Inter Press ServiceIvet González – Inter Press Service http://www.ipsnews.net News and Views from the Global South Sun, 19 Nov 2017 14:50:58 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.8.3 Protein Plants Bolster Animal Feed in Cubahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2017/11/protein-plants-bolster-animal-feed-cuba/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=protein-plants-bolster-animal-feed-cuba http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/11/protein-plants-bolster-animal-feed-cuba/#respond Tue, 07 Nov 2017 02:03:32 +0000 Ivet Gonzalez http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=152907 Based on protein plants, pasture and fodder, Orlando Corrales produces cow and goat milk on a farm located next to a major road in the Cuban capital. “We do not use any industrial feed here,” he says proudly. Calm prevails on the seven-hectareJibacoa farm, despite its proximity to the heavy traffic on Boyeros road, in […]

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Orlando Corrales grows forage plants interspersed within banana plantations, using the leaves and stems for feeding his cattle on the Jibacoa farm, which is surrounded by live fences, in the south of the Cuban capital. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/ IPS

Orlando Corrales grows forage plants interspersed within banana plantations, using the leaves and stems for feeding his cattle on the Jibacoa farm, which is surrounded by live fences, in the south of the Cuban capital. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/ IPS

By Ivet González
HAVANA, Nov 7 2017 (IPS)

Based on protein plants, pasture and fodder, Orlando Corrales produces cow and goat milk on a farm located next to a major road in the Cuban capital. “We do not use any industrial feed here,” he says proudly.

Calm prevails on the seven-hectareJibacoa farm, despite its proximity to the heavy traffic on Boyeros road, in the southern outskirts of Havana. In the stables, the cows, goats and sheep eat a mixture of several plants that Corrales grows on his not very fertile land, where he raises livestock and grows fruit trees.

“You can replace the feed with these plants because they have a high level of protein,” said the farmer, who grows, even in the living fences that surround his farm, more than 15 varieties of plants to feed 32 cows, 36 goats and 54 sheep, besides experimenting with breeding rabbits and guinea pigs."Good scientific studies have been produced in Latin America and the Caribbean in response to the need to find forage sources to increase livestock production. This is a global challenge." -- Theodor Friedrich

In his own way, Corrales follows the recommendation of specialists aimed at helping small farmers like him to boost production of meat and milk – two food items that are scarce on the tables of Cuban families and are among the most expensive in local markets.

In this Caribbean island nation in recession, the limited availability of industrial animal feed, produced and imported in low quantities, is one of the factors threatening livestock-raising, with the resulting impact on local food security.

For this reason, state research centers, together with the Ministry of Agriculture and farmers such as Corrales, are promoting the use of shrubs such as moringa (Moringa oleifera), mulberry (Morus) and red sunflower (T. rotundifolia) to feed livestock on small farms that often adverse climatic conditions such as drought.

“Many of these forage plants stimulate the production of milk in females,” added Corrales, who in 2016 produced 1,800 litres of goat’s milk, 6,000 litres of cow’s milk and three tons of tubers, fruits and vegetables. Additionally, his farm supplies a natural juice store and a stand in an agricultural market.

Thanks to training received and accumulated experience, Corrales, who is a mechanical engineer, today makes “a nutritionally balanced diet for animals with these plants, especially for those pregnant or milking. Everything is milled in forage machines and mixed with other foods,” he explained.

“We have moringa, red sunflower, mulberry, and the hybrid grasses ‘king grass’ and common grass. We intersperse fodder within banana plantations for example, and we use the leaves and stems for animal feed. This is the Inca peanut (Plukenetia volubilis),” Corrales said during a tour of his farm, which he was leased in 2008 by the state as part of a land redistribution process.

The livestock on the Jibacoa farm are fed with a mixture of forage plants grown on the farm, in the municipality of Boyeros in the Cuban capital. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/ IPS

The livestock on the Jibacoa farm are fed with a mixture of forage plants grown on the farm, in the municipality of Boyeros in the Cuban capital. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/ IPS

“We also grow sugar cane, which does not provide much protein but does provide energy and good flavour, piñon florido (Gliricidia sepium), Chinese hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis), gumbo-limbo (Bursera simaruba) and poplar (Populus)… we have a bank of seeds of these plants and a lot of food even for times of severe drought,” he told IPS.

Although he has pending challenges such as making use of the parts of his farm that are still idle, incorporating semi-confined livestock production systems, and growing hay, Corrales’ use of pastures, fodder and protein plants demonstrates that it is possible to replace traditional mixed or compound feed.

“The recommendation in the tropics is to feed cattle with more than 70 percent of local pastures and fodder, and the rest of the deficit protein is complemented by protein plants,” agronomist Francisco García, president of the non-governmental Society of Production of Pastures and Forage in Havana, told IPS.

Facing resistance from farmers, the agricultural sector established in 2011 a programme to promote the use of protein plants and expand their cultivation in the country. The best-known among the local population is moringa, to which late former president Fidel Castro (1926-2016) dedicated several of the columns he wrote for the local press.

Even in parliamentary meetings, the deficient local production of animal feed has been analysed as an obstacle for the increase in meat and milk supplies for the local population. The only successful experience identified is pork production, which has grown steadily by 10,000 tons per year.

In 2016, the equivalent of 338,000 tons of pork on the hoof, 167,000 tons of cattle and 39,000 tons of barnyard fowl were slaughtered in Cuba, according to figures from the state National Bureau of Statistics and Information, which include livestock raised in backyards.

The production of cow’s milk totaled 594 million litres, which is below demand in this country of 11.2 million people.

Several sectors of Cuban agriculture suffered a decline in the first half of 2017, compared to the same period of the previous year, due to longstanding problems of deficiencies and the severe 2014-2017 drought. The outlook may be worse at the end of the year, due to Hurricane Irma, which hit the north coast of Cuba in early September.

Currently there are 3,979,700 head of cattle, 56,700 water buffalo, 2,376,000 sheep and 1,154,300 goats.

An employee of the juice shop El Framboyán serves a papaya (Carica papaya) juice. Their juices are made with fruits harvested on the Jibacoa farm located nearby in Boyeros, on the southern outskirts of Havana, Cuba. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/ IPS

An employee of the juice shop El Framboyán serves a papaya (Carica papaya) juice. Their juices are made with fruits harvested on the Jibacoa farm located nearby in Boyeros, on the southern outskirts of Havana, Cuba. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/ IPS

“In Cuba we have to introduce alternative products to lower the costs of animal production, in order for it to be sustainable,” said researcher Lourdes Lucía Savón, who is studying other ways to locally feed livestock.

Results obtained by the Cuban scientist are part of the compilation launched in May in Havana, entitled “Mulberry, moringa and red sunflower in animal feed and other uses. Results in Latin America and the Caribbean.”

“These are fast growing species and should be used in the Cuban context, where there are so many problems with meat,” said Savón, a biochemist. “We analysed their use and make recommendations based on the digestive tract of the animals to avoid disorders.”

Savón told IPS that traditional foods made from “corn and soybean make animals grow faster” but warned of a little-known problem.

“Today there is a trend of importing feed, which sometimes has microtoxins that cause disorders in animals,” she said. “With alternative products, animals grow slower, but it ensures local availability and guarantees the health of livestock.”

The scientist clarified that alternative feeds “are very difficult to produce on an industrial level”, which is why their use is recommended “in medium and small-scale productions”.

Due to the importance of the issue, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) promotes national efforts in this regard. It even supported the preparation and publication of the book in which Savón participated along with other colleagues from Cuba, Ecuador and Venezuela.

“Good scientific studies have been produced in Latin America and the Caribbean in response to the need to find forage sources to increase livestock production. This is a global challenge,” FAO representative in Cuba Theodor Friedrich told IPS.

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Conservation Agriculture Sprouts in Cuban Fieldshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2017/08/conservation-agriculture-sprouts-cuban-fields/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=conservation-agriculture-sprouts-cuban-fields http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/08/conservation-agriculture-sprouts-cuban-fields/#comments Thu, 10 Aug 2017 18:21:00 +0000 Ivet Gonzalez http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=151642 At the entrance, the Tierra Brava farm looks like any other family farm in the rural municipality of Los Palacios, in the westernmost province of Cuba. But as you drive in, you see that the traditional furrows are not there, and that freshly cut grass covers the soil. “For more than five years we’ve been […]

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Onay Martínez holds a sugar-apple on his farm, Tierra Brava, in western Cuba, where he practices conservation agriculture and has turned this sustainable system that minimally disturbs the soil into a model in his country. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Onay Martínez holds a sugar-apple on his farm, Tierra Brava, in western Cuba, where he practices conservation agriculture and has turned this sustainable system that minimally disturbs the soil into a model in his country. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Ivet González
LOS PALACIOS, Cuba, Aug 10 2017 (IPS)

At the entrance, the Tierra Brava farm looks like any other family farm in the rural municipality of Los Palacios, in the westernmost province of Cuba. But as you drive in, you see that the traditional furrows are not there, and that freshly cut grass covers the soil.

“For more than five years we’ve been practicing conservation agriculture (CA),” Onay Martínez, who works 22 hectares of state-owned land, told IPS.

He was referring to a specific kind of agroecology which, besides not using chemicals, diversifies species on farms and preserves the soil using plant coverage and no plowing.

“In Cuba, this system is hardly practiced,” lamented the farmer, who is cited as an example by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of integral and spontaneous application of CA, which Cuban authorities began to include in their policies in 2016.

This fruit tree orchard in the province of Pinar del Río, worked by four farmhands, is the only example of CA reported at the moment, and symbolises the step that Cuba’s well-developed agroecological movement is ready to take towards this sustainable system of farming. The Agriculture Ministry already has a programme to extend it on a large scale.

FAO defines CA as “an approach to managing agro-ecosystems for improved and sustained productivity, increased profits and food security while preserving and enhancing the resource base and the environment. CA is characterised by three linked principles, namely: Continuous minimum mechanical soil disturbance; Permanent organic soil cover; Diversification of crop species grown in sequences and/or associations.”

Because of the small number of farms using the technique, there are no estimates yet of the amount of land in Cuba that use the basic technique of no-till farming, which is currently expanding in the Americas and other parts of the world.

CA, which uses small machinery such as no-till planters, has spread over 180 million hectares worldwide. Latin America accounts for 45 per cent of the total, the United States and Canada 42 per cent, Australia 10 per cent, and countries in Europe, Africa and Asia 3.6 per cent.

The world leaders in the adoption of this conservationist system are South America: Brazil, where it is used on 50 per cent of farmland, and Argentina and Paraguay, with 60 per cent each.

And Argentina and Brazil, the two agro-exporter powers in the region, are aiming to extend it to 85 per cent of cultivated lands in less than a decade.

Sheep are raised for meat on the Tierra Brava farm, which also produces fruit, expensive and scarce in Cuba. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Sheep are raised for meat on the Tierra Brava farm, which also produces fruit, expensive and scarce in Cuba. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

“In conservation agriculture we found the basis for development because it allowed us to achieve goals in adverse conditions,” said Martínez, a computer specialist who discovered CA when in 2009 he and his brother started to study how to reactivate lands that had been idle for 25 years and were covered by weeds.

A worker operates a kind of mower characteristic of this type of agriculture to clear the paths in Tierra Brava, which has no electricity or irrigation system. The cut grass is thrown in the same direction to facilitate the creation of organic compost.

“There are places on the farm, such as the plantation of soursop (Annona muricata), where you walk and you feel a soft step in the ground,” Martínez said, citing an example of the recovery of the land achieved thanks to the fact that “no tilling is used and the soil coverage is not removed.”

Focused on the production of expensive and scarce fruit in Cuba, the farm in 2016 produced 87 tons, mainly of mangos, avocados and guavas, in addition to 2.7 tons of sheep meat and 600 kilos of rabbit.

Now they are building a dam to practice aquaculture and are starting to sell soursop, a fruit nearly missing in local markets.

Mandarin orange, canistel (Pouteria campechiana), coconut, tamarind, cashew, West Indian cherry (Malpighia emarginata), mamey apple (Mammea americana), plum, cherry, sugar apple (Annona squamosa), cherimoya (Annona cherimola) and papaya are some of the other fruit trees growing on the family farm, until now for self-consumption, diversification or small-scale, experimental production.

An assortment of fruit grown on the Tierra Brava farm in Los Palacios, in the western Cuban province of Pinar del Río. In the cooperative of which it forms part, farmers aspire to build a processing plant to sell “healthy fruit” to tourists. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

An assortment of fruit grown on the Tierra Brava farm in Los Palacios, in the western Cuban province of Pinar del Río. In the cooperative of which it forms part, farmers aspire to build a processing plant to sell “healthy fruit” to tourists. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

“Rotating crops is hard and requires a lot of training and precision, but CA is also special because it allows you time to be with your family,” said Martínez, referring to another of the benefits also mentioned by specialists.

FAO’s representative in Cuba, German agronomist Theodor Friedrich, is one of the staunch advocates of CA around the world, based on years of research.

“Agroecology, as it was understood in Cuba in the past, has excluded the aspect of healthy soil and its biodiversity,” he told IPS in an interview. “Now the government recognises that the move towards Conservation Agriculture fills in the gaps of the past, in order to achieve true agroecology.”

Friedrich said that in this Caribbean island nation of 11.2 million people, CA is new, but “several pilot projects have been carried out, and there is evidence that it works.”

In October 2016, Cuba laid out a roadmap to implement CA around the country, after an international consultation supported by FAO. And in July a special group was set up within the Agriculture Ministry to promote CA.

“CA has not been immediately adopted on a large-scale around the country,” said Friedrich. “But as of 2018, the growth of the area under CA is expected to be much faster than in countries where this system only spreads among farmers, without the coordinated support of related policies.”

A worker operates a low-impact mower, used in conservation agriculture to clear the land, on the Tierra Brava farm in Los Palacios, a municipality at the western tip of Cuba. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

A worker operates a low-impact mower, used in conservation agriculture to clear the land, on the Tierra Brava farm in Los Palacios, a municipality at the western tip of Cuba. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Good practices that improve the soil, which form the basis of this system, have been promoted in Cuba for some time now by bodies such as the Soil Institute (IS). It is even among the few environmental services supported by the state in Cuba’s stagnant economy, to combat the low fertility of the land.

According to data from the IS, only 28 per cent of Cuban soils are highly productive for agriculture. Of the rest, 50 per cent is ranked in category four of productivity, one of the lowest, due to the characteristics of the formation of the Cuban archipelago and the poor management of soil during centuries of monoculture of sugarcane.

“In this municipality, the number of farms that use organic compost to improve the soils has increased. The payment for improving the soil has been an incentive,” said Lázara Pita, coordinator of the agroecological movement in the National Association of Small Farmers of Los Palacios.

“We have rice fields, where agroecology is not used, but where they do apply good practices for soil conservation such as using rice husks as nutrients,” Pita, whose association has 2,147 small farms joined together in 15 cooperatives, an agroindustrial state company and rice processing plant, told IPS.

Standing in a wide-roofed place without walls in Tierra Brava, Pita estimated that 40 farms qualify as ecological, and another 60 could shift to clean production techniques.

With the certification of a soil expert, a farmer like Martínez can earn between 120 and 240 dollars a year for offering environmental services, such as soil improvers, the use of live barriers and organic materials. This is an attractive sum, given the average state salary of 29 dollars a month.

Cuba, which depends on millions of dollars in food imports, has 6,226,700 hectares of arable land, of which 2,733,500 are cultivated and 883,900 remain idle.

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The Greater Caribbean Raises Funds to Protect its Sandy Coastshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2017/07/greater-caribbean-raises-funds-protect-sandy-coasts/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=greater-caribbean-raises-funds-protect-sandy-coasts http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/07/greater-caribbean-raises-funds-protect-sandy-coasts/#respond Sat, 01 Jul 2017 07:39:36 +0000 Ivet Gonzalez http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=151114 Almost no Caribbean beach escapes erosion, a problem that scientific sources describe as extensive and irreversible in these ecosystems of high economic interest, that work as protective barriers for life inland. “The phenomenon of erosion is widespread in the Caribbean,“ geographer Luis Juanes, a researcher at the recently created state Marine Science Institute of Cuba, […]

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Tourists enjoy the beach in the international resort of Varadero, in western Cuba. Scientists say the erosion of sandy ecosystems in the Greater Caribbean - which have a high economic value and are a protective barrier for life inland - is irreversible. Credit: Jorge Luis Bolaños/IPS

Tourists enjoy the beach in the international resort of Varadero, in western Cuba. Scientists say the erosion of sandy ecosystems in the Greater Caribbean - which have a high economic value and are a protective barrier for life inland - is irreversible. Credit: Jorge Luis Bolaños/IPS

By Ivet González
HAVANA, Jul 1 2017 (IPS)

Almost no Caribbean beach escapes erosion, a problem that scientific sources describe as extensive and irreversible in these ecosystems of high economic interest, that work as protective barriers for life inland.

“The phenomenon of erosion is widespread in the Caribbean,“ geographer Luis Juanes, a researcher at the recently created state Marine Science Institute of Cuba, who participates in the scientific coordination of a project of the Association of Caribbean States (ACS) to protect sandy coasts from the effects of global warming, told IPS.

The regional initiative “Impact of climate change on the sandy coasts of the Caribbean: Alternatives for its control and resilience“ could begin to be implemented this year, after negotiations between the ACS and the main donor for the project: the International Cooperation Agency of South Korea.

“Caribbean beaches have an irreversible tendency to erosion,“ said Juanes in an interview with IPS, referring to a problem “whose main causes are associated with misguided human action in coastal areas, such as the extraction of sand for the construction industry and the building of tourism installations on dunes.“

However, the scientist pointed out that research from local and foreign authors found this kind of deterioration even in pristine beaches on uninhabited keys, which can only be explained by the rising sea levels and other consequences of global warming.

For this reason, the ACS, founded in 1994, which groups 25 countries of the Greater Caribbean region, initially approved in 2016 and ratified in a summit in March this year this proposal set forth by Cuba, within a broader programme of adaptation to climate change.

This programme also includes projects against the invasion by Sargassum seaweed and exotic species such as the lionfish.

To finance the programme, the ACS raises cooperation funds to mitigate and adapt to the new climate scenario in this diverse region of highly vulnerable small islands and mainland countries that have in common developing economies with limited resources for environmental preservation.

So far, the project against erosion of the sandy coasts has received around a quarter of a million dollars from the Netherlands and Turkey, said Juanes. And a contribution of 4.5 million dollars from South Korea is foreseen to achieve the targets set out during its four years of implementation.

 Geographer José Luis Juanes, of the Marine Science Institute, stands along the eroding and polluted shore in Havana, where the new Cuban state body is based. Credit: Jorge Luis Bolaños/IPS

Geographer José Luis Juanes, of the Marine Science Institute, stands along the eroding and polluted shore in Havana, where the new Cuban state body is based. Credit: Jorge Luis Bolaños/IPS

In addition, each country member of the ACS that confirms its participation will contribute funds and a logistic base.

The initiative´s coordination has already attracted the interest of Antigua and Barbuda, Colombia, Cuba, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Saint Vincent, Saint Lucía, and Trinidad and Tobago.

The initiative seeks to improve practices of preservation and restoration of beaches in the Caribbean, by establishing a regional network to monitor erosion, developing a coastal engineering manual, training technical and professional staff, generating scientific exchanges, and providing equipment, among other objectives.

“Part of the topics we are discussing with the Koreans is the collaboration of scientific institutions from that country to contribute a basic infrastructure with some modern technologies such as drones and coastal radars,“ said Juanes.

A key goal is obtaining data to assess the effects of coastal erosion up to 2100 in the area of the Greater Caribbean, which must ensure sustainable use of sandy beaches, its main natural resource for the tourism industry.

Many of these countries depend on the entertainment industry, particularly small island states where tourism represents an average 25 per cent of GDP and is the sector with the highest rate of growth.

A man combs through objects among the trash strewn on the polluted sands of El Gringo beach in the city of Bajos de Haina, the Dominican Republic’s main industrial centre and port. Credit: Jorge Luis Bolaños/IPS

A man combs through objects among the trash strewn on the polluted sands of El Gringo beach in the city of Bajos de Haina, the Dominican Republic’s main industrial centre and port. Credit: Jorge Luis Bolaños/IPS

Juanes pointed out that the concern with the issue emerged “mainly in the major tourist centres“ in the region, in the last decades of the 20th century. He said the countries have adopted coastal protection legal measures and engineering solutions on beaches frequented by tourists.

Pioneers in this area, Cuban scientific institutions and state companies have shared their local experiences in coastal protection and restoration with countries such as Haiti, Jamaica, Mexico and Dominican Republic, said the scientist.

He warned that the “touristic development model used is unsustainable“ and the Greater Caribbean should halt the current deterioration of the sandy coasts, since it lacks the resources to maintain artificial beaches, like the ones created in the U.S. state of Florida.

“If our Caribbean beaches and ecosystems deteriorate, in a few years the competition with tourism spots within the United States itself will be overwhelming,“ he said, referring to the main source of visitors to the Caribbean region.

While the beaches of Varadero, in Cuba, the Riviera Maya, in Mexico, and Punta Cana, in the Dominican Republic, to mention some examples, are financing their own studies and costly maintenance efforts using sand extracted from the depths of the sea, many beaches outside the tourist routes are neglected and affected by pollution.

In response, the ACS project will prepare “at least three beach restoration projects in three hot spots in three different less well-off countries,“ said Juanes.

But he said that they will only “prepare the conceptual framework, do the fieldwork and modeling,“ since the implementation will cost millions and will be up to the countries themselves.

“A community-based and eco-conscious solution is that the people adopt the beaches that they benefit from,“ said Ángela Corvea, the coordinator of the Acualina environmental education programme, which mobilises the authorities and the community in cleaning up the coastline in the Havana district of Playa, on the west side of the Cuban capital.

“Nobody cleans those beaches,“ lamented Corvea about the area with many mainly rocky beaches and only a few sandy ones. For this reason, Acualina has been organising children and young people since 2003 to pick up garbage in three neighborhoods along the coast, including La Concha, the only sandy beach accessible to the public in the municipality.

“These community actions, if all the people that use the beaches would particpate, would improve the preservation of the beaches,“ said the activist. “And to do these things, nobody should wait for an order or decree,“ she said, referring to the limited practical effect of environmental laws in different ACS countries.

In another Caribbean island nation, the Dominican Republic, IPS saw one of the most blatant examples of the deplorable environmental situation on the many beaches that have no tourism.

There are heaps of garbage on the dunes of El Gringo beach in the highly industrialised Dominican municipality of Bajos de Haina. “The problem of pollution on the beach has been discussed a great deal in the neighbourhood council. It needs to be cleaned and dredged,“ said Mackenzie Andújar, a 41-year-old local plumber.

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Unique Sandbar Coastal Ecosystem in Cuba Calls for Climate Solutionshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2017/05/unique-sandbar-coastal-ecosystem-in-cuba-calls-for-climate-solutions/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=unique-sandbar-coastal-ecosystem-in-cuba-calls-for-climate-solutions http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/05/unique-sandbar-coastal-ecosystem-in-cuba-calls-for-climate-solutions/#respond Fri, 19 May 2017 23:03:49 +0000 Ivet Gonzalez http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=150493 A battered bridge connects the centre of Baracoa, Cuba´s oldest city, with a singular dark-sand sandbar, known as Tibaracón, that forms on one of the banks of the Macaguaní River where it flows into the Caribbean Sea in northeastern Cuba. Just 13 wooden houses with lightweight roofs shield the few families that still live on […]

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Local residents of La Playa rest under the shade of a bush on a polluted sandbar or “tibaracón” at the mouth of the Macaguaní River, near the city of Baracoa in eastern Cuba. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Local residents of La Playa rest under the shade of a bush on a polluted sandbar or “tibaracón” at the mouth of the Macaguaní River, near the city of Baracoa in eastern Cuba. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Ivet González
BARACOA, Cuba, May 19 2017 (IPS)

A battered bridge connects the centre of Baracoa, Cuba´s oldest city, with a singular dark-sand sandbar, known as Tibaracón, that forms on one of the banks of the Macaguaní River where it flows into the Caribbean Sea in northeastern Cuba.

Just 13 wooden houses with lightweight roofs shield the few families that still live on one of the six coastal sandbars exclusive to Baracoa, a mountainous coastal municipality with striking nature reserves, whose First City, as it is locally known, was founded 505 years ago by Spanish colonialists.

These long and narrow sandbars between the river mouths and the sea have a name from the language of the Araucan people, the native people who once populated Cuba. The sandbars are the result of a combination of various rare natural conditions: short, steep rivers, narrow coastal plains, heavy seasonal rainfall and the coral reef crest near the coast.

Local experts are calling for special treatment for these sandbars exclusive to islands in the Caribbean, in the current coastal regulation, which is gaining momentum with Tarea Vida (Life Task), Cuba´s first plan to tackle climate change, approved on April 27 by the Council of Ministers.

Baracoa, with a population of 81,700, is among the municipalities prioritised by the new programme due to its elevation. Authorities point out that the plan, with its 11 specific tasks, has a more far-reaching scope than previous policies focused on climate change, and includes gradually increasing investments up to 2100.
“I was born here. I moved away when I got married, and returned seven years ago after I got divorced,” dentist María Teresa Martín, a local resident who belongs to the Popular Council of La Playa, a peri-urban settlement that includes the Macaguaní tibaracón or sandbar, told IPS.

The sandbar is the smallest in Baracoa, the rainiest municipality in Cuba, while the largest – three km in length – is at the mouth of the Duaba River.

“It’s not easy to live here,” said Martín. “The tide goes out and all day long you smell this stench, because the neighbours throw all their garbage and rubble into the river and the sea, onto the sand,” she lamented, while pointing out at the rubbish that covers the dunes and is caught in the roots of coconut palm trees and on stranded fishing boats.

A man fishes on the beach next to the mouth of the Macaguaní River in the Caribbean Sea, on the outskirts of the city of Baracoa in eastern Cuba. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

A man fishes on the beach next to the mouth of the Macaguaní River in the Caribbean Sea, on the outskirts of the city of Baracoa in eastern Cuba. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

The Macaguaní River runs down from the mountains and across the city, along Baracoa bay, which it flows into. It stinks and is clogged up from the trash and human waste dumped into it, one of the causes of the accelerated shrinking of the tibaracón.

“We even used to have a street, and there were many more houses,” said Martín.

The Greater Caribbean launches a project

The 25 members of the Association of Caribbean States (ACS) approved on Mar. 8 in Havana a regional project to curb erosion on the sandy coastlines, promote alternatives to control the phenomenon, and drive sustainable tourism.

The initiative, set forth by Cuba during the first ACS Cooperation Conference, in which governments of the bloc participated along with donor agencies and countries, including the Netherlands and South Korea, was incorporated into the ACS´ 2016-2018 Action Plan, which will extend until 2020.

The project, currently in the dissemination phase to raise funds, already has a commitment from the Netherlands to contribute one billion dollars, while South Korea has initially offered three million dollars.

The initiative will at first focus on 10 island countries, althoug others plan to join in, since the problem of erosion of sandy coastlines affects local economies that depend on tourism and fishing.

“We have lost other communication routes with the city. We have to evacuate whenever there is a cyclone or tsunami warning,” said the local resident, who is waiting to be resettled to a safer place in the city.

Local fisherman Abel Estévez, who lives across from Martín, would also like to move inland, but he is worried that he will be offered a house too far from the city. “I live near the sea and live off it. If they send us far from here, how am I going to support my daughter? How will my wife get to her job at the hospital?” he remarked.

Such as is happening with La Playa, the
Coastal regulations establish that municipal authorities must relocate to safer places 21 communities – including La Playa – along the municipality’s 82.5 km of coastline, of which 13.9 are sandy.

“We have exclusive and very vulnerable natural resources, such as the tibaracones,” explained Ricardo Suárez, municipal representative of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment. “They are a sandy strip between the river and the sea, which makes them fragile ecosystems at risk of being damaged by the river and the sea.”

The disappearance of the tibaracones would change the “coastal dynamics”, explained the geographer. “Where today there is sand, tomorrow there could be a bay, and that brings greater exposure to penetration by the sea, which puts urban areas at risk and salinises the soil and inland waters,” he told IPS.

He said that these sandbars are affected by poor management and human activities, such as sand extraction, pollution and indiscriminate logging, in addition to climate change and the resulting elevation of the sea level. He also pointed out natural causes such as geological changes in the area.

In his opinion, the actions to protect the sandbars are band-aid measures, since they are destined to disappear. He said this can be slowed down unless natural disasters occur, like Hurricane Matthew, which hit the city on Oct. 4-5, 2016.

Suárez is the author of a study that shows the gradual shrinking of the tibaracones located in Baracoa, which serve as “natural barriers protecting the city”. He also showed how the population has been migrating from the sandbars, due to their vulnerability.

A man fishes on the beach next to the mouth of the Macaguaní River in the Caribbean Sea, on the outskirts of the city of Baracoa in eastern Cuba. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

A man fishes on the beach next to the mouth of the Macaguaní River in the Caribbean Sea, on the outskirts of the city of Baracoa in eastern Cuba. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

In the shrinking community where Martín and Estévez live, between the mouth of the Macaguaní River and the sea, there were 122 houses in 1958. And on the Miel River tibaracón, at the eastern end of the city, there were 45 houses in 1978, while today there are only a few shops and businesses.

The unique Miel River delta used to be 70 metres wide in the middle of the last century, while today the narrowest portion is just 30 metres wide. In Macaguaní, meanwhile, the shrinking has been more abrupt, from 80 metres back then, to just six metres in one segment, the study found.

The expert recommends differentiated treatment for these ecosystems, which are not specifically contemplated under Decree Law 212 for the Management of Coastal Areas, in force since 2000, which is the main legal foundation for the current land-use regulation which requires the removal of buildings that are harmful to the coasts.

Suárez said the removal of structures on sandy soil surrounded by water must be followed with preventive measures to preserve the sand, such as reforestation with native species.

In the study, he notes that the government’s Marine Studies Agency, a subsidiary of the Geocuba company in the neighbouring province of Santiago de Cuba, proposes the construction of a seawall and embankment to protect the Miel River delta. And he emphasised the importance of carrying out similar research in the case of Macaguaní.

Cuba´s Institute of Physical Planning (IPF) inspected the 5,746 km of coastline in the Cuban archipelago, and found 5,167 illegalities committed by individuals, and another 1,482 by legal entities. The institute reported that up to February 2015, 489 of the infractions committed by legal entities had been eradicated.

When the authorities approved the Life Task plan, the IPF assured the official media that the main progress in coastal management has been achieved so far on the 414 Cuban beaches at 36 major tourist areas. Tourism is Cuba´s second-biggest source of foreign exchange, after the export of medical services.

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Typical Cuban Sweet – a Symbol of the Post-Hurricane Challenge to Agriculturehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2017/04/typical-cuban-sweet-a-symbol-of-the-post-hurricane-challenge-to-agriculture/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=typical-cuban-sweet-a-symbol-of-the-post-hurricane-challenge-to-agriculture http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/04/typical-cuban-sweet-a-symbol-of-the-post-hurricane-challenge-to-agriculture/#respond Tue, 18 Apr 2017 07:01:27 +0000 Ivet Gonzalez http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=149993 Early in the day, when a gentle dew moistens the ground and vegetation in the mountains of eastern Cuba, street vendor Raulises Ramírez sets up his rustic stand next to the La Farola highway and displays his cone-shaped coconut sweets. “These will maybe be the last ones… the cones will disappear, because the hurricane brought […]

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Vendor Raulises Ramírez is up early to sell the typical coconut cones which he made the previous day, alongside the La Farola highway into the eastern Cuban city of Baracoa. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPSRaulises Ramírez is up early to sell the typical coconut cones which he made the previous day, alongside the La Farola highway into the eastern Cuban city of Baracoa. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Vendor Raulises Ramírez is up early to sell the typical coconut cones which he made the previous day, alongside the La Farola highway into the eastern Cuban city of Baracoa. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Ivet González
BARACOA, Cuba, Apr 18 2017 (IPS)

Early in the day, when a gentle dew moistens the ground and vegetation in the mountains of eastern Cuba, street vendor Raulises Ramírez sets up his rustic stand next to the La Farola highway and displays his cone-shaped coconut sweets.

“These will maybe be the last ones… the cones will disappear, because the hurricane brought down all the coconut palms in Baracoa,” the 52-year-old private entrepreneur told IPS. He makes a living in Cuba’s oldest city selling this traditional sweet made of coconut, honey, fruits and spices, wrapped in the fibrous cone-shaped palm leaf.

“Look at all this!“ exclaimed Ramírez, pointing to the ground next to the highway littered with the trunks of coconut palm trees knocked down or bent by Hurricane Matthew, which hit Baracoa and other parts of eastern Cuba on Oct. 4-5, 2016.

He expects to continue making his sweets for a while longer thanks to his reserves. His main customers are Cubans who pay the equivalent of 25 cents of a dollar for each “cucurucho” or coconut cone, a typical sweet of this municipality, with an agricultural sector based on coconut and cacao, among other products.“We have to provide the local population with support to produce staple crops and provide new sources of income, until the commercial perennial crops begin to produce.” -- Theodor Friedrich

When his coconut reserves are finished, he will have to look for a different source of income than the one that has sustained his family for the last five years. “The tourists like to buy dried fruit,” he said, referring to the growing influx of foreign visitors in the area.

Ramírez’s situation is in some way similar to that of the entire agri-food sector in this municipality with a population of 81,700, which is facing a tough challenge: recovering their main long-cycle crops that were ravaged by the strongest hurricane ever registered in the province of Guantánamo, where Baracoa is located.

“We estimate the shortest possible time for coconut production to recover is four years, while cacao will take two and a half years. But reforestation will take many more years, between 15 and 20,” said Baracoa Mayor Luis Sánchez, referring to the fundamental components of local economic development: cacao, coconut, coffee and forestry products.

In the affected territories in Guantánamo, agriculture was among the hardest-hit sectors, with 70,574 hectares damaged. According to official reports, 27 per cent of the cacao, coconut and coffee plantations and 67 per cent of the forest heritage was lost.

The hurricane damaged 35,681 hectares of the main crops in this mountainous coastal municipality. Only four per cent of the vast plantations of coconut palm trees are still standing, which were used to obtain part of the seeds vital to the recovery effort.

A beach along the coast of Baracoa, where coconut trees were damaged by Hurricane Matthew – a serious problem in this city in eastern Cuba, since coconuts are one of the main local agricultural products. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

A beach along the coast of Baracoa, where coconut trees were damaged by Hurricane Matthew – a serious problem in this city in eastern Cuba, since coconuts are one of the main local agricultural products. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

“In small areas on the outskirts of the city some coconut palm trees still remain on private farms and in people’s yards, which are the source of the coconuts vendors are using to make their cones, but the state-run factory is not producing any,” Rodríguez said, about the temporary disappearance of this symbol of Baracoa.

The factory, the only one that made coconut cones and distributed them in the provinces of Guantánamo, Santiago de Cuba and Holguín, is now producing tomatoes and fruit brought from other parts of the country. The cocoa industry is still active, even producing several by-products, thanks to reserves of cacao.

So far, only 3,576 hectares of forestry, coconut, coffee, cacao and fruit plantations have been recuperated, since the authorities are putting a priority on “the areas dedicated to short-cycle crops to quickly obtain food, such as vegetables and fruits for domestic consumption,” said the mayor in an exclusive interview with IPS.

“Baracoa, the cacao capital” reads an enormous poster at the entrance to this city founded 505 years ago by Spanish colonialists. Alongside coconut cone vendors like Ramírez, men and women sell big scoops of home-made dark chocolate along the La Farola highway.
Hurricane Matthew thwarted a project to create production chains based on coconut and cacao, with investments to foment cultivation of the crops and modernise the food industry in the municipality. The initiative hoped to tap into other potential sources of income, especially using coconuts.

The current production based on coconut and cacao does not cover domestic demand in this country of 11.2 million, nor demand from international tourists, who reached the record number of four million in 2016.

Baracoa Mayor Luis Sánchez Rodríguez shows IPS the impact on Cuba’s oldest city of Hurricane Matthew, and explains the measures adopted to reactivate production in the main agricultural.  Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Baracoa Mayor Luis Sánchez Rodríguez shows IPS the impact on Cuba’s oldest city of Hurricane Matthew, and explains the measures adopted to reactivate production in the main agricultural. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

“Meanwhile, we have to provide the local population with support to produce staple crops and provide new sources of income, until the commercial perennial crops begin to produce,” advised Theodor Friedrich, representative of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Cuba.

He told IPS that to this end, FAO is supporting several initiatives for agricultural and food production recovery in the area affected by Matthew, through two projects financed by the United Nations’ Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) and FAO resources. In addition, it is awaiting the approval of a bigger third project financed by a donor.

“There is an urgent need to recover the most commercial crops, to avoid delaying this process,” said Friedrich, an agronomist who advocates the need of restoring them with resilience to future climate shocks.

“In part, these crops can be used to intersperse food crops and integrate new crops with their corresponding value chains,” he said.

In the case of the territories affected by the hurricane, and together with the local authorities, FAO promotes the proposal to plant drumstick or horseradish trees (moringa oleifera) among the perennial crops, a fast-growing, drought-resistant tree which provides a micronutrient-rich ingredient used to fortify food and animal feed, while also offering a natural fertiliser for the soil.

This initiative can strengthen small industries in the area involved in the manufacturing of fortified foods and in livestock production. “It will increase the production and availability of high value-added foods, while at the same time providing a financial income to farming families,” said the FAO representative.

The government of Baracoa also identifies another economic option for local residents.

“Tourism is the most feasible alternative, because the recovery of agriculture will take some time, even though there is a programme for agro-industrial development,” said Mayor Sánchez. “After Matthew, visits here by local and international tourists fell, but now we are experiencing a surge.”
In the area, government-run hotels and other lodgings offer at total of 275 rooms, and another 367 rooms are available in 283 private houses, where the number of rooms offered has climbed to cater to the current tourism boom.

Near Baracoa’s seafront, retiree Dolores Yamilé Selva’s hostel, which she has run since 1998, is full. She believes that there is still untapped tourism potential in the area. “The tourists that come to our town, mainly from Europe, is interested in our natural surroundings,” she told IPS.

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Local Solutions to Rebuild Oldest Cuban City in Hurricane Matthew’s Wakehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2017/03/local-solutions-to-rebuild-oldest-cuban-city-in-hurricane-matthews-wake/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=local-solutions-to-rebuild-oldest-cuban-city-in-hurricane-matthews-wake http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/03/local-solutions-to-rebuild-oldest-cuban-city-in-hurricane-matthews-wake/#comments Thu, 23 Mar 2017 08:43:47 +0000 Ivet Gonzalez http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=149577 Clearings with fallen trees in the surrounding forests, houses still covered with tarpaulins and workers repairing the damage on the steep La Farola highway are lingering evidence of the impact of Hurricane Matthew four months ago, in the first city built by the Spanish conquistadors in Cuba. Baracoa, a 505-year-old world heritage city in eastern […]

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The veranda of a house which has been used to provide shelter for four families, including the family of retiree Dania de la Cruz. In the eastern Cuban city of Baracoa, 167 people are still living in shelters after Hurricane Matthew destroyed their homes in October 2016. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

The veranda of a house which has been used to provide shelter for four families, including the family of retiree Dania de la Cruz. In the eastern Cuban city of Baracoa, 167 people are still living in shelters after Hurricane Matthew destroyed their homes in October 2016. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Ivet González
BARACOA, Cuba, Mar 23 2017 (IPS)

Clearings with fallen trees in the surrounding forests, houses still covered with tarpaulins and workers repairing the damage on the steep La Farola highway are lingering evidence of the impact of Hurricane Matthew four months ago, in the first city built by the Spanish conquistadors in Cuba.

Baracoa, a 505-year-old world heritage city in eastern Cuba, located in a vulnerable area between the coast, mountains and the rivers that run across it, is showing signs of fast recovery of its infrastructure, thanks in part to the application of its own formulas to overcome the effects of the Oct. 4-5, 2016 natural disaster.

“The ways sought to deal with the situation have been different, innovative. Necessity led us to involve the local population in addressing a phenomenon which affected more than 90 per cent of the homes,” said Esmeralda Cuza, head of the office in charge of the recovery effort in the people’s council of Majubabo, an outlying neighborhood along the coast.

Standing next to a mural announcing the delivery of bottles of water donated to the families affected by the hurricane, the 64-year-old public official, with experience in dealing with disasters since 1982, told IPS that “more local solutions were sought” before, during and after Hurricane Matthew hit the province of Guantánamo.

Internationally renowned for its effectiveness in protecting human lives during climate disasters, Cuba’s disaster management model is also undergoing changes within the current reforms carried out by the government of Raúl Castro, which includes local responses during the evacuation of local residents and the rebuilding process.

“We had some experience in this, but never with the magnitude and organisational level of this one,” said Cuza, referring to what the strongest hurricane in the history of Guantánamo meant for this city.

Workers unload materials for the reconstruction of a building damaged by Hurricane Matthew, on the seaside promenade of the historic city of Baracoa, in the eastern province of Guantánamo,  Cuba. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Workers unload materials for the reconstruction of a building damaged by Hurricane Matthew, on the seaside promenade of the historic city of Baracoa, in the eastern province of Guantánamo, Cuba. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

In a city where most houses have lightweight roofs, the hurricane wreaked havoc in 24,104 of the 27,000 houses in the municipality of Baracoa, population of 81,700.

The local government reports that 3,529 homes were totally destroyed, 3,764 were partially destroyed, 10,126 lost their roofs, and 6,685 suffered partial damage to the roofs.

This figure does not include multi-family buildings that were also damaged. One of these, located on the seafront, is waiting to be demolished. In addition, 525 government buildings were affected, as well as the power and communication networks, water pies, roads and bridges.

Authorities say 85 per cent of the city has been restored, including 17, 391 houses that have been repaired.

“At least here all the houses have roofs,” said Cuza, talking about the restoration of the 1,153 damaged houses in Majubabo. In the rest of Baracoa, 90 per cent of the damaged roofs were fixed, and you can still see some houses with no roofs or covered with tarpaulins on a drive through the city.

Like everyone else, the office headed by Cuza is waiting for more materials to finish restoring the damaged interior of the houses.

In the case of homes that were completely destroyed, authorities provided the so-called “temporary housing facility“, which consists of basic construction materials. With this support and salvaged materials, 3,466 families rebuilt part of their homes to be able to leave the shelters and shared houses where they were initially placed.

The remains of boats and bushes destroyed by Hurricane Matthew scattered on a beach in Baracoa bear witness to the violence of the biggest climate disaster ever to hit the province of Guantánamo, in eastern Cuba. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

The remains of boats and bushes destroyed by Hurricane Matthew scattered on a beach in Baracoa bear witness to the violence of the biggest climate disaster ever to hit the province of Guantánamo, in eastern Cuba. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

This set of measures seems to be the reason for the rapid improvement in the city´s landscape, through which foreign tourists stroll. With painted facades and big signboards, the 283 rental houses and state-run tourist facilities have been operating since early November, when high season started.

International aid

Contributions from the rest of the Cuban provinces, Cubans abroad and international cooperation have been arriving since October for the communities affected by Hurricane Matthew in the east of the country.

For example, the United Nations is carrying out a plan that aims to mobilise 26.5 million dollars to address the urgent needs of 637,608 people in Guantánamo and the neighbouring province of Holguín. This UN programme has received contributions from the governments of Canada, Switzerland, Italy and South Korea.

The Cuban government has also received assistance from Japan, Pakistan and Venezuela, as well as from companies in China and the United States and from international cooperation organisations, such as the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.

Some parts of the seafront promenade are still impassable while workers fix the two-kilometre wall, which barely defended the city from the waves. Because of their vulnerability to the sea, 21 coastal communities are to be relocated before 2030, including Baracoa.

“The construction materials programme was launched to respond to the demand,“ said Rodolfo Frómeta, who is in charge of the state-run company that groups 12 small factories of natural rock materials and blocks, which plans to produce earthquake-resistant concrete slabs for roofs this month.

Baracoa has the largest number of these factories, which also operate in the affected neighbouring municipalities of Imías and Maisí. Up to February, the 22 factories in the area had produced 227,500 blocks, using artisanal moulds and rocks collected from the surrounding land and surface quarries.

“We only import the cement and steel,” said Frómeta, referring to the factories, of which three are state-run and the rest are private. “But all of them receive government support, like these mills that grind stones,“ he told IPS in Áridos Viera, a company in Mabujabo.

A psychologist by profession, Amaury Viera founded in 2015 this private enterprise, with the aim of turning it into a cooperative. Eight workers obtain sand, granite, gravel and stone powder. “Our main activity now is making blocks, some 800 a day, although we want to increase that to 1,200,“ said Viera.

With his bag full of tools, the young bricklayer and carpenter Diolnis Silot is heading home for lunch. “I have worked in the construction of 35 houses since Matthew, two were fully rebuilt and the rest involved replacing lightweight roofs. Most of them received state subsidies,” he told IPS.

Rodolfo Frómeta, in charge of the local company that groups 12 small local factories of natural rocky materials and blocks, next to a stone mill, near the city of Baracoa in eastern Cuba. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Rodolfo Frómeta, in charge of the state company that groups 12 small local factories of natural rocky materials and blocks, next to a stone mill, near the city of Baracoa in eastern Cuba. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

A few metres away, the owner of a private cafeteria, Yudelmis Navarro, is installing a new window and making other improvements to his house. “The hurricane carried away the roof and some things from indoors. The government replaced the roof for free and now I am doing the smaller-scale repairs at my own expense,“ he said.

“People who expect everything for free will not solve very much,“ Navarro said.

On crutches, retiree Dania de la Cruz, one of the 167 people still living in shelters in the municipality, watches people going home for lunch, from the doorway of the large house where she lives with her daughter and three other families. “I used to live with my daughter along the Duaba river, on a farm, where I lost almost everything. I won’t go back there. We don’t know when or where we will have our new house,” she said.

“The longest-lasting damages were in agriculture and housing,” said Luis Sánchez, the mayor of Baracoa. He stressed that the recovery strategy included modernising the new infrastructure and making it more resistant, for example in communications.

So far, he said, 3,900 low-interest bank loans were approved for people to rebuild their homes, in addition to 700 subsidies, and more than 10,000 allowances for low-income families. Some families paid for the rebuilding out of their own pocket.

“And we have gained experience in evacuation,“ said Sánchez, who mentioned the use of traditional shelters in caves and rural buildings known as “varas en tierra” made of wood and thatched roofs that reach all the way to the ground.

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New Maternity Legislation in Cuba Ignores Fathershttp://www.ipsnews.net/2017/03/new-maternity-legislation-in-cuba-ignores-fathers/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=new-maternity-legislation-in-cuba-ignores-fathers http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/03/new-maternity-legislation-in-cuba-ignores-fathers/#comments Mon, 06 Mar 2017 07:52:51 +0000 Ivet Gonzalez http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=149214 This article is part of special IPS coverage on the occasion of International Women’s Day, celebrated March 8.

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A Cuban family walks down a street in the neighborhood of Vedado, in the Plaza de La Revolución municipality, in Havana, Cuba, where just 49 per cent of children grow up in households with both parents. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

A Cuban family walks down a street in the neighborhood of Vedado, in the Plaza de La Revolución municipality, in Havana, Cuba, where just 49 per cent of children grow up in households with both parents. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Ivet González
HAVANA, Mar 6 2017 (IPS)

A new set of regulations to strengthen the maternity rights of working women and encourage people to have children in Cuba were seen as a positive step but not enough, because they do not include measures to encourage more active participation in child-rearing by men.

“These legislative changes promote responsible maternity and paternity,” sociologist Magela Romero, who is about to become a mother, told IPS. “There are still aspects to review to achieve a legal text which reflects from beginning to end its spirit of promoting a culture of equality between parents.”

Against a backdrop of a record low fertility rate and accelerated aging of the population, the authorities published on Feb. 10 two new decree-laws and four statutes that modify the 2003 Law for Working Mothers, which was reformed previously in 2011.

The theme this year of International Women’s Day, celebrated Mar. 8, is “Women in the Changing World of Work: Planet 50-50 by 2030”, because improving the participation of women in the labour market is seen as essential to achieving equality.

Romero, who is currently studying the father figure in Cuba’s labour legislation, proposed revising even “the most subtle aspects, such as the title of the law itself, which doesn’t mention the working father, and therefore could conceal them as possible beneficiaries.”

In 2003, Cuba placed itself in the forefront in Latin America, passing a law that ensured working fathers one year of parental leave in case they became widowers or were abandoned by the mother.

But in what is seen as a sign of the prevailing sexism in Cuban society, few men have availed themselves of this benefit. The latest figures show that only 125 fathers requested parental leave between 2006 and 2013, in this Caribbean island nation of 11.2 million people.

In response to the low level of involvement by fathers and to address the fact that many children are mainly cared for by their grandmothers, the new regulations also allow working maternal or paternal grandparents to request leave to take care of newborns.

According to the latest population and housing census, from 2012, just 49 per cent of children in Cuba lived with both parents, 38 per cent only lived with their mother (the majority) or their father, while 13 per cent were at the time being cared for by other relatives.

Cuba is the country with the lowest number of children per woman in Latin America – 1.72 in 2015, according to official figures – in a country which since 1978 has had a fertility rate below the replacement level of one daughter per woman, a situation that the region as a whole will not reach until 2050.

Two grandmothers sit with their granddaughters, whom they take care of while their mothers work, on a street in the historic centre of Old Havana, Cuba. Working grandmothers and grandfathers are included in the benefits established by the new regulations to encourage people to have children. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Two grandmothers sit with their granddaughters, whom they take care of while their mothers work, on a street in the historic centre of Old Havana, Cuba. Working grandmothers and grandfathers are included in the benefits established by the new regulations to encourage people to have children. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Romero said the new laws acknowledge new developments that have arisen in light of the current economic reforms, such as women having more than one job, and those that make up the growing private sector, who constitute 32 per cent of the 507,342 registered self-employed workers.

For this reason, women who work in the private sector and have two or more children under 17 will pay only 50 percent of the monthly taxes they would otherwise owe. And people with a permit to offer services of childcare, or caring for sick, disabled or elderly people, will also pay half of the monthly tax.

Moreover, women who go back to their public sector jobs before the end of the year of maternity leave continue to draw the monthly stipend of 60 per cent of their salary. And those with two jobs receive maternity payments for each job.

In addition, families with more than two children pay reduced fees, or are even exempt from paying, for public daycare and school meals.

Hundreds of comments on local news websites have urged the authorities to take measures in that direction and have assessed them as positive, for seeking to ease the heavy economic burden that a baby implies in a country in the grip of a virtually chronic economic crisis since 1991, and which is now suffering a new economic downturn.

Having a baby in Cuba “can be economically a tremendously stressful challenge,” said Mayra García, who is expecting at any moment the birth of her first child. It is even hard for her and her husband, who waited to get pregnant until they had their own house, were economically independent and had stable jobs in their professions.

“And few couples our age are able to achieve such economic independence,” the 30-year-old editor, who hopes to have at least two children, told IPS.

She said it was a good thing that new mothers who return to their jobs before the year is up continue to draw their maternity leave stipend. And she called for the expansion and improvement of public childcare services, to help families reconcile family life and work.

“Currently, public childcare centres are unable to keep up with demand,” she said.

A father settles his son on his horse, as he picks him up from school in a rural community in the central province of Villa Clara, Cuba. The new legislation to stimulate maternity in the country doesn’t pay any attention to fathers, according to experts. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

A father settles his son on his horse, as he picks him up from school in a rural community in the central province of Villa Clara, Cuba. The new legislation to stimulate maternity in the country doesn’t pay any attention to fathers, according to experts. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

In public daycare centres, monthly fees per child average 40 cuban pesos (1.6 dollars) and vary depending on the family’s income. With differences per region, a private daycare costs about 100 cuban pesos (four dollars) and some exclusive childcare centres in the capital even cost much more and in dollars.

Marybexy Calcerrada and Aida Torralbas, psychologists and gender experts who live in the city of Holguín, 689 km east of Havana, propose creating support mechanisms in the workplace for more specific cases.

“A quota for subsidised purchases of a variety of products to meet the basic needs of infants and adolescents could be considered,” Calcerrada told IPS, urging “continued encouragement of the involvement of men in their role as fathers.”

She believes that “parents should be given quotas of hours for justified absence from work to take care of children in the face of health problems and school needs.”

Studies show that working women in Cuba earn less than men, despite earning equal wages, because they are absent more often from their jobs, to take care of their children and sick and elderly people in their care.

For Torralbas, the new reforms in the legislation “could have been a good opportunity to give fathers a short period of leave after their baby’s birth. In other countries, the father has two weeks of parental leave when his child is born,” she said as an example.

“In Cuba, women and men think it over carefully before having children,” said Frank Alejandro Velázquez. “They are not the same mothers and fathers as 60 years ago. They have been taught to think about minimally adequate, fair social conditions, infused with gender equality, before having a child.”

This young expert of the Christian Centre for Reflection and Dialogue- Cuba, in the city of Cárdenas, 150 km east of Havana, also brought up other issues, such as the “social uncertainty” that exists in this country where the government began to reform its socialist system in 2008.

“These measures are just a step forward with respect to previous legislation,” he told IPS.

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Seeds Are Key to Improving Bean Production in Cubahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2017/01/seeds-are-key-to-improving-bean-production-in-cuba/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=seeds-are-key-to-improving-bean-production-in-cuba http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/01/seeds-are-key-to-improving-bean-production-in-cuba/#respond Tue, 31 Jan 2017 22:58:31 +0000 Ivet Gonzalez http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=148751 “You have to have good and varied seeds to test which one adapts best to each kind of soil,” says 71-year-old farmer Rubén Torres, who on his farm in central Cuba harvests 1.6 tons of organic beans every year, among other crops. The importance that Torres places on seeds in order for the agricultural sector […]

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Iraida Semino picks green beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) on her farm La Maravilla, which belongs to the Roberto Negrín González Credit and Services Union in the municipality of La Lisa, on the outskirts of the Cuban capital. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Iraida Semino picks green beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) on her farm La Maravilla, which belongs to the Roberto Negrín González Credit and Services Union in the municipality of La Lisa, on the outskirts of the Cuban capital. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Ivet González
HAVANA, Jan 31 2017 (IPS)

“You have to have good and varied seeds to test which one adapts best to each kind of soil,” says 71-year-old farmer Rubén Torres, who on his farm in central Cuba harvests 1.6 tons of organic beans every year, among other crops.

The importance that Torres places on seeds in order for the agricultural sector to meet local demand for beans, a staple of the Cuban diet, coincides with the assessment by researchers consulted by IPS, who propose promoting genetic improvement and the production of other kinds of legumes.

After two decades of selecting seeds, Torres produces and sells four varieties of black beans, four kinds of red beans and one kind of white bean. “And I have eight varieties for family consumption and for scientific research,” he told IPS.

Located in a livestock farming area on the outskirts of the city of Santa Clara, 268 km east of Havana, Torres’ plot of land is unusual in the area because he devotes most of his 17 hectares to growing beans and rice, which form the basis of the diet of the 11.2 million people in this Caribbean island nation.“When farmers go to plant they often don’t have seeds. That’s why I always give some of mine to those who need them. Without quality seeds, you can’t succeed.” -- Ruben Torres

Baños de Marrero, as his family farm is called, also has avocado and coconut trees and crops of maize and tomatoes. Other portions are covered with seedbeds and garden beds badly in need of repair where Torres produces 20 tons of ecological fertiliser from worm castings.

“When farmers go to plant they often don’t have seeds. That’s why I always give some of mine to those who need them. Without quality seeds, you can’t succeed,” said Torres, a participant in the Programme for Local Agrarian Innovation (PIAL), which since 2000 has helped empower farmers in 45 of the country’s 168 municipalities.

“There is a public company that sells seeds,” but in his opinion, “to get really good ones farmers have to guarantee them themselves.”

With the support of the Swiss development cooperation agency and the coordination of the state National Institute of Agricultural Science, PIAL started to teach family farmers in western Cuba how to obtain and select their own seeds. It has expanded and now is promoting participation by women and young people in farming.

“Without quality seeds, you really can’t make progress in terms of productivity,” agronomist Tomás Shagarodsky told IPS about a key aspect in raising yields in bean crops in Cuba, where there is potential for growing many more beans.

 Tomás Shagarodsky, a researcher at the “Alejandro de Humboldt” Tropical Agriculture Research Institute (INIFAT) points out that Cuba can and must produce more varieties of pulses apart from beans and chickpeas. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS


Tomás Shagarodsky, a researcher at the “Alejandro de Humboldt” Tropical Agriculture Research Institute (INIFAT) points out that Cuba can and must produce more varieties of pulses apart from beans and chickpeas. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

As part of the government’s agricultural reforms implemented since 2008, incentives were put in place for the production of beans, with the aim of boosting the surface area devoted to this crop in the different kinds of agricultural production units: state-run farms, cooperatives, and small private farms.

Between 2009 and 2014, the country grew on average 126,650 hectares per year of beans, obtaining an average of 118,830 tons. In 1996, 38,000 hectares yielded 9,000 tons of beans.

Now, the Agriculture Ministry’s Agro-Industrial Grains Group seeks to increase bean production between 15 and 20 per cent a year, in order to meet domestic demand and lower the high cost of beans in the farmers’ markets that operate according to the law of supply and demand.

Latin America, the bean powerhouse

The countries of Latin America account for more than 45 per cent of global production of beans, according to FAO figures.

The drought in recent years has hurt the yields of beans, which are a staple for the diet and economy of small farmers in the region.

Archeological studies reveal that beans are native to the Americas, with evidence dating back to 5000 to 8000 years. Mexico and Peru dispute the claim of being the birthplace of beans.

“Cuba currently has extensive bean crops, but it hasn’t reached its full yield potential,“ said Shagarodsky.

To achieve better harvests, he said the sector must solve “structural problems” such as shortages of resources, labour power and equipment, and more complex issues related to climate change and water scarcity.

In that sense, Shagarodsky, an agronomist and researcher at the state “Alejandro de Humboldt” Tropical Agriculture Research Institute (INIFAT), pointed out a vulnerability that is rarely discussed.

“We need young professionals devoted to improving seeds,” he said at INIFAT headquarters, located in the poor outskirts of Santiago de las Vegas, 18 km south of Havana.

“The stock of improved seeds has shrunk because the breeders who used to do this job have retired, have died or have left,“ said Shagarodsky, surrounded by the unpainted walls and deteriorated ceilings of the INIFAT central offices. “That has to change and more attractive salaries have to be paid,“ he said.

In live collections and cold chambers, INIFAT preserves the largest quantity of genetic resources in Cuba. In its germplasm bank it keeps 3,250 of the 18,433 samples safeguarded in the entire national network of institutions that share this mission. Legumes constitute 46 per cent of the resources preserved by INIFAT.

Seeds of different varieties of beans are preserved in the Tropical Agriculture Research Institute’s germplasm bank in Cuba, in addition to other pulses. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Seeds of different varieties of beans are preserved in the Tropical Agriculture Research Institute’s germplasm bank in Cuba, in addition to other pulses. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

The institution safeguards 1,465 varieties of pulses, including pigeon peas (Cajanus cajan), peanuts, chickpeas, soybeans, lentils, peas and green beans (Phaseolus vulgaris).

In recognition of the important work it carries out, INIFAT was chosen in December to host the activities to end the International Year of Pulses, as 2016 was declared by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

FAO representative in Cuba Theodor Friedrich pointed out at this event that pulses contribute to food security in two senses: they have high protein value and they naturally fertilise soil with nitrogen.

In addition, he said “growing pulses is the only way to add nitrogen to the soil without resorting to fertilisers. And they have important nutritional properties,” such as zero cholesterol and gluten, and high content of iron, zinc and other nutrients.

For these and other reasons, FAO promotes the cultivation of pulses in the western provinces of Pinar del Río and Artemisa, in a project aimed at strengthening local capacities to sustainably produce biofortified basic grains adapted to climate change, including several kinds of pulses, by 2018.

“We eat all kind of pulses, from beans to chickpeas and lentils. They are very important for children because they fall under the category of vegetable proteins,” Misalis Cobo, who lives with her six-year-old son in the Havana neighbourhood of Cerro, told IPS.

“We get beans from the ration card and the rest I buy in markets and stores,” said the 37-year-old self-employed worker. “I can afford these purchases although they are expensive because they stretch a long way for us since it’s just my son and me. But large low-income families they’re expensive,“ she said.

Each person in Cuba receives a small monthly quota of beans at subsidised prices through the ration card. But to feed the family for an entire month, more beans and other pulses are needed, and must be bought at the state and private agricultural markets, and stores that sell imported goods.

Prices range from 0.5 cents of a dollar up to 1.2 dollars for half a kilogram of pulses, in a country where the average income is 23 dollars a month in the public sector, Cuba’s biggest employer by far.

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A Cuban Economy Facing Grim Forecasts Awaits Impact of Trumphttp://www.ipsnews.net/2016/11/a-cuban-economy-facing-grim-forecasts-awaits-impact-of-trump/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=a-cuban-economy-facing-grim-forecasts-awaits-impact-of-trump http://www.ipsnews.net/2016/11/a-cuban-economy-facing-grim-forecasts-awaits-impact-of-trump/#comments Tue, 15 Nov 2016 22:54:26 +0000 Ivet Gonzalez http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=147782 Cuba’s economic difficulties will be aggravated by the uncertainty regarding how U.S. president-elect Donald Trump will deal with the thaw inherited from President Barack Obama. Experts consulted by IPS preferred not to speculate. But they did recommend that the Cuban authorities adopt all measures within their reach to cushion the blow and reinforce what has […]

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Students in Havana participate in an October protest, part of a campaign to fight the U.S. embargo against Cuba. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Students in Havana participate in an October protest, part of a campaign to fight the U.S. embargo against Cuba. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Ivet González
HAVANA, Nov 15 2016 (IPS)

Cuba’s economic difficulties will be aggravated by the uncertainty regarding how U.S. president-elect Donald Trump will deal with the thaw inherited from President Barack Obama.

Experts consulted by IPS preferred not to speculate. But they did recommend that the Cuban authorities adopt all measures within their reach to cushion the blow and reinforce what has been achieved on the economic front with the outgoing U.S. administration.

“In any case, Cuba will have to continue moving forward with its economic reforms and try to resolve whatever has clearly not functioned for decades and is within our reach to fix,” said Cuban economist Pável Vidal, a professor at the Javeriana University in Cali, Colombia.“As a businessman, he could be inclined towards pragmatic policies that favour business interests. He doesn’t have a personal history against Cuba, and as a Republican he doesn’t have a complex about appearing weak. Since he doesn’t have prior experience in public office, a large part of his decisions will be reached with the advisers who surround him.” – Ricardo Torres

Vidal is studying the economic reforms implemented since 2008 by the government of Raúl Castro, which has been facing major difficulties this year due to liquidity problems and oil shortages caused by the political and economic crisis in Venezuela, this country’s main trading partner and energy supplier.

In the first six months of this year, GDP grew just one percent, half of what was expected. And forecasts for the rest of 2016 are bleak, projecting a drop of one percent.

Further muddying the picture are the doubts with respect to the recently restored relations with the United States, now that Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton was defeated by her Republican rival in the Nov. 8 elections.

“With regard to Cuba, I don’t think (Trump) will roll back the important steps taken by the Obama administration to normalise relations between the two countries,” John Gronbeck-Tedesco, assistant professor of American Studies at Ramapo College in New Jersey, told IPS by email.

“But with a Republican-controlled Congress, it’s harder to know when the United States will fully commit to lifting the embargo and truly open up trade between the two countries,” said the academic, the author of the book “Cuba, the United States, and Cultures of the Transnational Left, 1930-1975”.

The U.S. embargo against Cuba, in place since 1962, consists of a complex web of laws that can only be fully repealed by Congress.

Cuba sees the embargo as the biggest obstacle it faces to development and a normalisation of ties with its giant neighbour to the north.

Since the start of the move towards reestablishing bilateral ties, in December 2014, Obama has taken measures to undermine the embargo and attempted to protect his efforts by means of Presidential Policy Directive 43 on the normalisation of relations between the United States and Cuba, issued on Oct. 14.

He even took an enormous symbolic step on Oct. 26, when for the first time in 25 years the United States abstained in the United Nations vote on the resolution that Cuba has presented annually since 1992, condemning the U.S. embargo, which it blames for 125.873 billion dollars in losses.

 Tourists enjoy the beach at the western Cuban resort town of Varadero. The number of U.S. tourists arriving jumped 80 percent in the first half of 2016, with respect to the same period in 2015. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS


Tourists enjoy the beach at the western Cuban resort town of Varadero. The number of U.S. tourists arriving jumped 80 percent in the first half of 2016, with respect to the same period in 2015. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Obama said his aim was to make the opening to Cuba “irreversible”. But just a week before the election, Trump said “We will cancel Obama’s one-sided Cuban deal, made by executive order, if we do not get the deal that we want and the deal that people living in Cuba and here deserve, including protecting religious and political freedom.”

But the business community and Cuban-Americans are largely in favour of the thaw, as analysts in both countries have been pointing out.

In Gronbeck-Tedesco’s view, “The United States will continue treating Cuba and Venezuela as separate political issues. And since Venezuela is still suffering from economic and political uncertainty, Trump’s plans would not appear to include an improvement in relations with Venezuela or help in rebuilding that country.”

In a reaction that observers like Vidal describe as “tardy”, Havana appears to be pushing for more foreign investment, especially in the energy industry, which is heavily dependent on the shrinking deliveries of Venezuelan crude.

“The tendency is for foreign investment in energy to pick up speed,” Juan Manuel Presa, an official at Cuba’s Ministry of Energy and Mines, told IPS. “There are a large number of projects in different stages of progress to use renewable sources, mainly wind and solar power.”

The engineer said the industry “is seeking a diversity of partners in a diversity of formulas: external financing of Cuban projects, companies that are made up 100 percent of foreign capital, and the new legal status of mixed – Cuban and foreign – companies.”

Cuba is still far from its goal of drawing 2. 5 billion dollars a year in foreign investment – the amount needed to put the economy on a steady footing. The 83 projects approved since a new law on foreign investment went into effect in 2014 have attracted just 1.3 billion dollars so far.

But to some extent, the thaw is easing the tense economic situation in this country.

Between 2.0 and 2.5 billion dollars in remittances from abroad flow into Cuba annually, mainly coming from the Cuban-American community, according to estimates by Cuban economist Juan Triana.

Only exports of medical services bring in more hard currency revenues, he said.

Another major source of hard currency is tourism. Cuba’s colonial cities and white sand beaches are experiencing an unprecedented tourism boom, with the number of visitors from the U.S. growing every month, despite the fact that they can only travel here under one of 12 approved categories, such as family visits, academic programs, professional research, journalistic or religious activities.

In the first half of this year, Cuba received 2,147,912 visitors from abroad, including 136,913 from the U.S. This latter number was 80 percent higher than the total for the first half of 2015, according to the national statistics office, ONEI.

In that period, tourism brought in more than 1.2 billion dollars, only counting public installations, not the growing private sector, which rents out rooms and runs taxis and restaurants.

Cuban economist Ricardo Torres showed IPS a novel analysis on the U.S. president-elect, who was widely criticised during the campaign for his racist, xenophobic and misogynistic remarks.

“There are three aspects (of Trump) that could benefit relations with Cuba,” the academic researcher said.

“As a businessman, he could be inclined towards pragmatic policies that favour business interests,” he said. “He doesn’t have a personal history against Cuba, and as a Republican he doesn’t have a complex about appearing weak. Since he doesn’t have prior experience in public office, a large part of his decisions will be reached with the advisers who surround him.”

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Cuba’s Fish Farming Industry Seeks to Double Output by 2030http://www.ipsnews.net/2016/10/cubas-fish-farming-industry-seeks-to-double-output-by-2030/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=cubas-fish-farming-industry-seeks-to-double-output-by-2030 http://www.ipsnews.net/2016/10/cubas-fish-farming-industry-seeks-to-double-output-by-2030/#respond Wed, 26 Oct 2016 00:26:03 +0000 Ivet Gonzalez http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=147518 Protected from the sun by broad-brimmed hats and long- sleeved shirts, workers at the La Juventud fish farm throw fish feed into the tanks for the tilapias, a fish that is scarce and in high demand in the Cuban markets. “Production grew significantly due to a combination of factors: sex reversal (use of hormones to […]

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Tilapia jump as they are caught on the La Juventud fish farm in the Los Palacios municipality in the western province of Pinar de Rio, Cuba. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Tilapia jump as they are caught on the La Juventud fish farm in the Los Palacios municipality in the western province of Pinar de Rio, Cuba. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Ivet González
LOS PALACIOS, Cuba, Oct 26 2016 (IPS)

Protected from the sun by broad-brimmed hats and long- sleeved shirts, workers at the La Juventud fish farm throw fish feed into the tanks for the tilapias, a fish that is scarce and in high demand in the Cuban markets.

“Production grew significantly due to a combination of factors: sex reversal (use of hormones to produce a 98 per cent male population), better quality fish feed, and introduction of genetically improved species,” Guillermo Rodríguez, the director of the fish farm, told IPS.

La Juventud, located in the municipality of Los Palacios and known as the best producer of tilapia – highly valued for its flavour – in Cuba, belongs to the state-owned Pinar del Río Fish Farming Company (Pescario), which groups all the activity in the sector in this western province.

Thanks to a restructuring of the fish farming industry, focusing on technological upgrading, this Caribbean island nation produced last year 27,549 tons of freshwater fish in tanks, pools and reservoirs, the largest volume since aquaculture was introduced in the 1980s.

The Food Ministry’s goal is to nearly double fish production by 2030, to 49,376 tons.

The fish and seafood catch, which in 2015 totalled 57,657 tons, only covers a small proportion of the demand from the population of 11.2 people, and does not fully meet the demand from the thriving tourism industry, which this year is expected to break the record of three million visitors from abroad.

Including fish and seafood products, the country spends some two billion dollars a year on food imports, despite a slight increase in domestic food production, achieved as a result of the economic reforms implemented since 2008.

The rise in aquaculture production was due to a reorganisation of the industry, stability in the fish feed supply, wage hikes, intensive fish farming and the genetic improvement of species, with state funds, international development aid and foreign investment.

“In 2015, our company produced 465 tons of fish, including 200 tons of tilapia. And so far this year we have harvested 391 tons, including 248 of tilapia,” Rodríguez said, referring to the output of the La Juventud fish farm, which employs 132 workers, 17 of whom are women.

A GIFT tilapia, one of the varieties farmed in La Juventud, Los Palacios municipality, in the western province of Pinar de Rio, Cuba. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

A GIFT tilapia, one of the varieties farmed in La Juventud, Los Palacios municipality, in the western province of Pinar de Rio, Cuba. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

In their installations, using 46.2 hectares of water that flows by gravity from a nearby dam, La Juventud raises fry that it receives every two years from the state Aquaculture Technology Development Company (EDTA), releases the fish in reservoirs, and harvests them later to send them to plants to be processed.

Yields took off in 2011 when the sex reversal technique and the first genetically improved species were introduced, as part of a project of technology transfer from Vietnam. As of 2015 they receive support from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

“With the FAO project, we have achieved far better results: tilapia production has increased from four tons per hectare to 13.3 tons per hectare,” said Rodríguez.

He said the average monthly wage climbed from 13 dollars to more than 58 dollars, which is more than twice the average wage of 23 dollars earned by state employees.

The two-year programme called “Adoption and implementation of a freshwater fish genetic improvement programme”, signed last year between the government and FAO, has a budget of 297,000 dollars for strengthening the skills of producers and technical and scientific personnel across the country in genetics and breeding.

“The project’s activities mainly involve the Aquaculture Technology Development Company, with training and inputs to raise the fry,” said Loliette Fernández, a FAO officer in Cuba.

“The goal is to create a national programme of genetic improvement of freshwater fish, which today does not exist,” she told IPS.

The initiative, which has drawn international consultants to the country, focuses on tilapia farming, particularly with the introduction of the GIFT (Genetically Improved Farmed Tilapia) variety, which is also used in fish farming in other developing countries.

“Tilapia has always been part of the Cuban diet, but with GIFT we’re selling a high-quality attractive fish. Our industry produces a variety of products, but tilapia is the most popular,” veterinarian Mercedes Domínguez, who works on the farm, told IPS.

From the edge of the tank, workers feed tilapia on the La Juventud fish farm, the best-known in Cuba for its production of this fish, which is highly valued by both the local population and tourists. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

From the edge of the tank, workers feed tilapia on the La Juventud fish farm, the best-known in Cuba for its production of this fish, which is highly valued by both the local population and tourists. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Snowy egrets fly over the La Juventud facilities and walk along the rims of the big tanks, pools and channels. The buildings are nicely painted and have handmade posters explaining the processes carried out in each area.

“We maintain the fish farming installations with the smallest possible repairs that we can afford to make, but they all need large and specialised engineering works to make better use of the water,” said the head of Pescario, Jorge Triana, pointing to the walls of the tanks on the farm, which have been in use for over two decades.

Besides the lack of repairs and necessary upgrading, Triana also mentioned other difficulties faced by the company, which supplies fish to the province of 140,252 people.

La Juventud’s fleet of vehicles is aging, there are problems of refrigeration, and the technology is obsolete.

He estimates that what Pescario produces covers about 30 per cent of the province’s demand. “Although it depends on whether the stores offer other meat products, our fish arrive in the morning, and by the afternoon there is nothing left,” he told IPS.

“The company has achieved a steady capture of over 1,700 tons, which is more than before,” he said. Of that total, just 32 tons come from private fishers who fish in Cuban waters and sell their catch to the state company.

He said that now they are working on making adjustments to the whole system to achieve their growth goals by 2030.

“The future of Cuba and the entire world lies in aquaculture,” said Margarita Cepero, who since 2006 has headed a fish fattening unit with floating cages in the Sidra reservoir, in the western province of Matanzas.

“Every year there are more restrictions on sea fishing, in order to protect species,” she told IPS.

Cuba over-fished its 50,000 square kilometers of waters in the Caribbean, which are not highly productive, in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The island is facing the consequences of international depletion of fish resources and the overexploitation of its own coasts.

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Drought Prompts Debate on Cuba’s Irrigation Problemshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2016/06/drought-prompts-debate-on-cubas-irrigation-problems/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=drought-prompts-debate-on-cubas-irrigation-problems http://www.ipsnews.net/2016/06/drought-prompts-debate-on-cubas-irrigation-problems/#respond Tue, 28 Jun 2016 13:14:16 +0000 Ivet Gonzalez http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=145849 Five gargantuan modern irrigation machines water the state farm of La Yuraguana covering 138 hectares in the northeastern province of Holguín, the third largest province in Cuba. However, “sometimes they cannot even be switched on, due to the low water level,” said farm manager Edilberto Pupo. “The last three years have been very stressful due […]

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Low water in a nearby reservoir prevented the use of this central pivot machine for spray irrigation on the state-owned La Yuraguana farm for several days this year due to the severe drought affecting Holguín province and many other areas in Cuba. Credit: Ivet González/IPS

Low water in a nearby reservoir prevented the use of this central pivot machine for spray irrigation on the state-owned La Yuraguana farm for several days this year due to the severe drought affecting Holguín province and many other areas in Cuba. Credit: Ivet González/IPS

By Ivet González
HOLGUÍN, Cuba, Jun 28 2016 (IPS)

Five gargantuan modern irrigation machines water the state farm of La Yuraguana covering 138 hectares in the northeastern province of Holguín, the third largest province in Cuba. However, “sometimes they cannot even be switched on, due to the low water level,” said farm manager Edilberto Pupo.

“The last three years have been very stressful due to lack of rainfall. We take our irrigation water from a reservoir that has practically run dry,” Pupo told IPS. In 2008 La Yuraguana received new irrigation equipment financed by international aid.

Central pivot machines are a form of overhead water sprinkler that imitates the action of rain. The machinery is assembled in Cuba using European parts.

Since late 2014 Cuba has endured the worst drought of the past 115 years.

The extremely dry weather has sounded an alarm call drawing attention to the urgent need to modernise and change water management practices in response to climate challenges, and to other problems such as water wastage from leaky supply networks, inefficient water storage and conservation policies and absence of water metering at the point of use.

National reforms begun in 2008 have not yet achieved the hoped-for lift-off in agricultural production. Farming, however, is the main consumer of water in this Caribbean country, responsible for using 65 percent of the island’s total fresh water supply for irrigation, fish farming and livestock.

Future difficulties loom on the horizon, because droughts are becoming more seasonal in nature in the Caribbean region due to climate change, according to a new report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) published June 21. 

“Agriculture is the most likely sector to be impacted, with serious economic and social consequences,” the FAO report says. “Most of Caribbean agriculture is rainfed, and demand for fresh water is increasing with irrigation use becoming more widespread in the region.”

The Caribbean region accounts for seven of the world’s top 36 water-stressed countries, FAO said.

The eastern part of Cuba suffers most from droughts, and its population, alongside small farmers in Holguín province, has its own methods of addressing the problem of lack of rainfall. They say that in extreme droughts, irrigation equipment is of little use.

“At the most critical time we had to plant resistant crops like yucca (cassava) and plantains (starchy bananas that require cooking) that can survive until it rains,” Pupo said, speaking about the cooperative farm which sells vegetables, grains, fruit and root crops to the city of Holguín’s 287,800 people.

Julio César Pérez weeds a cassava (yucca) field on a farm owned by the Eduardo R. Chibás Credit and Services Cooperative in the eastern Cuban province of Holguín. An irrigation system installed in 2010 has increased the cooperative’s yields by 70 percent. Credit: Ivet González/IPS

Julio César Pérez weeds a cassava (yucca) field on a farm owned by the Eduardo R. Chibás Credit and Services Cooperative in the eastern Cuban province of Holguín. An irrigation system installed in 2010 has increased the cooperative’s yields by 70 percent. Credit: Ivet González/IPS

La Yuraguana employs  93 workers, 14 of whom are women. Its 2016 production target is 840 tonnes of food, for direct sale to markets in the city of Holguín, in the adjacent municipality.

“We hope Saint Peter will come to our aid, that the rains will come and fill the reservoir, so that we can water our crops and keep on producing,” said Pérez. Devout rural folk call on Saint Peter, whose feast day is June 29, to intercede on their behalf because they believe the saint is able to bring rain.

Cuba’s total agricultural land area is about 6.24 million hectares out of its total surface of nearly 11 million hectares. Only 460,000 hectares of arable land is under irrigation, mostly with outdated equipment and technology, according to the government report titled “Panorama uso de la tierra. Cuba 2015” (Overview of land use: Cuba 2015).

At present only about 11 percent of the land used to raise crops is irrigated, but FAO forecasts that by 2020 the area equipped for irrigation will nearly double, to some 875,600 hectares, through a programme launched in 2011 to modernise machinery and reorganise farm irrigation and drainage.

Use of irrigation increases average crop yields by up to 30 percent, experts say.

Cuban authorities want to boost local production in order to reduce expenditure on purchasing imported food to meet demand from the island’s 11.2 million people, and from the influx of tourists – there were three million visitors to Cuba in 2015. The bill for imported food is two billion dollars a year.

Agricultural scientist Theodor Friedrich, the FAO representative in Cuba, told IPS that “irrigation is not the answer to drought.”

This Caribbean island “should curb the use of irrigation rather than extend it,” he warned, because exploiting water sources, especially underground aquifers, could lead to “degradation and accelerated salinisation of water resources.”

A better course of action, he said, is to “implement water conservation measures at once, including the reduction of leakage losses throughout the piped water distribution network, avoidance of all forms of sprinkling irrigation, watering the soil directly and irrigating according to the particular needs of the crop, not forgetting to take into account long-range meteorological forecasts.”

In Friedrich’s view, sustainable solutions must be based “on soil management” and conservation techniques.He pointed out that eco-friendly organic agriculture “achieves greater production yields with less water and opens up the soil so that rainwater can infiltrate to the fullest depths and refill aquifers.”

This ditch for collecting rainwater in the rural outskirts of Holguín, a city in eastern Cuba, is used by small farmers to water their cattle. Now it is almost empty due to the drought. Credit: Ivet González/IPS

This ditch for collecting rainwater in the rural outskirts of Holguín, a city in eastern Cuba, is used by small farmers to water their cattle. Now it is almost empty due to the drought. Credit: Ivet González/IPS

Cuba is not blessed with any large lakes or rivers, and so is reliant on rainfall, captured in 242 dammed reservoirs and dozens of artificial minilakes.

Local experts agree with FAO’s Friedrich that over-exploitation of underground water reserves should be discouraged because of the risk of causing salinisation and losing fresh water sources.

The present drought in Cuba was triggered by the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) climate phenomenon, which has had devastating effects in Latin America this year. Shortage of water has affected 75 percent of Cuban territory, according to official sources, with the worst effects being felt in Santiago de Cuba, a province adjacent to Holguín.

In spite of steps taken to put the water consumption needs of people before agricultural and industrial uses, one million people experienced some limitation on their access to water in May, said the state National Institute of Water Resources. 

On June 20 the European Union announced an additional grant of 100,000 euros (113,000 dollars) to Cuba via the Red Cross, as disaster relief for 10,000 drought victims in Santiago de Cuba. The funds are intended to improve access to safe drinking water and to deliver transport equipment, reservoirs and materials for water treatment and quality control.

However, many of those responsible for the agriculture and small farming sectors still see irrigation as the key to boosting production.

“Yields under irrigation when necessary are much higher than when one just waits for nature to take its course,” said Abdul González, deputy mayor in charge of agriculture for the municipal government of Holguín. Unfortunately “80 percent of our land under crops lacks irrigation,” he told IPS.

“Small farmers from all forms of agricultural production (state, private and cooperative) are demanding irrigation systems. Some of them resort to home made tanks and ditches to mitigate the negative impacts of the drought,” he said.

At the Eduardo R. Chibás Credit and Service Cooperative, not far from La Yuraguana, Virgilio Díaz, one of the cooperative’s beneficial owners who grows garlic, maize, sweet potato, papaya and sorghum on his 22-acre plot, ascribed much of his success to the irrigation system bought in 2010 by the 140-member cooperative.

“Income went up by over 70 percent: we raised salaries; I was able to request a lease on more land and I built a new house,” Díaz said. He and five other workers between them produce 200 tonnes of food a year, when the climate is favourable.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez. Translated by Valerie Dee.

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The Family Garden Going Out of Style in Cuban Countrysidehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2016/05/the-family-garden-going-out-of-style-in-cuban-countryside/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=the-family-garden-going-out-of-style-in-cuban-countryside http://www.ipsnews.net/2016/05/the-family-garden-going-out-of-style-in-cuban-countryside/#respond Tue, 03 May 2016 06:47:34 +0000 Ivet Gonzalez http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=144934 In the past, all rural homes in Cuba had gardens for putting fresh vegetables on the dinner table. The local term for these gardens is “conuco”, a word with indigenous roots that is still used in several Caribbean nations. The gardens provided the foundation for healthy meals based on vegetables and fruit grown without chemicals. […]

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José Leiva, 61, walks past rows of bean plants on his small farm, where he grows crops for family consumption and for sale, near the town of Horno de Guisa in the eastern Cuban province of Granma. Credi: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

José Leiva, 61, walks past rows of bean plants on his small farm, where he grows crops for family consumption and for sale, near the town of Horno de Guisa in the eastern Cuban province of Granma. Credi: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Ivet González
HAVANA, May 3 2016 (IPS)

In the past, all rural homes in Cuba had gardens for putting fresh vegetables on the dinner table. The local term for these gardens is “conuco”, a word with indigenous roots that is still used in several Caribbean nations.

The gardens provided the foundation for healthy meals based on vegetables and fruit grown without chemicals. The families also grew spices, as well as products that they did not sell at market, in order to have a more varied and tasty diet.

But this tradition is fading in the Cuban countryside.

However, farmers aware of the importance of the family garden, non-governmental organisations and researchers recommend that the tradition be revived, to boost food security among the rural population, which represents 26 percent of the country’s 11.2 million people.

“Gardens aren’t that common anymore, at least in this area; that tradition has been lost,” said Abel Acosta, the biggest flower grower in the province of Mayabeque, next to Havana. “What is most common on the farms are the old orchards, thanks to our grandparents, who planted fruit trees, thinking of us,” he told IPS.

Acosta is a 42-year-old agronomy technician who turned to farming for a living in 2008, when the government of Raúl Castro began to distribute idle land to people willing to farm it, as part of a broader policy aimed, so far with little success, at boosting agricultural production.

Since 2009, 279,021 people have received land to farm. Like Acosta, many of them had to learn how to manage a farm, and commute every day from their homes in nearby towns to their land.

“The new generations have a different concept; they plant with the idea of harvesting and seeing their profits grow quickly. They feed their families with whatever they are growing at that time to sell, and they buy everything else outside,” said Acosta, the head of the 2.5-hectare San Andrés Farm, which produced 100,000 dozens of flowers in 2015.

“None of the 25 farmers who I deal with the most have a home garden,” said the farmer, who lives in the rural settlement of Consejo Popular Pablo Noriega in the municipality of Quivicán, 45 km south of the capital.

“Producing food for consumption at home is a good idea because you don’t have to buy things elsewhere and you save time and money. Sometimes no one is even selling a single pepper in town,” said Acosta, referring to the unstable local food markets, where supplies are often low.

That is why in San Andrés, which employs three farmhands, small-scale crops are grown for the five families involved in the farm.

The farm inclues a half-hectare mixed orchard with coffee bushes and mango, avocado, lemon, tangerine, orange and “mamey sapote” trees. Besides, Acosta’s father retired from a job as a public employee and is planting plantains – cooking bananas – and growing foods like cassava, tomatoes and lettuce.

Aliuska Labrada, 39, walks down the rows of her garden, with which she improves and diversifies her family’s diet in Ciénaga de Zapata in the western Cuban province of Matanzas. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Aliuska Labrada, 39, walks through her garden, with which she improves and diversifies her family’s diet in Ciénaga de Zapata in the western Cuban province of Matanzas. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

“In Cuba a large part of this (conuco) culture has unfortunately been lost as a result of the structure of agricultural production in rural areas,” lamented Theodor Friedrich, the representative of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Cuba.

FAO promotes “family gardens, which formed part of the culture of rural families, not only in Cuba,” Friedrich told IPS.

The gardens “are important elements for improving nutrition and food security,” as are better-known national projects like “urban farming and school gardens.”

Friedrich added that “in many rural communities, gardens are still widespread, and that is where curious small farmers eventually start experimenting with conservation agriculture (ecological no-till farming) until they can one day expand it to the fields.”

For decades, local scientific researchers have been studying conucos, among other traditional practices. Unlike in other countries, in Cuba conucos do not have indigenous roots, but were originally small plots that slaveowners let slaves use to plant or raise small livestock for their own consumption.

A 2012 report, “Twelve attributes of traditional small-scale Cuban rural farming”, described home gardens in the countryside as “a dynamic, sustainable agricultural ecosystem that contributes to family subsistence.” It also considered the gardens key to preserving local species and varieties.

The study by the governmental Alexander Humboldt National Institute of Basic Research in Tropical Agriculture was partly based on field research in family gardens in 18 localities in west, central and east Cuba.

A pomegranate on one of the fruit trees in Aliuska Labrada’s family garden in Zapata Swamp in western Cuba. Credit: jorge Luis Baños/IPS

A pomegranate on one of the fruit trees in Aliuska Labrada’s family garden in Zapata Swamp in western Cuba. Credit: jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Home gardens, which vary in size, are used to produce food for the family, fodder for livestock, spices and herbs, biofuel and ornamental plants. They even generate income, because the families sell between five and 30 percent of what they produce in the gardens, the study said.

The gardens studied maintained the traditional practices of intercropping and crop rotation, and generally used organic fertiliser.

“Farmers have always had conucos for family consumption, although they don’t cover 100 percent of needs,” Emilio García, a veteran farmer who owns an 18-hectare farm on the outskirts of Camagüey, a city 534 km east of Havana, told IPS.

Although less than five percent of the population was undernourished in Cuba between 2014 and 2016, according to FAO, the country depends on food imports that cost millions of dollars a year.

And although the government provides a basic basket of heavily subsidised foods and other items, it does not completely cover people’s needs, and other foods are very costly for Cuban families.

IPS spoke to other people who improve their family diets with vegetables grown in their conucos, such as 39–year-old homemaker Aliuska Labrada, who lives in Ciénaga de Zapata in the west of the country, and 61-year-old José Leiva, a farmer who owns 4.5 hectares of land in Horno de Guisa in eastern Cuba.

Leiva is receiving training and support from the non-governmental ecumenical Bartolomé G. Lavastida Christian Centre for Service and Training (CCSC) based in Santiago de Cuba, 847 km from Havana, which carries out development projects in the five eastern provinces and the central province of Camagüey.

“We train people in family agriculture concepts,” said Ana Virginia Corrales, who coordinates training in the CCSC. “In first place, we want people to be able to cover their own needs, and in second place, we want them to be able to sell their surplus production. That way they will be self-sustainable.”

The CCSC is involved in 45 ecological farming initiatives in 20 municipalities, which had benefited 1,995 families by late 2015, with the help of Bread for the World of Germany, Diakonia-Swedish Ecumenical Action and the White Rose Ministry of the First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn, New York.

The Programme for Local Agrarian Innovation (PIAL), active in 45 of the country’s 168 municipalities, promotes home gardens to empower rural women, with support from the National Institute for Agricultural Sciences and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation since 2000.

As of late 2015, 6,240,263 hectares of land were being farmed in this island nation of 109,884 square kilometres, 30.5 percent of which was farmed by the state, 34.3 percent by cooperatives and the rest by small independent farmers.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Thaw with United States Will Put Cuba’s Agroecology to the Testhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2016/03/thaw-with-united-states-will-put-cubas-agroecology-to-the-test/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=thaw-with-united-states-will-put-cubas-agroecology-to-the-test http://www.ipsnews.net/2016/03/thaw-with-united-states-will-put-cubas-agroecology-to-the-test/#comments Wed, 30 Mar 2016 19:11:16 +0000 Ivet Gonzalez http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=144412 The United States has indicated a clear interest in buying organic produce from Cuba as soon as that is made possible by the ongoing normalisation of ties between the two countries. But farmers and others involved in the agroecological sector warn that when the day arrives, they might not be ready. “The impact would be […]

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A worker on the Marta farm, which was founded by one of the first proponents of agroecology in Cuba, harvests organic lettuce in the municipality of Caimito, in the western Cuban province of Artemisa. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

A worker on the Marta farm, which was founded by one of the first proponents of agroecology in Cuba, harvests organic lettuce in the municipality of Caimito, in the western Cuban province of Artemisa. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Ivet González
HAVANA/LA PALMA , Mar 30 2016 (IPS)

The United States has indicated a clear interest in buying organic produce from Cuba as soon as that is made possible by the ongoing normalisation of ties between the two countries. But farmers and others involved in the agroecological sector warn that when the day arrives, they might not be ready.

“The impact would be conditioned by several factors, including the capacity of farmers to design, implement and evaluate agroecological business models that can meet the demands and requirements of the domestic and international markets,” Humberto Ríos, one of the founders of the green movement in Cuban agriculture, told IPS.

The possible opportunities offered by the big U.S. market, where requirements are strict, will test the response capacity of the country’s organic farmers.

“The farmers know how to grow things without agrochemicals. But that’s not enough for developing agroecology,” said Ríos, a researcher who is now working in Spain at the International Centre for Development-Oriented Research in Agriculture, told IPS by email.

Cuba needs “a clear policy to boost the economic growth of the private sector and cooperatives interested in offering agroecological products and services,” said Ríos, who won the Goldman Environment Prize, known as the Green Nobel, in 2010.

Ríos also won a prize for his work in the Programme for Local Agrarian Innovation (PIAL), which with the help of international development aid has taught participative seed improvement and other ecological agricultural techniques to 50,000 people in 45 of Cuba’s 168 municipalities since 2000.

Ríos also said Cuba’s new economic openness could have either a positive or a devastating impact. Experts describe Cuba’s agroecology as a “child of necessity” because it was born after this country lost the agricultural inputs it was guaranteed up to the collapse of the Soviet Union and east European socialist bloc at the start of the 1990s.

If measures are not taken and pending issues are not solved, “the invasion by conventional agriculture and its products is likely to erase more than 25 years of agroecology,” Ríos said.

There have been several U.S.-driven initiatives to create open ties in agriculture, since the thaw between the two countries began in December 2014. And the climate is even more positive since U.S. President Barack Obama’s historic Mar. 21-22 visit to Havana.

A woman picks organic beans on the La Sazón organoponic farm in the Casino Deportivo neighbourhood of Havana, which forms part of the country’s urban agriculture system. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

A woman picks organic green beans on the La Sazón organoponic farm in the Casino Deportivo neighbourhood of Havana, which forms part of the country’s urban agriculture system. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

La Palma: an example

In the mountainous municipality of La Palma, where Ríos began to work as a young man with a handful of small farmers in this locality in the extreme western province of Pinar del Río, green-friendly activists already feel the looming threats.

“The surge in improved seeds is a weakness,” said Elsa Dávalos, who belongs to the National Association of Small Farmers of La Palma and coordinates the local agroecological movement, where 500 of a total of 1,127 farms grow their produce without using chemical products.

Scant data on agroecology

Cuba’s statistics on organic food and agroecological farms are scarce and scattered among different municipalities and programmes.

The national initiative that most frequently provides figures is the National Programme of Urban, Suburban and Family Agriculture, which promotes organic gardening in towns and cities.

A total of 8,438 hectares are now cultivated under urban farming, including 1,293 small organoponic farms (which combine organic and water-submersion hydroponics techniques), tended by day laboureers; 6,875 hectares of intensive gardens (identical to organoponics but without walled beds); and 270 hectares of semi-protected crops (covered by screens on poles).

In 2015, patios and yards in urban and suburban areas produced a total of 1,257,500 million tons of food, mainly vegetables, 2,500 tons less than the year before.

Dávalos said the improved seeds she was referring to are crops given high priority, such as maize, beans or taro, whose seeds are distributed along with a package of agrochemicals. “Many farmers go this route to get big harvests without having to work so much,” she lamented in her conversation with IPS in La Palma.

Improved seeds became more widely used after the government of Raúl Castro launched economic reforms in 2008, with a focus on increasing agricultural production to reduce food imports, which cost this island nation two billion dollars a year.

Up to now, the measures applied, such as the distribution of idle state land to farmers in usufruct, have brought modest growth in agriculture – 3.1 percent in 2015 – considered insufficient to meet domestic demand and to bring down the high, steadily rising prices of food.

Farmers complain about a lack of inputs like fertiliser, machinery and irrigation systems, a shortage of labour power, limited access to complementary services, red tape, and weak industrialisation, to preserve and sell surplus crops, for example.

Ecological farms struggle against these difficulties common to the entire agricultural industry, and others particular to green-friendly farming.

“It is very hard for small (organic) farmers to attend to all of their responsibilities and to also find time to produce the necessary ecological inputs,” Yoan Rodríguez, PIAL coordinator in La Palma, told IPS.

To boost yields, “some people must specialise in obtaining only inputs such as efficient microorganisms, compost and earthworm humus,” said the researcher, who is pushing for an improvement in agroecological services in the area, to support and attract farmers.

“Cuba has started to open up to the world, and even more so as a result of the negotiations with the United States. The chemical inputs that saturate the global agricultural market will also arrive. It’s going to be very difficult to maintain what we have achieved through our efforts over so many years,” he said.

Other factors that discourage the movement in the country is the virtual absence of certification of agroecological products, and a lack of differentiated and competitive prices for organic products in state enterprises, to which cooperatives and independent farmers are required to sell a large part of their production.

But PIAL and other initiatives are coming up with new strategies to take advantage of the opportunities opening up with the country’s economic reforms and reinsertion into the international markets.

The Marta farm, located in a privileged position between the capital and the special economic development zone of Mariel, in the western province of Artemisa, produces fresh vegetables without using chemicals, and its clients include 25 upscale restaurants in Havana.

Members of the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba, supported by more than 30 agricultural organisations and companies, visit the Primero de Mayo Cooperative in Güira de Melena, in the western Cuban province of Artemisa. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Members of the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba, supported by more than 30 agricultural organisations and companies, visit the Primero de Mayo Cooperative in Güira de Melena, in the western Cuban province of Artemisa. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

“We have a good connection with the markets and we sell enough,” said Fernando Funes-Monzote, another founder of the agroecological movement in the country, who in 2011 launched this farm, where 16 people currently work.

“The idea was to show that an ecologically sustainable, socially just and economically feasible family farming project was possible here,” he told IPS.

Push for openness from interests in the U.S.

Meanwhile, interest in Cuba’s ecological agriculture has been reiterated during visits to this Caribbean island nation by U.S. businesspersons and agriculture officials, who are among the most active proponents of a total normalisation of relations between these two countries separated by just 90 miles of ocean.

The foremost example is the 30 companies forming part of the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba (USACC), which emerged in January 2015 to help push for an end to the U.S. embargo against Cuba in place since 1962.

The U.S. Agriculture Department even asked Congress for financing for five officials to work full-time in Cuba, to pave the way for trade and investment to take off as soon as the current restrictions are lifted.

It is also significant that the first U.S. factory to set up shop in Cuba in over half a century, after getting the green light from the U.S. government in February, will be a plant for assembling 1,000 tractors a year, to be used by independent farmers. The plant will operate in the Mariel special economic development zone.

A loophole to the embargo dating back to the year 2000 permits direct sales of food and medicine to Cuba by U.S. producers, but strictly on a cash basis. However, in the past few years these sales have dropped because Cuba found credit facilities in other markets.

In 2015 food purchases by the United States amounted to just 120 million dollars, down from 291 million dollars in 2014, according to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.

With reporting by Patricia Grogg in Havana.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Women of Haitian Descent Bear the Brunt of Dominican Migration Policyhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2016/02/women-of-haitian-descent-bear-the-brunt-of-dominican-migration-policy/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=women-of-haitian-descent-bear-the-brunt-of-dominican-migration-policy http://www.ipsnews.net/2016/02/women-of-haitian-descent-bear-the-brunt-of-dominican-migration-policy/#comments Fri, 05 Feb 2016 02:49:07 +0000 Ivet Gonzalez http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=143793 A middle-aged woman arranges bouquets of yellow roses in a street market in Little Haiti, a slum neighbourhood in the capital of the Dominican Republic. “I don’t want to talk, don’t take photos,” she tells IPS, standing next to a little girl who appears to be her daughter. Other vendors at the stalls in the […]

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Two women selling fruit, grains and vegetables in the Little Haiti street market in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. They allowed their picture to be taken but preferred not to talk about their situation. Fear is part of daily life for Haitian immigrants in this country. Credit: Dionny Matos/IPS

Two women selling fruit, grains and vegetables in the Little Haiti street market in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. They allowed their picture to be taken but preferred not to talk about their situation. Fear is part of daily life for Haitian immigrants in this country. Credit: Dionny Matos/IPS

By Ivet González
SANTO DOMINGO, Feb 5 2016 (IPS)

A middle-aged woman arranges bouquets of yellow roses in a street market in Little Haiti, a slum neighbourhood in the capital of the Dominican Republic. “I don’t want to talk, don’t take photos,” she tells IPS, standing next to a little girl who appears to be her daughter.

Other vendors at the stalls in the street market, all of them black women, also refuse to talk. “They’re afraid because they think they’ll be deported,” one woman whispers, as she stirs a pot of soup on a wood fire on the sidewalk.

That fear was heightened by the last wave of deportations, which formed part of the complicated migration relations between this country and Haiti – the poorest country in the Americas, with a black population – which share the island of Hispaniola.

According to official figures, the Dominican Republic’s migration authorities deported 15,754 undocumented Haitian immigrants from August 2015 to January 2016, while 113,320, including 23,286 minors, voluntarily returned home.

“This process has a greater impact on women because when a son or a daughter is denied their Dominican identity, the mothers are directly responsible for failing to legalise their status,” said Lilian Dolis, head of the Dominican-Haitian Women’s Movement (MUDHA), a local NGO.

“If the mother is undocumented then the validity of her children’s documents is questioned,” she told IPS.

“And in the case of Haitian immigrant women, it’s not enough to marry a Dominican man even though the constitution grants them their husband’s nationality,” said Dolis, whose movement emerged in 1983. “That right is often violated.”

The latest migration crisis broke out in 2013 when a Constitutional Court ruling set new requirements for acquiring Dominican citizenship.

The aspect that caused an international outcry was the fact that the verdict retroactively denied Dominican nationality to anyone born after 1929 who did not have at least one parent of Dominican blood, even if their births were recorded in the civil registry.

This affected not only the children of immigrants, but their grandchildren and even great-grandchildren.

Tens of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent were left in legal limbo or without any nationality, international human rights groups like Human Rights Watch complained.

In response to the international outrage, the Dominican government passed a special law on naturalisation that set a limited period – May 2014 to February 2015 – for people born to undocumented foreign parents between 1929 and 2007 to apply for citizenship.

Antonia Abreu, one of the few street vendors who agreed to talk to IPS about the harsh reality faced by Haitian immigrants in the Dominican Republic, at her street stall where she sells flowers in the Little Haiti neighbourhood in Santo Domingo. Credit: Dionny Matos/IPS

Antonia Abreu, one of the few street vendors who agreed to talk to IPS about the harsh reality faced by Haitian immigrants in the Dominican Republic, at her street stall where she sells flowers in the Little Haiti neighbourhood in Santo Domingo. Credit: Dionny Matos/IPS

But only 8,755 people managed to register under this law.

At the same time, the authorities implemented a national plan for foreigners to regularise their status, from June 2014 to June 2015.

Under this plan, 288,466 undocumented immigrants, mainly of Haitian descent, applied for residency and work permits. But only about 10,000 met all the requirements, and only a few hundred were granted permits.

Since August, the police have been carrying out continuous raids, and undocumented immigrants are taken to camps along the border, to be deported to Haiti.

“Most Haitian women work outside the home; very few can afford to be homemakers,” said Antonia Abreu, a Haitian-Dominican woman who has sold floral arrangements for parties, gifts and funerals in the Little Haiti market for 40 years.

Abreu, known by her nickname “the Spider”, said “women sell clothes or food, they apply hair extensions, they’re domestic employees and some are sex workers. Many are ‘paleteras’ (street vendors selling candy and cigarettes) who suffer from police abuse – the police take their carts and merchandise when they don’t have documents.”

“Those who work as decent people have integrated in society and contribute to the country,” she told IPS.

Among the unique mix of smells – of spices, open sewers, traditional foods and garbage – many women barely eke out a living in this Haitian neighbourhood market, selling flowers, prepared foods, fruit and vegetables, clothing, household goods and second-hand appliances.

The small neighbourhood, which is close to a busy commercial street and in the middle of the Colonial City, Santo Domingo’s main tourist attraction, has been neglected by the municipal authorities, unlike its thriving neighbours.

No one knows exactly how many people live in Little Haiti, which is a slum but is virtually free of crime, according to both local residents and outsiders.

Most of the people buying at the market stalls in the neighbourhood are Haitian immigrants, who work in what are described by international rights groups as semi-slavery conditions.

The street market is also frequented by non-Haitian Dominicans with low incomes, in this country of 10.6 million people, where 36 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, according to World Bank figures from 2014.

A Haitian immigrant in the rural settlement of Mata Mamón in the Dominican Republic, where she works as a ‘bracera’ or migrant worker in agriculture. Haitian women who work on plantations in this country are invisible in the statistics as well as in programmes that provide support to rural migrants, activists complain. Credit: Dionny Matos/IPS

A Haitian immigrant in the rural settlement of Mata Mamón in the Dominican Republic, where she works as a ‘bracera’ or migrant worker in agriculture. Haitian women who work on plantations in this country are invisible in the statistics as well as in programmes that provide support to rural migrants, activists complain. Credit: Dionny Matos/IPS

“Undocumented immigrants can’t work, study or have a public life,” Dolis said. “They go directly into domestic service or work in the informal sector. And even if they have documents, Haitian-Dominican women are always excluded from social programmes.”

In this country with a deeply sexist culture, women of Haitian descent are victims of exclusion due to a cocktail of xenophobia, racism and gender discrimination, different experts and studies say.

“They are made invisible,” said Dolis. “We don’t even know how many Haitian-Dominican women there are. The census data is not reliable in terms of the Dominican population of Haitian descent, and the UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) survey is out-of-date.”

The activist was referring to the last available population figures gathered by the National Survey on Immigrants carried out in 2012 by the National Statistics Office with UNFPA support.

At the time, the survey estimated the number of immigrants in the Dominican Republic at 560,000, including 458,000 born in Haiti.

The lack of up-to-date statistics hinders the work of Mudha, which defends the rights of Haitian-Dominican women in four provinces and five municipalities, with an emphasis on sexual and reproductive rights.

The movement is led by a group of 19 women and has 62 local organisers carrying out activities in urban and rural communities, which have reached more than 6,000 women.

Mudha says the Dominican authorities have never recognised the rights of women of Haitian descent. “They’ve always talked about immigration of ‘braceros’ (migrant workers), but never ‘braceras’ – that is, the women who come with their husbands, or come as migrant workers themselves,” Dolis said.

Since the mid-19th century Haitians have worked as braceros in the sugarcane industry, the main engine of the Dominican economy for centuries. But today, they are also employed in large numbers in the construction industry, commerce, manufacturing and hotels.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Caribbean Biodiversity Overheated by Climate Changehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2016/01/caribbean-biodiversity-overheated-by-climate-change/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=caribbean-biodiversity-overheated-by-climate-change http://www.ipsnews.net/2016/01/caribbean-biodiversity-overheated-by-climate-change/#comments Wed, 20 Jan 2016 22:44:12 +0000 Ivet Gonzalez http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=143651 The nearly 7,000 islands and the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea are home to thousands of endemic species and are on the migration route of many kinds of birds. Preserving this abundant fauna requires multilateral actions in today’s era of global warming. That is the goal of the Caribbean Biological Corridor (CBC), a project […]

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A young man on the banks of lake Enriquillo on the border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, which forms part of the Caribbean Biological Corridor created in 2007 by these two countries and Cuba with the support of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the European Union. Credit: Dionny Matos/IPS

A young man on the banks of lake Enriquillo on the border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, which forms part of the Caribbean Biological Corridor created in 2007 by these two countries and Cuba with the support of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the European Union. Credit: Dionny Matos/IPS

By Ivet González
SANTO DOMINGO , Jan 20 2016 (IPS)

The nearly 7,000 islands and the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea are home to thousands of endemic species and are on the migration route of many kinds of birds. Preserving this abundant fauna requires multilateral actions in today’s era of global warming.

That is the goal of the Caribbean Biological Corridor (CBC), a project implemented by the governments of Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which was created in 2007 with the support of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the European Union with the aim of protecting biodiversity in the region.

“Puerto Rico should form part of the corridor in 2016,” Cuban biologist Freddy Rodríguez, who is taking part in the initiative, told IPS.

In late 2015 Puerto Rico, a free associated state of the United States, presented an official letter asking to join the sustainable conservation project, whose executive secretariat is located in the Dominican Republic on the border with Haiti.

“The admission of new partners, which has been encouraged from the start, is a question of time,” said Rodríguez. “Several countries have taken part as observers since the beginning.”

He said the Bahamas, Dominica, Jamaica and Martinique are observer countries that have expressed an interest in joining the corridor.

The Caribbean region is already prone to high temperatures, because the wind and ocean currents turn the area into a kind of cauldron that concentrates heat year-round, according to scientific sources.

And the situation will only get worse due to the temperature rise predicted as a result of climate change, a phenomenon caused by human activity which has triggered extreme weather events and other changes.

The extraordinary biodiversity of the Caribbean is increasingly at risk from this global phenomenon, which has modified growing and blooming seasons, migration patterns, and even species distribution.

Meanwhile, the biological corridor is one demonstration of the growing efforts of small Caribbean island nations to preserve their unique natural heritage.

A flock of birds flies over a coastal neighbourhood of Havana, Cuba. The Caribbean Biological Corridor is on the migration route for many species of birds, and its conservation requires multilateral actions in today’s era of global warming. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

A flock of birds flies over a coastal neighbourhood of Havana, Cuba. The Caribbean Biological Corridor is on the migration route for many species of birds, and its conservation requires multilateral actions in today’s era of global warming. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

It also reflects the long road still ahead to regional integration in the area of conservation.

The 1,600-km CBC includes the Jaragua-Bahoruca-Enriquillo Biosphere Reserve and Cordillera Central mountains, in the Dominican Republic; the Chaîne de la Selle mountain range, Lake Azuéi, Fore et Pins, La Visite and the Massif du Nord mountains – all protected areas in Haiti; and the Sierra Maestra and Nipe-Sagua-Baracoa mountain ranges in Cuba.

Tips on the insular Caribbean’s biodiversity

- The region has 703 threatened species according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

- It provides wintering and nursery grounds for many North Atlantic migratory species, including the great North Atlantic humpback whale, which breeds in the north of the Caribbean.

- Several parts of the Caribbean are stopping points for millions of migratory birds flying between North and South America.

- The population of the Caribbean depends on the wealth of fragile natural areas for a variety of benefits, such as disaster risk prevention, availability of fresh water and revenue from tourism.

Studies carried out by researchers involved in the biological corridor have documented damage caused to nature by extreme events like Hurricane Sandy, which hit eastern Cuba in 2012, and the severe drought of 2015, which affected the entire Caribbean region.

Rodríguez said they have carried out more than 60 training sessions, involving local communities as well as government officials from the three countries, with the participation of guests from other Caribbean nations.

And they have a web site, which compiles the results of studies, bulletins, a database and maps of the biological corridor.

“Other people and institutions say the CBC’s biggest contribution has been to create a platform for collaboration with regard to the environment, which did not exist previously in the insular Caribbean. This has created the possibility for the environment ministers to meet every year to review the progress made as well as pending issues,” Rodríguez said.

“We are trying to grow in terms of South-South collaboration,” he said.

The insular Caribbean is a multicultural, multi-racial region where people speak Spanish, English, Dutch, French and creoles. It is made up of 13 independent island nations and 19 French, Dutch, British and U.S. overseas territories.

These differences, along with the heavy burden of under-development, are hurdles to the conservation of the natural areas in the Caribbean, which is one of the world’s greatest centres of unique biodiversity, due to the high number of endemic species.

Experts report that for every 100 square kilometres, there are 23.5 plants that can only be found in the Antilles, an archipelago bordered by the Caribbean Sea to the south and west, the Gulf of Mexico to the northwest, and the Atlantic Ocean to the north and east.

The project is focusing on an area of 234,124 square km of greatest biodiversity, home to a number of unique reptile, bird and amphibian species.

View of the Caribbean Sea in the Dominican Republic near the border with Haiti on the island of Hispaniola, which the two countries share. The roughly 7,000 Caribbean islands are home to thousands of endemic species, whose preservation is complicated by climate change. Credit: Dionny Matos/IPS

View of the Caribbean Sea in the Dominican Republic near the border with Haiti on the island of Hispaniola, which the two countries share. The roughly 7,000 Caribbean islands are home to thousands of endemic species, whose preservation is complicated by climate change. Credit: Dionny Matos/IPS

The CBC’s 2016-2020 development plan also involves continued research on climate change, and aims to expand to marine ecosystems.

The four million square km of ocean around the Antilles are “the heart of Atlantic marine diversity,” according to a report by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund.

The region contains 25 coral genera, 117 sponges, 633 mollusks, more than 1,400 fishes, 76 sharks, 45 shrimp, 30 cetaceans and 23 species of seabirds.

The area also contains some 10,000 square km of reef, 22,000 square km of mangroves, and as much as 33,000 square km of seagrass beds.

“As a Dominican, I didn’t have that much experience and I hadn’t heard about the Caribbean environment,” business administration student Manuel Antonio Feliz, who has taken CBC courses, told IPS. “The trainings have opened my eyes to the natural riches of our islands.”

“We talk more about the polar bear and the loss of its habitat at the North Pole than about a little local frog or solenodon (one of the rarest mammals on earth, native to the Antilles),” Cuban researcher Nicasio Viña said in a conference for a group of journalists in the capital of the Dominican Republic, which IPS took part in. “The people of the Caribbean, we don’t know what treasures we have in our hands.”

Viña, director of the CBC executive secretariat, explained that initiatives like the biological corridor require at least 30 years of work to solidify.

He called for “thinking about conservation systems, due to the extraordinary influence and responsibility that we human beings have with regard to biodiversity in the Caribbean, because of what we have done, and climate change.”

The corridor has a centre of plant propagation in each one of the member countries, where seedlings of native species are grown to reforest the areas that are benefiting from pilot projects.

The pilot projects are aimed at helping Dominican, Haitian and Cuban communities to find environmentally-friendly sources of income, besides restoring degraded environments.

So far they are being implemented in the Cuban settlements of Sigua in Santiago de Cuba and the Baitiquirí Ecological Reserve in Guantánamo; the communities of Pedro Santana, Paraje Los Rinconcitos and Guayabo, in the Dominican province of Elías Piña; and in the Haitian towns of Dosmond and La Gonave.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Drought Boosts Science in Dominican Republichttp://www.ipsnews.net/2016/01/drought-boosts-science-in-dominican-republic/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=drought-boosts-science-in-dominican-republic http://www.ipsnews.net/2016/01/drought-boosts-science-in-dominican-republic/#respond Mon, 11 Jan 2016 23:01:11 +0000 Ivet Gonzalez http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=143553 The recent lengthy drought in the Dominican Republic, which began to ease in late 2015, caused serious losses in agriculture and prompted national water rationing measures and educational campaigns. But the most severe December-April dry season in the last 20 years helped convince the authorities to listen to the local scientific community in this Caribbean […]

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Leaks in city water pipes, like this one in the Pequeño Haití (Little Haiti) market in Santo Domingo, aggravated the water shortages during the lengthy drought in the Dominican Republic. Credit: Dionny Matos/IPS

Leaks in city water pipes, like this one in the Pequeño Haití (Little Haiti) market in Santo Domingo, aggravated the water shortages during the lengthy drought in the Dominican Republic. Credit: Dionny Matos/IPS

By Ivet González
SANTO DOMINGO, Jan 11 2016 (IPS)

The recent lengthy drought in the Dominican Republic, which began to ease in late 2015, caused serious losses in agriculture and prompted national water rationing measures and educational campaigns.

But the most severe December-April dry season in the last 20 years helped convince the authorities to listen to the local scientific community in this Caribbean nation that shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti.

“The National Meteorology Office (ONAMET) actually benefited because the authorities and key sectors like agriculture and water paid more attention to us,” said Juana Sille, an expert on drought, which was a major problem in the Caribbean and Central America in 2015.

The cause was the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), a cyclical climate phenomenon that affects weather patterns around the world. Forecasts indicate that its effects will be felt until early spring 2016, and devastating impacts have already been seen in South American countries like Bolivia, Colombia and Peru.

As a result of this record El Niño and its extreme climatic events, the international humanitarian organisation Oxfam predicted in October that at least 10 million of the world’s poorest people would go hungry in 2015 and 2016 due to failing crops.

“The most severe droughts reported in the Dominican Republic are associated with the ENSO phenomenon,” Sille told IPS, based on ONAMET’s studies.

But the meteorologist said that unlike in past years, “there is now awareness among decision-makers about climate change and the tendency towards reduced rainfall.”

The gardens and fruit trees kept by many women in their yards to help feed their families, like this one in the rural settlement of Mata Mamón, were hit hard by drought in the Dominican Republic in 2015. Credit: Dionny Matos/IPS

The gardens and fruit trees kept by many women in their yards to help feed their families, like this one in the rural settlement of Mata Mamón, were hit hard by drought in the Dominican Republic in 2015. Credit: Dionny Matos/IPS

“The authorities are learning to follow the early warning system and to implement prevention and adaptation plans,” she stated.

Sille pointed out that, in an unusual move, a government minister asked ONAMET in 2015 to carry out a study to assess the causes and likely duration of the drought that has been plaguing the country since 2014.

One quarter of the world’s population faces economic water shortage (when a population cannot afford to make use of an adequate water source).

Effects of drought in the Caribbean

• In Cuba, 45 percent of the national territory suffered rainfall shortages, in the most severe dry season in 115 years.
• In Jamaica, people found to be wasting water can be fined or even put into jail for up to 30 days.
• Barbados, Dominica and the Virgin Islands adopted water rationing measures in the residential sector.
• St. Lucia declared a national emergency after several months of water shortages.
• Puerto Rico suffered serious shortages due to poor maintenance of reservoirs.
• Antigua and Barbuda depended on wells and desalination plants to alleviate water shortages.
• In Central America, more than 3.5 million people have been affected by drought.

This is true mainly in the developing South, where the local scientific communities have a hard time raising awareness regarding the management of drought, whose impacts are less obvious than the damage caused by hurricanes and earthquakes.

Experts in the Dominican Republic and other developing countries call for the creation of risk management plans to ward off the consequences of water scarcity crises.

“We have a National Plan Against Desertification and Drought, but some institutions apply it while others don’t,” lamented the meteorologist. “This drought demonstrated the urgent need for everyone to implement the programme, which we have been working on for a long time.”

She said 2015 highlighted the importance of educational campaigns on water rationing measures, drought-resistant crops, more frequent technical advice and orientation for farmers, more wells, and the maintenance of available water sources.

The Dominican Republic’s 10 reservoirs, located in six of the country’s 31 provinces, are insufficient, according to experts. Another one will be created when the Monte Grande dam is completed in the southern province of Barahona.

Along with rivers and other sources, the reservoirs must meet the demands of the country’s 9.3 million people and the local economy, where tourism plays a key role.

Water from the reservoirs is used first for household consumption, then irrigation of crops in the reservoir’s area of influence and the generation of electric power. But every sector was affected by water scarcity in 2015.

“The dry season was really bad. The worst of all, because it killed the crops,” Luisa Echeverry, a 48-year-old homemaker, told IPS. Her backyard garden in the rural settlement of Mata Mamón, in the municipality of Santo Domingo Norte, to the north of the capital, helps feed her family.

But her garden, where she grows beans and corn, as well as peppers and other vegetables, to complement the diet of her three children, was hit hard by the scant rainfall.

“When things were toughest, we would try to manage using our water tank, which we sometimes even used to provide our neighbours with water,” said Echeverry.

“Our concern was for the crops, in our houses we always had water,” said Ocrida de la Rosa, another woman from this rural town of small farmers in the province of Santo Domingo, where many women keep gardens and fruit trees to help feed their families.

All but two of the country’s reservoirs were operating at minimum capacity, which meant the authorities had to give priority to residential users over agriculture and power generation.

Yields went down, and many crops were lost, especially in rice paddies, which require huge quantities of water. Production in the rice-growing region in the northwest of the country fell 80 percent due to the scarce rainfall and the reduced flow in the Yaque del Norte River.

And the Dominican Agribusiness Council reported a 25 to 30 percent drop in dairy production due to the drought, while hundreds of heads of beef cattle died in the south of the country.

Production in the hydropower dams fell 60 percent, in a country where hydroelectricity accounts for 13 percent of the renewable energy supply.

The daily water supply in Greater Santo Domingo went down by 25 percent, and thousands of people in hundreds of neighbourhoods, and in the interior of the country, suffered water rationing measures. Some neighbourhoods depended on tanker trucks for water.

And in the face of rationing measures, residents of Greater Santo Domingo protested the wasteful use of water in less essential activities, as well as the many unrepaired leaks in the residential sector.

The authorities closed down local car wash businesses, which abound in the city, and people could be fined or even arrested for wasting water to wash cars, clean sidewalks and water gardens.

“Integrated water management has advanced in this country,” another ONAMET meteorologist, Bolívar Ledesma, told IPS.

To illustrate, he pointed to the National Water Observatory, which adopts water management decisions together with institutions like the Santo Domingo water and sewage company (CAASD), the National Institute of Potable Water and Sewage (INAP) and the National Water Resources Institute (INDRHI).

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Caribbean Journalists Prepare to Report on Climate Changehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2016/01/caribbean-journalists-prepare-to-report-on-climate-change/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=caribbean-journalists-prepare-to-report-on-climate-change http://www.ipsnews.net/2016/01/caribbean-journalists-prepare-to-report-on-climate-change/#respond Wed, 06 Jan 2016 03:09:45 +0000 Ivet Gonzalez http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=143521 Environmentally committed journalists in the Caribbean point to a major challenge for media workers: communicating and raising awareness about the crucial climate change agreement that emerged from the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris. “Scientific information must be published in clearer language, and we must talk about the real impact of climate change […]

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Dominican journalist Amelia Deschamps addressing a workshop in Santo Domingo on the role of reporters with regard to climate change. Researchers and journalists from Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic took part in the event. Credit: Dionny Matos/IPS

Dominican journalist Amelia Deschamps addressing a workshop in Santo Domingo on the role of reporters with regard to climate change. Researchers and journalists from Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic took part in the event. Credit: Dionny Matos/IPS

By Ivet González
SANTO DOMINGO, Jan 6 2016 (IPS)

Environmentally committed journalists in the Caribbean point to a major challenge for media workers: communicating and raising awareness about the crucial climate change agreement that emerged from the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris.

“Scientific information must be published in clearer language, and we must talk about the real impact of climate change on people’s lives,” journalist Amelia Deschamps, an anchorwoman on the El Día newcast of the Dominican channel Telesistema 11, told IPS.

She was referring to the communication challenges posed in the wake of COP21 to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, held Nov. 30 to Dec. 11 in Paris to produce the first universal agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions and curb the negative impacts of global warming.

“So far good intentions abound, but there are few practical steps being taken in terms of mitigation and adaptation,” said Deschamps.

In the view of this journalist who specialises in environmental affairs, media coverage of global warming “has been very weak and oversimplified,” which she said has contributed to the public sense that it is a “merely scientific” issue that has little connection to people’s lives.

“People are more concerned about things that directly affect them,” said Deschamps, who is also an activist for risk management in poor communities, and considers citizen mobilisation key to curbing damage to the environment.

The 195 country parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting in the French capital adopted a binding universal agreement aimed at keeping a global temperature rise this century “well below 2 degrees Celsius” with respect to the pre-industrial era.

Scientists warn that the planet is heating up as a result of human activity, and this is causing extreme weather events such as heat waves, lengthy droughts and heavy rainfall. In addition, clean water, fertile land and biodiversity are all being reduced.

Coastal areas are already suffering the consequences of rising sea levels, a process that according to scientific sources began 20,000 years ago, but has been accelerated by global warming over the last 150 years.

Small island nations such as those of the Caribbean are among the most vulnerable to climate change, while their emissions have contributed very little to the phenomenon.

“As journalists and communicators we have not managed to identify the right messages to make the public feel involved in this issue,” said Deschamps at a workshop organised by the Cuban Environmental Protection Agency, the Dominican Chapter of the Nicolás Guillén Foundation, the Norwegian Embassy and the Inter Press Service (IPS) international news agency.

Marie Jeanne Moisse, a reporter and environmental educator who works in the climate change office in Haiti’s Environment Ministry, spoke during a workshop in Santo Domingo about the media’s role in reporting on and raising awareness about global warming. Credit: Dionny Matos/IPS

Marie Jeanne Moisse, a reporter and environmental educator who works in the climate change office in Haiti’s Environment Ministry, spoke during a workshop in Santo Domingo about the media’s role in reporting on and raising awareness about global warming. Credit: Dionny Matos/IPS

To train reporters from the Caribbean, a group of experts from Cuba, Mexico and the Dominican Republic offered a Nov. 23-26 course on “Social Communication for Risk Prevention, Gender and Climate Change” in the Dominican capital.

The course was attended by 41 journalists from Haiti and the Dominican Republic. It included three talks that experts gave to students from two rural schools and to a group of 25 Haitian-Dominican women.

“The media need to be trained to provide more information at a national level on the phenomenon and about the agreement reached at COP21,” said Marie Jeanne Moise, an official in the climate change office in Haiti’s Environment Ministry.

According to Moise, a communicator and educator on the environment, “there is alarming talk today about global warming, and people are scared. But that doesn’t mean they know about the phenomenon or about how to protect themselves, to reduce the impacts on their lives.”

Moise urged journalists and reporters to “go to the roots of the problem.”

“News coverage focuses on catastrophes and on how vulnerable we are. But little is said about what contribution the media should make to help bring about a positive change in attitude towards the environment.”

The Haitian official said COP21 “created greater unity among the Caribbean as a vulnerable region that needs to adopt a common position.”

The countries in the region that took part in COP21 are negotiating as part of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), made up of 15 mainly island nations, and as part of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS).

Ahead of COP21, CARICOM launched the “1.5 to Stay Alive” campaign to raise awareness on the effects of climate change, especially on small island states, while strengthening the region’s negotiating position.

CARICOM estimates that inaction could cost its member countries 10.7 billion dollars in losses by 2025, or five percent of GDP, and some 22 billion dollars by 2050, or 10 percent of GDP.

Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which share the island of Hispaniola, are on the list of the 10 countries most vulnerable to natural disasters, according to the Climate Change and Environmental Risk Analytics report published in 2012 by Verisk Maplecroft, a global risk analytics and forecasting company based in Britain.

Besides physical and economic exposure to events like earthquakes and hurricanes, these countries are vulnerable due to social inequality, a lack of preparedness, and unequal distribution of local and regional capacities, said the study, which compared 197 countries using 29 indices and interactive maps analysing major natural hazards worldwide.

Dominican blogger and human rights activist Yesibon Reynoso said that in his country “quite a lot is known and talked about, with regard to the environment, because of the current circumstances.”

But, he said, “for example, deforestation is not always punished. Impunity reigns through exploitation with the support of corruption in the state.”

In his view, “environmental rights are not addressed in accordance with how essential they are to life, in the country and around the globe. There is no traditional social and political respect for the environment.”

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Insecurity in Dominican Countryside Threatens Local Food Supplyhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/12/insecurity-in-dominican-countryside-threatens-local-food-supply/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=insecurity-in-dominican-countryside-threatens-local-food-supply http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/12/insecurity-in-dominican-countryside-threatens-local-food-supply/#respond Mon, 28 Dec 2015 16:39:47 +0000 Ivet Gonzalez http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=143452 “Sometimes we have too much water, which washes everything away,” Cecilia Joseph, originally from Haiti, said in heavily accented Spanish while pulling up a ñame root (a kind of yam) on her farm in the municipality of Santo Domingo Norte in the Dominican Republic. Joseph was referring to the frequent flooding caused when the Ozama, […]

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Cecilia Joseph is a small farmer in Mata Mamón who says she crossed the border from Haiti “when I was just a girl.” Credit: Dionny Matos

Cecilia Joseph is a small farmer in Mata Mamón who says she crossed the border from Haiti “when I was just a girl.” Credit: Dionny Matos

By Ivet González
MATA MAMÓN, Dominican Republic , Dec 28 2015 (IPS)

“Sometimes we have too much water, which washes everything away,” Cecilia Joseph, originally from Haiti, said in heavily accented Spanish while pulling up a ñame root (a kind of yam) on her farm in the municipality of Santo Domingo Norte in the Dominican Republic.

Joseph was referring to the frequent flooding caused when the Ozama, Cabón and Tosa rivers, which run through the rural area of Mata Mamón 30 km north of the Dominican capital, overflow their banks.

The heavy rains hurt her subsistence crops – corn, banana, papaya, avocado, ñame and mango – which sometimes produce a surplus that she sells, complained this small, thin, agile 70-year-old.Today, 1.5 million of the Dominican Republic’s 9.3 million inhabitants are still malnourished.

Cecé, as she is known here, depends completely on her one-hectare farm for a living, because her son and her husband are both dead.

This community of 1,714 inhabitants, where most people are small farmers like Joseph, is one of 1,100 that are registered by the civil defence agency in the province of Santo Domingo as vulnerable to flooding and landslides due to the overflowing of rivers and the lack of stormwater drainage systems.

The overwhelming consensus in the scientific community is that climate change and global warming are to blame for erratic weather patterns such as what is being seen in this country today.

Besides the threats posed to their health – and to their very lives – local farmers consulted by IPS say the environmental problem has reduced their production levels, and as a result they don’t have enough food anymore to feed their families.

“Five years ago I stopped planting rice and pumpkin on the land next to the river, because it overflowed its banks more and more frequently, to the point that it wasn’t worth investing there, just to lose everything,” said 56-year-old José Corcino, who also works as a skilled construction worker to support his family.

To feed his family, José Corcino plants crops and raises pigs in his backyard, which the floodwaters reach when the nearby river overflows its banks. Credit: Dionny Matos

To feed his family, José Corcino plants crops and raises pigs in his backyard, which the floodwaters reach when the nearby river overflows its banks. Credit: Dionny Matos

“We have made several requests through the United Hearts Association of Farmers of Mata Mamón for the state to dredge the rivers so they won’t overflow their banks. But everything has been in vain. We still can’t plant our crops,” complained Corcino, one of the more than 100 members of the organisation.

“We are going hungry because we don’t grow enough to be able to swap products with other local farmers,” he said. “And we don’t have markets here. Sometimes people come in trucks, selling vegetables and things, or we have to go and shop at La Victoria, which is six km away.”

Corcino, a father of three, grows banana, guava, soursop, avocado and mango to feed his family, on the one-hectare plot of land where his house is located. And farther away, on a 1.5-hectare plot where he used to grow rice, he grazes his 15 head of cattle, mainly dairy cows.

“Every afternoon I bring the cattle to my yard because the thieves take everything,” he said, referring to another factor that is a hindrance to agriculture. In his view, what the farmers in Mata Manón need is less vandalism and rustling, and more environmental services and investment, to boost local food production.

Today, 1.5 million of the Dominican Republic’s 9.3 million inhabitants are still malnourished, even though the country managed to reduce the number of people suffering from hunger in the last 20 years, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FA0).

As they chat, local men point to the town, which is mainly populated by people originally from neighbouring Haiti or descendants of Haitians. Credit: Dionny Matos

As they chat, local men point to the town, which is mainly populated by people originally from neighbouring Haiti or descendants of Haitians. Credit: Dionny Matos

Food insecurity and poverty are largely rural phenomena in this Caribbean nation which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, according to the Panorama of Food and Nutritional Security in Central America and Dominican Republic 2014, published for the first time this year by FAO.

In fields in the Dominican Republic, where food availability is determined, it is small farmers and blacks who suffer the most, according to the study.

“Peasant farmers have to feel security for themselves and their families in terms of labour, income, food, and access to school and healthcare. And environmental security is also important, because sometimes heavy rains fall and wipe away their crops,” said Manuel Rodríguez at the Labour Ministry’s Agriculture Office.

He said the office offers advice to help generate more secure jobs, as part of a larger government programme aimed at increasing employment in agriculture from the current 20 percent to 40 percent of the total workforce.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, only 609,197 people work in this sector: 559,428 men and 49,769 women.

“Peasants are abandoning their land today because there isn’t any money or work. But in the next few years, the Dominican countryside is going to undergo a radical change,” the official predicted.

The project will also involve technological modernisation projects like the expansion of greenhouse areas, initiatives for incorporating more women in farming, reduced interest payments to the agricultural bank, and more credit for farmers.

The Dominican Republic is a major exporter of peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers, while production of Chinese vegetables is growing, said Rodríguez. This country is also one of the world’s leading exporters of organic tropical products like bananas.

However, Dominican society is marked by a high level of inequality, and hunger and malnutrition are still top-priority problems, as recognised by the authorities when parliament approved a law on food and nutritional sovereignty and security in 2014.

Mata Mamón, a “batey” – a term that refers to rural shantytowns that originally sprung up on sugarcane plantations, as well as to urban slums surrounding cities and populated mainly by Haitians and Dominican-Haitians – is an area of potted roads lined by earth-floored wooden shacks and a few modest cinder-block dwellings.

“We have made some progress in education and among the youth, who have calmed down,” said Cornelio Guzmán, chairman of the Human Rights Committee for the last 15 years, with regard to the declining rates of juvenile delinquency and the construction of a local school.

“With respect to economic questions, the community has almost no income because the rivers destroy the crops and it’s impossible to fight the theft of cattle, goats and pigs, because we only have one policeman,” lamented the 44-year-old activist.

Edited by Verónica Firme/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Haina, a Dominican City Famous Only for Its Pollutionhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/12/haina-a-dominican-city-famous-only-for-its-pollution/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=haina-a-dominican-city-famous-only-for-its-pollution http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/12/haina-a-dominican-city-famous-only-for-its-pollution/#respond Tue, 15 Dec 2015 07:35:55 +0000 Ivet Gonzalez http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=143357 Rubbish covers the beaches and clutters the rivers, the garbage dump is not properly managed, and more than 100 factories spew toxic fumes into the air in the city of Bajos de Haina, a major industrial hub and port city in the Dominican Republic. “We’ve only made it into the news as one of the […]

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A view of Gringo beach and, in the background, the city of Bajos de Haina, the Dominican Republic’s main industrial hub and port, and the third-most polluted city in the world. Credit: Dionny Matos/IPS

A view of Gringo beach and, in the background, the city of Bajos de Haina, the Dominican Republic’s main industrial hub and port, and the third-most polluted city in the world. Credit: Dionny Matos/IPS

By Ivet González
BAJOS DE HAINA, Dominican Republic , Dec 15 2015 (IPS)

Rubbish covers the beaches and clutters the rivers, the garbage dump is not properly managed, and more than 100 factories spew toxic fumes into the air in the city of Bajos de Haina, a major industrial hub and port city in the Dominican Republic.

“We’ve only made it into the news as one of the world’s most polluted places,” lamented Adriana Vallejo, a schoolteacher who talked to IPS in the Centro Educativo Manuel Felix Peña, a school that teaches the arts in this city 80 km to the south of Santo Domingo.

Vallejo was referring to the list of the 10 most polluted places on earth drawn up periodically by the New York-based Blacksmith Institute (which has changed its name to Pure Earth).

The Institute’s latest report, from 2013, listed Bajos de Haina in third place, after Dzerzhinsk, Russia, and Chernobyl, Ukraine, which suffered one of the worst environmental disasters in history, caused by the catastrophic nuclear accident in 1986.

“Those up above are not paying attention to the environmental problem,” said Vallejo, referring to the ruling classes and the authorities. “We, from here down below, can do practically nothing.”

According to the “Map of Poverty in the Dominican Republic 2014”, 33 percent of households in this city of 159,000 people are poor.

“Private companies contribute a little to improving things, but only with small gestures, such as facilities at the school that were refurbished by the oil refinery (the only one in this Caribbean island nation). We haven’t seen a real desire for Haina to change,” said the teacher, who has lived here for 25 years.

“When the situation gets out of hand, we hold protest marches,” she said. “The people have had to take to the streets to fight serious problems like burning in the garbage dump, which enveloped Haina in a curtain of smoke.”

The manufacturing, chemical products, pharmaceutical, metallurgical and power plants and the oil refinery emit every a combined total of 9.8 tons of formaldehyde, 1.2 tons of lead, 416 tons of ammonium, and 18.5 tons of sulfuric acid annually.

The mouth of the Ñagá River, whose waters have darkened as a result of industrial waste and which has become more narrow due to the loss of the mangroves lining the banks, in the Dominican Republic coastal city of Bajos de Haina. Credit: Dionny Matos/IPS

The mouth of the Ñagá River, whose waters have darkened as a result of industrial waste and which has become more narrow due to the loss of the mangroves lining the banks, in the Dominican Republic coastal city of Bajos de Haina. Credit: Dionny Matos/IPS

The city’s thermoelectric complex produces more than 50 percent of the electricity available for the economy and the country’s 9.3 million inhabitants.

In this city, 84 hazardous substances have been identified, 65 of which are major toxics.

Factories dump waste into the rivers and the sea. And noise pollution is another problem affecting human health.

Scientific studies warn that a majority of local residents suffer from ailments such as asthma, bronchitis, the flu and acute diarrhea.

In this city of 50 square km, the main environmental woes are air, water and noise pollution, problems caused by the open-air dump, and municipal solid waste scattered everywhere.

Where tons of garbage now cover a wide open area, there was a forest 30 years ago, “where I used to wander as a kid,” said high school math teacher Juan Ventura, who took IPS to the dump. “People who used to live around here back then are nostalgic and sad; we miss what was once a natural area that used to be known as El Naranjal.”

“The city’s garbage is brought here, with absolutely no kind of health policies. For decades, they even brought in part of the garbage from Santo Domingo. The only thing they did was burn it, and the entire local population had to breathe the nauseating smoke.

“It’s pathetic that the local authorities have no serious policy for recycling, and some local residents scavenge waste materials on their own, without any protective measures,” he said, pointing to around a dozen men and women sorting through bags of garbage for scraps of material, plastic and metal, to classify and sell them to recycling companies.

One of the women, her hands filthy from scavenging, told IPS that she is involved in this informal activity because of the money she can earn.

The woman, who is originally from neighbouring Haiti, said she makes between 22 and 44 dollars a day collecting plastic that she resells – a considerable sum in a country where the minimum monthly wage is 231 dollars.

The authorities say Haina is suffering from the legacy of years of nearly non-existent environmental legislation.

The neighbourhood Paraíso de Dios or God’s Paradise turned into a living hell during the 20 years that the Metaloxa car battery recycling smelter operated there with no environmental controls or oversight. Local residents in the area where the plant used to operate have extremely high blood lead levels.

For a decade the community put up a battle until Metaloxa was forced to pull out in 1999, when the Public Health Ministry finally took action.

But many locals suffered irreversible damage to their health.

Residents of this city complain that enforcement of the 2000 law on the environment and natural resources is lax.

“There is no respect for the environment,” Mackenzie Andújar, a 41-year-old plumber who lives in the area of Gringo beach, told IPS. “There is no control over factories here; they dump their toxic waste out of chimneys and into the water. The situation in Haina has only gotten worse in recent years.”

The Ñagá River, which flows into the sea at Gringo beach, is filthy and narrow as a result of garbage dumps and deforestation. Plastic bottles, cardboard, old clothes and other trash is strewn over the sand dunes, while children splash in the water. The view from the beach is the furnaces and smokestacks of the nearby factories.

“The locals are uncultured; when a dog or other animal dies, they throw the corpse into the river or on the beach, instead of burying it,” said Andújar.

The environmental crisis, the high population density, the poor living conditions and the lack of services infrastructure make this a conflict-ridden area, according to the 2011 study titled “a socioeconomic and environmental diagnosis on the management of solid household waste in the municipality of Haina”

“The environmental problems in our community are hard to deal with, but we also have social contamination caused by crime and young people’s lack of interest in studying,” said music student Juan Elías Andújar.

“In school they talk to us about ecological issues,” he told IPS. “We have a group called ‘Guardians of Nature’, to raise social awareness and carry out actions like clean-ups of beaches. Haina could change if each person were willing to make an effort.”

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Gay Cruising Spots a Challenge for HIV/AIDS Prevention in Cubahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/11/gay-cruising-spots-a-challenge-for-hivaids-prevention-in-cuba/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=gay-cruising-spots-a-challenge-for-hivaids-prevention-in-cuba http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/11/gay-cruising-spots-a-challenge-for-hivaids-prevention-in-cuba/#respond Fri, 13 Nov 2015 22:21:02 +0000 Ivet Gonzalez http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=142997 When night falls, young men can be seen sitting on a dismantled bus stop on a remote hill far from the centre of the Cuban capital. Later they climb uphill to have sex with other men in the thick forest. “On my way home from work, I go by that place, and I always see […]

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At night, groups of people from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex (LGBTI) community gather in meeting spots like this one in the El Vedado neighbourhood in Havana, Cuba. Others go to cruising spots for quick anonymous sex. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

At night, groups of people from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex (LGBTI) community gather in meeting spots like this one in the El Vedado neighbourhood in Havana, Cuba. Others go to cruising spots for quick anonymous sex. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Ivet González
HAVANA, Nov 13 2015 (IPS)

When night falls, young men can be seen sitting on a dismantled bus stop on a remote hill far from the centre of the Cuban capital. Later they climb uphill to have sex with other men in the thick forest.

“On my way home from work, I go by that place, and I always see people gathered at the old bus stop,” 36-year-old biologist Daniel Hernández told IPS. The spot he was talking about is near the Calixto García Hospital in Havana’s El Vedado neighbourhood.

“People have lost their inhibitions. I can see they’re more out in the open in that area, where everyone knows why people go there. They’re not so afraid anymore,” said Hernández, who is himself gay and says he has occasionally gone there and to similar gay cruising spots in Havana.

Remote, isolated spots in Cuba’s cities, like forests, coastal areas or abandoned buildings, are colonised at night by men seeking quick anonymous sex with other men.

These cruising spots, known here as “potajeras”, represent a challenge for the work of prevention of HIV/AIDS, say activists, researchers and men who have sex with men (MSM) who spoke to IPS.

“I have witnessed unprotected group sex. All kinds of people go there, and not everyone has an awareness about the epidemic,” said Hernández, who described the potajeras as “key to the spread” of HIV/AIDS.

In his view, gay meeting places are necessary, but “not the remote spots that exist, where people are extremely unprotected due to the risk of infection and violence.”

The HIV/AIDS adult prevalence rate is low – just 0.1 percent, or 19,500 people – in this Caribbean island nation of 11.2 million people, up from 16,479 in late 2013.

MSM make up 70 percent of those living with HIV/AIDS. But women represent a growing proportion: 21 percent today, up from 18.5 percent in 2013, according to official figures.

Curbing the slow steady growth of new cases is a challenge that requires a greater prevention effort in this socialist island nation where healthcare is free and universal, including antiretroviral treatment for people living with HIV/AIDS.

The good news is that on Jun. 30, Cuba became the first country across the globe to receive World Health Organisation (WHO) validation for eliminating mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis.

“In health promotion interventions we emphasise the risks of having sex in a place without minimum conditions,” said Avelino Matos, coordinator of community work with the MSM-Cuba Project, a network of 1,800 volunteer health promoters who have been working for 15 years to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS among the most vulnerable segment of society.

In these remote areas, “there’s no light and people are nervous, so it’s impossible to negotiate the use of a condom,” Matos told IPS.

The entrance to a nightclub in Havana’s El Vedado neighbourhood, which offers drag queen shows and is a meeting place for people from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex (LGBTI) community. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

The entrance to a nightclub in Havana’s El Vedado neighbourhood, which offers drag queen shows and is a meeting place for people from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex (LGBTI) community. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

The project, which falls under the umbrella of Cuba’s National Center for the Prevention of STDs and HIV/AIDS and is active in all 15 provinces, monitors MSM cruising and gathering spots, with an emphasis on the 49 municipalities that have top priority because they have the highest HIV/AIDS rates.

Matos described gay hangouts or socialising places – by contrast with cruising spots – as public spaces where MSM gather to meet each other, chat, and arrange dates.

He said the project’s health promoters are present around the country, although the ones in the capital are the best-known.

According to Matos, the project’s prevention work does get results, and today is using new strategies, targeting gay meeting spots in parks and on city street corners and in the growing number of gay bars, cafes and private parties.

But he lamented that they barely reach the potajeras, although in some provinces ingenious interventions have been carried out.

In the daytime, activists hang bags of condoms on tree branches, for example, in cruising spots in the central province of Villa Clara and the eastern provinces of Holguín and Granma.

And in a shantytown in the western province of Mayabeque, the project provided training in health promotion to two-seater bicycle taxi drivers, the form of transportation used to reach the cruising spots. The drivers were also given condoms, to hand out to their passengers.

Matos said it is difficult to reach bisexual men with HIV/AIDS prevention messages, because they face more prejudice than homosexuals. “That’s why they are less likely to admit to their sexual orientation; many hide their meetings with men and maintain relationships with women,” he said.

Homophobia is a major factor contributing to the spread of HIV and others STDs in the cruising sites.

“These are places in the here and now. But with this I don’t mean that everyone who engages in cruising has unprotected sex,” said Jorge Carrasco, a young journalist who in 2013 reported on the main cruising spots in Havana, such as the Playa del Chivo beach and areas around the Calixto García Hospital.

“Because of the anonymity, a lot of sick people feel better there, because they can have quick sex without the need to talk about their lives with the other person,” said the 25-year-old reporter, who defends these places as “cultural spaces” that are legal under Cuba’s current laws.

Carrasco warned of other dangers in these places, where assaults and even murders are reported, as well as police abuses. “The police, instead of only arresting the thieves, also arrest the homosexuals,” said the reporter, who recommended more training for the national police.

Amaya Álvarez, a legal adviser at the governmental National Sex Education Centre (CENESEX), told IPS that “the largest number of legal complaints by the homosexual and transgender population in the meeting places are in response to the interaction with law enforcement bodies like the police.”

For that reason, she said, CENESEX organises awareness-raising workshops for police officers.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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