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

ENVIRONMENT-CUBA: Homegrown Formula Against Desertification

Patricia Grogg

SAN ANTONIO DEL SUR, Cuba, Jul 25 2005 (IPS) - A programme for planting trees in yards and courtyards has become popular in drought-stricken eastern Cuba, as part of the effort to fight soil degradation and erosion.

"Reforestation is the only hope for the future," said Teodosio Hernández, who heads a programme to plant fruit and lumber trees in the semi-arid southern coastal area of the eastern province of Guantánamo, 1,000 km from Havana.

Planting trees is combined with the cultivation of crops like sweet potatoes and beans, both of which are staples among rural residents in the region.

"These are badly damaged soils, but we have gradually improved them, even in the most arid spots," Hernández told IPS.

The project, which got underway in 2003 on state-owned and private land in nine farming communities, awakened greater interest than was expected, and the tree nursery will be expanded so that seedlings can be made available to anyone interested in planting trees in their yards.

"According to the plan, we are going to reforest a total of 20 hectares, with 17 species of trees," said Hernández.

But Alexis Pineda went even further, planting 20 different kinds of trees and bushes in his small yard. He proudly shows off his guava, coconut, tangerine, papaya, avocado, mango, chirimoya (custard apple), plum, passion fruit and tamarind trees, many of which are already producing fruit.

Pineda runs the project’s greenhouse and 2.5 hectares of Jatropha curcas shrubs, which produce the physic nut, whose oil is used to make soap. The remainder of the crushed nut is used as fertiliser.

The physic nut, also known as Barbados nut, is a drought resistant shrub that helps alleviate soil degradation, prevents soil erosion and serves as a natural boundary fence or live hedge, like the Neem tree (Azadirachta indica), which is also being planted around the region.

Pineda’s home is one of 19 in El Oro with solar panels on the roof that provide enough electricity to run a TV set, a radio cassette recorder and five lamps. "What we have an abundance of here is sunlight, so we never have power outages," he said.

Nor does the village lack water, unlike neighbouring communities in this region plagued by severe drought. El Oro receives water through pipes that run downhill from a dam built across a stream located at 300 metres altitude in the mountains, which provide enough water to irrigate the crops and supply the livestock as well.

Farming in the community of Baitiquirí, on the other hand, is more complicated. The soil is much more arid, and it only rains between 300 and 400 mms a year. The technique used there consists of planting seedlings in deep holes that are filled with a mixture of 80 percent soil and 20 percent organic material.

Hernández praised the technique, and said "The water to irrigate the crops is hauled in by truck from places that have piped water. There is a possibility that gravity could also be used here to pipe water, but funding is lacking for the pipes."

The tree planting project, which depends on financing from international donors, is also aimed at improving irrigation systems and will install a greenhouse for the production of seedlings of guava trees through splicing, which accelerates the production of fruit.

"The semi-arid region of Guantánamo has always been dry because of geographic reasons, and the lack of rainfall fuelled the processes of soil erosion and desertification," Oscar Borges, a researcher at the provincial Soil Institute, commented to IPS.

Ministry of Agriculture studies indicate that 12 percent of all agricultural land in Cuba is desertified to some degree, a proportion that will rise to 15 percent by 2015.

Stockbreeding is a traditional activity in the San Antonio del Sur valley, located in an arid part of the province of Guantánamo. But due to the poor management of the pasture land, the soil was gradually depleted.

Borges noted that on state-owned land, food production development plans in these semi-arid areas include forestry, improvement of pasture land, and the use of cutting-edge agricultural technology.

Soil degradation is one of the most pressing environmental problems in Cuba, due to climatic factors like hurricanes that frequently hit this Caribbean island nation, but also because of harmful agricultural practices including centuries of monoculture farming of sugar and tobacco.

This month, representatives of the Cuban government and international agencies met in Havana to study an action plan to tackle the problems of erosion and degradation that will require nine million dollars in financing from the Global Environment Facility (GEF).

The programme, to be presented to GEF in November, includes plans for the sustainable use of underground water as well as forestation efforts.

At an international level, the issue of desertification was first discussed at the United Nations Conference on Desertification held in Kenya in 1977. But due to a lack of administrative and financial support, attempts to tackle the problem were undermined, and in 1992, the Earth Summit in Brazil recommended that a U.N Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) be drawn up. The Convention was adopted in 1994 and went into force in 1996.

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