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

CUBA: Residents Struggle to Save Surroundings of Centuries-Old Mine

Patricia Grogg* - Tierramérica

SANTIAGO, Cuba, Jul 15 2005 (IPS) - The people now at the helm of the oldest copper mine in Latin America, located in eastern Cuba and shut down in 2001, want it to be recognised as a national and global heritage site.

That goal is a key part of the plans for rehabilitating an ecosystem damaged by the mining industry, drawn up by experts from the governmental agency Geomining of the East, and for revitalising the village of El Cobre, which emerged from the exploitation of the metal reserves discovered there in 1530.

The environmental damage is immediately visible, and reversing it requires patience and a healthy budget. "This was farmland, with many groves of fruit trees, but all that was lost. The area was degraded and the change to the environment was total," engineer Alina Yasell told Tierramérica.

The mine is inside a hill 12 km from Santiago, Cuba, capital of the province of the same name. It was at its peak in the first half of the 19th century, when it produced 67,000 tonnes of copper. Four years ago, scant production and low prices for the metal on the global market led to the mine’s closure.

"What its discoverers were looking for was gold, and they even sent to Spain a sample of calcopirite, one of the mineral sulphurs from which copper is obtained, believing it was that precious metal," explains geologist Miguel Ruiz.

Blacks brought from Africa and local indigenous people were ruthlessly forced to work the mine, and in the 18th century the first great uprising of slaves in Cuba occurred. A large sculpture depicting those events stands atop the hill.

The monument to that rebellion of "cimarrones" – as those who sought refuge in Cuba’s forests to escape slavery were known – was erected in what was left of the old Cardenillo hill, currently Los Chivos, whose insides were carved out by nearly five centuries of mining.

"We want to preserve for future generations this historic legacy of mining, and one of the mine’s galleries will be turned into a museum," says Yasell, lead expert of the rehabilitation programme, the great scope of which led to division into several projects.

The plan includes the restoration of what was the quarry. Along its borders there is already – although somewhat timid – new growth of wild vegetation. In this area work is under way to prevent landslides and to reconstruct the fortifications and slopes.

The quarry turned into an enormous pit, now a big lake whose water is being tested by experts, because its high mineral content – especially sulphurs – suggests "it has medicinal properties, but that needs to be verified by the Ministry of Health," said Yasell.

The dream of the experts and El Cobre officials is to turn the area into a recreational site with a guesthouse for visitors, including the pilgrims who visit the sanctuary of El Cobre Virgin of Charity.

Other projects aim at exploiting the waste that was left after removing the concentrated copper, which could hold gold and silver and other elements.

They also seek to preserve the tower of the mine and refurbish the entrance. In each area of the project there will be a nursery for reforesting the surroundings, around 40 hectares, whose soils require technologies to revive fertility.

"Everything will be done with workers from here, because it is about connecting the local population to these projects," says Ernesto Steven, president of the town council. He estimates that the whole thing will cost 1.2 million dollars.

El Cobre currently has a population of 17,000, and 45 percent of them have some relationship – direct or indirect – to the mine, which had 325 workers when it closed four years ago. Eighty-five remain with the company, now known as the Mining Services Unit.

Of the others, some were relocated to other employment sectors, some are receiving professional retraining, and some retired. Nobody was surprised by the mine closure, but not everybody approves of that decision.

"I was really upset by the news. I worked there since I was 17. I think the mine could still produce. They were overly hasty in closing it down," says Jesús Calzado Falcón, who adds that despite his age, 63, he would return to working in the mine.

He considers the closing of the mine "a terrible thing… a huge blow," because "everything that one needed, it was taken care of there. If you had to weld something, for example, you went to the mine. Or if you needed transportation. The workers got their meals at the mine."

(* Patricia Grogg is an IPS correspondent. Originally published Jul. 9 by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

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