialists search for species of flora and fauna in the forest; twice a week they also work with local students to teach them to recognize the plants as part of the scientific work. Even small children know how to recognize six or seven of the local Indigenous plants.

Ida told the Brigadistas, “When I tell you it was mandatory to grow everything we needed, it was not because someone came and told us to do it. We need to do it.” And, she added, “We grow organic all the time.”

Las Terrazas uses some solar power and plans to acquire more when possible. The biosphere has regulations for conservation; the local Committee for the Defense of the Revolution makes all decisions regarding sustainability, such as how much housing is sustainable for the project. 

Our guide spoke of the impact of global warming on growing seasons and local flora. Some varieties of plants have now disappeared from the forest due to the heat; others, such as mangoes, are in season earlier and longer. This July was the warmest ever recorded in the world. Ida told us the past average year-round temperature in Cuba was 24° to 25° Celsius (75° to 77°F); this year they had a new high of 39.8°C (103.6°F).

Ida said when she was a child, the rains were so intense that children were forced to stay home from school sometimes for a week or two. Now there are seasonal rains that might last only three days. She stressed that from the beginning, the reforestation plan was focused on the environment.

In the last couple of years, the villagers began to organize work to clean plastic and trash out of the river where tourists and Cubans have littered. Children are invited to join the cleanup; in this way, their environmental consciousness is developed from a young age. The community is currently discussing the need to limit the number of tourists in order to protect the environment.

Stopping global warming requires a rapid transition away from the use of fossil fuels. It also requires reforestation. Socialist Cuba – revolutionary Cuba – is a model for fighting global warming.

Hedgecoke was a member of the 50th Venceremos Brigade to Cuba. 

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