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ENVIRONMENT-CUBA: From Dump to Growing Garden

Patricia Grogg

GUANTÁNAMO, Cuba, May 14 2007 (IPS) - When Irania Martínez said she would make that rubbish dump productive, people said she was crazy. Today the greenery, hundreds of trees and sense of order that reigns in the place confirm that she is in her right mind, and the project is a model that could spread all over the country.

“The benefits have been huge, thanks to Martínez and CEPRU (Ecological Processing Centre for Solid Urban Waste). Before, we didn’t even have proper streets. It was all mud. Now it’s clean and we have electric light,” Belkis Abdala, who has lived for 15 years in “barrio” (neighbourhood) Isleta on the outskirts of the eastern Cuban city of Guantánamo, told IPS.

Abdala and her family live right in front of what used to be the dump, and they recall when Martínez arrived some six years ago. “Irania went to work on the land, spending her own salary, with the help of three neighbours who worked for free, and our own humble support,” she said.

“All the woodlands you see now used to be a rubbish heap, full of black smoke, stench and flies,” said Abdala, who also noted that “many of the local residents found work at CEPRU.”

Barrio Isleta, with over 500 residents, went through a parallel process of change along with the transformation of the old rubbish dump, thanks to seedlings from Martínez’s trees growing in many a local patio, and the organic compost that nourishes their home- grown gardens.

Martínez was sent to barrio Isleta as head of the Agriculture Ministry’s urban agriculture movement. She has been the head of CEPRU since its foundation, and acknowledges she is “self-taught” and has a “strong character”.

“We started this on our own. Everybody said I was crazy, and some people were against the project. But I’m no weakling, and when I’m sure about something I go ahead and do it, mainly out of intuition and love of nature,” she said. Now she hopes to resume her studies in agronomy, which she abandoned in the 1990s.

About that time, the dump was formed and spread over an area of six or seven hectares. More than half of it has already been recovered, with a forest containing some 3,000 trees, nurseries for seedlings to continue reforesting, and places for processing wastes or preparing organic fertiliser.

There is a workforce of 35, nine of whom are women. “I’ve got six waste processing areas, but we can only operate three of them with the personnel we have. We need more workers,” Martínez said.

In CEPRU, nothing is wasted. Everything is put to some use. An average of 150 to 160 cubic metres of urban waste arrives every day from the barrios on the outskirts of Guantánamo. The first job is to separate organic waste from inorganic materials.

The inorganic waste is classified by lots, such as X-ray film, shoe soles, perfume or nail polish containers, toothpaste tubes, cardboard, paper, tinplate, car tires, radios, TV sets and a great deal of plastic waste.

“We sell off as much as we can as recycled raw materials. Other stuff we use ourselves, for fencing or signs. Tires, for instance, can be used to make thousands of different things, even roofing tiles. A sensible use must be found for every kind of waste,” Martínez said.

Further income is derived from the sale of organic compost, but the price is five or six times lower than the real cost of production.

“CEPRU will only be sustainable once an environmental economic study has been carried out. Our work is being recognised, but no one has sat down to do the sums,” she said.

The CEPRU project has had a striking impact: burning of rubbish is now minimal, proliferation of insect vectors harmful to human health has been curbed, forest species populations have begun to recover, and degraded ecosystems are being protected and rebuilt.

CEPRU receives an estimated one ton a month of high- and low-density plastic waste. Instead of being burned, as it used to be, it is re-utilised in various ways.

Experts say this practice has eliminated the release of toxic gases. The reduction represents a six percent drop in the province’s total emissions of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) like dioxins and furans into the atmosphere.

CEPRU is one of the foremost projects supported by the Global Environment Facility’s Small Grants Programme (GEF/SGP), managed in Cuba by the United Nations Development Fund (UNDP).

According to SGP estimates and other investigations, the project successfully reforested three hectares of land and grew some 1,000 seedlings a year. Forty households in the community participated in the reforestation effort.

Waste decomposition time was halved, production of organic compost increased by 60 tons, and the uncontrolled burning of 150 tons of rubbish a month was eliminated.

At least five new jobs for women were created. Working conditions were improved for the entire staff, who were given training courses which also benefited 50 percent of the residents of barrio Isleta.

Martínez says that organising groups like CEPRU in every Cuban province would be a method for providing training for personnel at other rubbish dumps, in order to reproduce their successful experience. “If the funding for such a nationwide project is not forthcoming, at least we could set up groups for the eastern, western and central regions of the country,” she said.

The twenty or so large rubbish dumps in Guantánamo province are now trying to put CEPRU’s techniques into practice.

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