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Cuba’s mangroves under threat

Cuba’s mangroves under threat
Tangled thickets island nation’s first line of defence against rising
sea levels

Many people in this hamlet on the southern coast of Cuba remember when
the shore lay about 100 metres further out. That was four decades ago.

Since then, rising waters have gradually swallowed up rustic homes, a
narrow highway that once paralleled the coast, even an old military tank
that people now use to measure the sea’s yearly advance.

“There was a road there,” said Jose Manuel Herrera, 42, a fisherman and
former charcoal harvester, pointing toward the gentle waves. “You could
from here all the way to Mayabeque.”

Worried by forecasts of rising seas from climate change, the effects of
hurricanes and the salinization of farmlands, authorities say they are
beginning a forced march to repair Cuba’s first line of defence against
the advancing waters – its mangrove thickets, which have been damaged by
decades of neglect and uncontrolled logging.

In the second half of 2013, a moratorium was declared on mangrove
logging. Now, the final touches are being put on a sustainable
management master plan that is expected to be in place before the end of
the year. Cuban has said the plan is a top priority.

What makes the effort vital and closely monitored by environmentalists
is that Cuba is one of the few places left in the Caribbean with
extensive mangrove forests. Cuba accounts for about 69 per cent of the
region’s current mangroves, the New York-based Environmental Defense
Fund says.

Mangroves act as both a barrier to the sea and a saltwater filter,
making them important for coastal .

Even in Cuba, experts say the situation is critical.

“The situation is bad.

More than 30 per cent of the mangroves are in a critical state,”
government forest scientist Reynier Samon said on a recent tour of
Surgidero de Batabano, an area where deforestation has been extreme. The
rest, he said, are in a state of medium deterioration. Mangroves
historically have been harvested heavily, for textile dyes, tannins used
in the pharmaceutical industry, lumber for furniture and charcoal that
rural Cubans rely on to fire their kitchens.

But healthy mangrove stands are important to alleviating one of the
island’s biggest headaches: Rising seas stand to wipe 122 towns off the
map and penetrate up to two kilometres inland in low-lying areas by
2100, posing a serious threat to coastal communities and ,
according to a government study last year.

Efrain Arrazcaeta, who runs a local environmental non-profit, has
witnessed the phenomenon with growing alarm. His group estimates a
two-metre maritime advance each year, using the submerged tank as a
reference point. “If the mangroves are restored, the mitigation of these
effects will be notable,” Arrazcaeta said.

No details of the mangrove plan have been made public. It will
apparently include sustainable exploitation measures with some logging
for the pharmaceutical industry under study, though the moratorium will
remain more or less in place.

Officials are also waging a public awareness campaign to educate coastal
residents to be caretakers of the tangled, mosquitoinfested thickets.
The campaign shows them how their homes and farms are at stake and urges
them to protect freshwater streams vital for maintaining proper saline

“The perception of the importance of this ecosystem for these
communities is low. They see it as something to exploit,” said Samon.

Extensive reforestation isn’t easy. There’s no way of mechanizing the
process, which means brigades of workers will have to wade into the
swampy terrain and plant each mangrove by hand.

Even deciding what to plant where requires careful study. Red mangroves
thrive next to the sea, black mangroves a few metres inland, “yana”
mangroves beyond that. If you plant any variety in a place that’s too
salty or not salty enough, it will die.

Financing for the plan comes from various ministries as well as a UN
program on climate change adaptation. Officials declined to give budget
figures, but said it’s in the millions of dollars.

Samon said in the past year some 36,000 hectares (89,000 acres) of
mangroves have been successfully replanted nationwide. The measure
complements other programs to relocate coastal buildings, protect sand
dunes and regulate how close hotels can be to the sea.

In Surgidero, residents say the logging moratorium and some small
initial reforestation have already had a noticeable effect. Seen from
the sea, the coastline looks greener, they say.

“There is a cay that formed just from the (new) mangroves and in one
year it grew to a good size,” said Alexis Duarte, a fisherman.

Studies show while mangrove loss across the Americas is about 3.6 per
cent per year, Cuba has recorded net gains in recent years.

Dan Whittle, Cuba program director for the Environmental Defense Fund,
said Cuba “is probably the model for other countries” in the region for
the coastal protection measures it has taken over the past decade or so.

However, he said, much work remains and Cuba has a mixed record
implementing its protective laws and policies.

Samon says the political will is there to address the challenge. “Now we
are in the phase of implementation and boots on the ground. It’s urgent.”

Source: Cuba’s mangroves under threat –

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