Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

ENVIRONMENT-CUBA: Sugarcane a Culprit in Soil Depletion

Patricia Grogg* - Tierramérica*

HAVANA, Aug 28 2003 (IPS) - The sugar industry is among the major contributors to the degradation of Cuban soil, a problem affecting nearly 70 percent of cultivable areas on the island. Worldwide, desertification processes cause losses of 42 billion dollars annually.

According to official figures, the soils in 11 of Cuba’s 14 provinces suffer from erosion, compaction, acidity, salinity and lack of organic material, but the phenomenon is most dramatic in the east, where the island’s most fragile ecosystems are found.

Experts say the main culprit is five centuries of monoculture of sugarcane, a crop that depletes the soil’s nutrients. Sugarcane production intensified in the early 19th century through the mid-20th century.

Commercial cultivation of sugarcane and subsequent expansion of cattle raising led to the deforestation of extensive areas, a phenomenon that accelerated in the 19th century with the rise of coffee plantations in the eastern mountains.

In less than two centuries, the island lost eight million hectares of tree-covered area, such that by 1959 only 14 percent of Cuban territory was forested.

"And that 14 percent which was not appropriate for agricultural use has been suffering an accelerated process of erosion," Antonio Perera, an expert with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) told Tierramérica.

When degradation is combined with compaction and salinity, it accelerates the soil processes leading to desertification, Perera said.

In his opinion, the reconversion of the Cuban sugar industry begun last year – aimed at reducing sugar production to no more than four million tonnes a year as a means to boost prices – will permit better soil management.

Around one million hectares that have been dedicated to sugarcane plantations will be converted into forests to produce lumber, fruit orchards or put to other agricultural uses.

"The major desertification processes emerge as a result of historic problems, particularly due to the loss of vegetation or the inappropriate use of agricultural resources," commented Perera.

Desertification is a gradual process of loss of soil productivity caused by human activities and by climate variations.

Seventy percent of the 5.2 billion hectares of arid lands dedicated to agriculture worldwide, or 30 percent of the earth’s land surface, is degraded and in danger of desertification.

Meeting in Havana until Sep. 5 is the Fifth Conference of Parties to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). Official delegations from 160 countries are participating.

Perera said the conference participants are expected to approve a financial mechanism aimed at confronting desertification problems through the Global Environment Facility of the World Bank.

Soil degradation, desertification and lack of water are some of the key problems that must be tackled in efforts to reduce global poverty in compliance with the Millennium Goals, established by the United Nations in 2000.

More than 250 million people directly suffer the effects of desertification, according to U.N. figures.

"Desertification is not the natural expansion of existing deserts but the degradation of land in arid, semi-arid, and dry sub-humid areas," states the UNCCD web site.

Desertification is a gradual process of "soil productivity loss and the thinning out of the vegetative cover because of human activities and climatic variations such as prolonged droughts and floods."

Human actions that contribute to desertification include overcultivation, livestock overgrazing, deforestation, and poor irrigation practices. "Such overexploitation is generally caused by economic and social pressure, ignorance, war, and drought," says the UNCCD.

(Patricia Grogg is an IPS correspondent.)

* Originally published Aug. 23 by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme:

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