Nicolás was biking along the 7th Avenue, in Miramar, taking one of his usual rides. But when he passed by 16th Street, he witnessed a scene that made him stop. A squad was tearing the wide willows; Havana trees that shade pedestrians from the harshness of the Caribbean sun.
He took some pictures and ended up arguing with the workers: they said he had no right to do that. Seeing their menacing tone, Nicolás just left. The next day, his wife, Iris Dayami, posted those photos on Facebook. “Many times, they cut down so extremely for avoiding to have to return soon”, she wrote.
…almost 900 trees have been chopped in the Cuban capital since December 2020, a figure that is expected to double by the end of 2021.
Last year, Iris Dayami waged her own battle to save the trees on her block in Vedado. She quarreled with her neighbors and went to the municipal office of the Ministry of Agriculture three times. Even when only one framboyán had trouble, five trees were taken down, including a royal palm.
Between April and May, complaints about felling and extreme pruning in Havana, as witnessed by Nicolás and his wife, rose up across digital platforms. Authorities acknowledged the “wave” of these actions was due to the accumulation of felling requests from people who had experienced cases such as when a tree affects a cistern or a wall.
Once resources for this task were available, an “intensive program” was set in motion. As a result, almost 900 trees have been chopped in the Cuban capital since December 2020, a figure that is expected to double by the end of 2021.
Before making headlines, cutting down trees was already a problem. In May, 2019, during a sunny spring day, all the trees from a downtown park in Havana were being cut. Everything that was left around was just broken branches and scattered leaves.
Soon afterward, biologist Alejandro Palmarola, president of the Cuban Botanical Society, harshly criticized this measure and again, many people showed their upset via social media. These plants were ocujes, a native species that doesn’t damage sidewalks nor power lines, highlighted the scientist, who is also president of the Latin American Botanical Association.
We must act with the same urgency and resolve to transform cities and address the climate and pollution crises. Now is the time to rethink and reshape the urban world.UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres
Two days later, Luis Carlos Góngora, vice president of Havana’s Administration Provincial, replied on a Facebook post that the felling was rushed and irresponsible, and those in charge were given a fine. As part of some repair works, the park would have twice the trees it had.
Far from being random episodes, these stories provide an idea of the tricky situation of urban forests in the country and some places in the region.
A Leafy Issue
“Currently, communal green areas show difficulties that worsen day after day,” said architect Larisa Castillo, director of Horticulture and Landscape Gardening at the National Botanical Garden. In more than 80% of Cuban streets, the placement and selection of species is unsuitable, which implies conflicts with pavement, buildings and service networks (think telephonic, electrical and hydraulics).
Moreover, there’s no unique authority taking care of urban greens. Rather, almost 30 organizations take part in this task including The Tropical Geography Institute, the State Forest Service, electrical and telecommunications companies. Since so many hands are involved, it’s easy to understand how their actions can at times turn out to be contradictory.
Maintenance on trees is conducted by employees who are not necessarily properly trained, and who act mainly when it is urgent due to upcoming meteorological phenomena. This means results are often traumatic and lacking scientific and technical rigor, explains Castillo.
In fact, reports and complaints of negligent pruning are traceable in the media for at least the last 10 years. “A lot has been felled, (and) a few has been sowed”, – said Palmarola recently on TV program Mesa Redonda. To make matters worse, frequent storms and hurricanes cause great damage in foliage, which is not easy to recover.
Five centuries of transformations have made Havana – and Caribbean cities in general – less resilient when it comes to riding out any disruption, like electrical storms and hurricanes.Biologist Diana Rodríguez Cala
According to Castillo, people’s dearth of green culture has a bearing on numerous deeds of vandalism. This is not exclusive to Cuba: in Bogota, Colombia, trees’ mortality rate due to human actions peaks 40%, while natural causes provoke 10% of deaths.
Likewise, Santo Domingo shows a deficit of green public spaces. While the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends having 10 to 12 square meters of green area per person, the capital of the Dominican Republic has about 4 to 5 square meters. Indeed, the most densely populated neighborhoods own fewer trees.
The Greener, the Better
Like other big cities in the Caribbean and Latin America, Havana faces air pollution, high temperatures, even heat islands, as well as residents suffering from respiratory diseases. In that scenario, urban greens are indispensable to face the aforementioned problems. Only if we have trees can we deal with those issues because the environmental services provided by trees are pretty evident.
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They absorb carbon dioxide and pollutant particles from the air, contribute to decreasing temperature, reduce noise and regulate the water cycle. Trees are biodiversity shelters, offer shade and make each corner a more pleasant place.
According to The State of the World’s Forests 2020, published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), “there is growing evidence that exposure to natural environments has positive impacts on human physical and mental health across all socio-economic strata and genders, particularly in urban areas and particularly for socio-economically disadvantaged urban populations”.
“Five centuries of transformations have made Havana – and Caribbean cities in general – less resilient when it comes to riding out any disruption, like electrical storms and hurricanes”, argues biologist Diana Rodríguez Cala, Master in Ecology and Conservation from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.
In her opinion, it’s important not only to plant or preserve trees, but to recover the soil. That would help, for instance, to absorb rainwater and prevent floods. Also, bushes and other plants must be taken into account as part of the city ecosystems.
From Now On
“We must act with the same urgency and resolve to transform cities and address the climate and pollution crises. Now is the time to rethink and reshape the urban world”, remarked UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, referring to the opportunity to rebuild after the Covid-19 pandemic.
Forest coverage appears on the intersection between people’s health and climate change, and urban greens turn out to be an economic, simple alternative for several situations.
This is not only for the sake of the future, but also chiefly for the present.
Following that premise, the Tree Cities of the World program has recognized the commitment “to ensuring that urban forests and trees are properly maintained, sustainably managed, and duly celebrated”. Among the first 68 acknowledged cities, there are 8 from Latin America.
Architect Larisa Castillo pointed out that common citizens’ engagement is crucial: when people feel responsible for trees, they are likely to anticipate conflicts of interests and boost local reforestation initiatives.
The Facebook group Habana Verde is a good example in that regard. Members like Iris Dayami not only alert about incidents of wrongdoing, but also raise environmental awareness and prompt sowing throughout cities of the island. Actually, hundreds of citizens actually signed a letter directed at various governmental institutions, in order to “formally convey their worries”.
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Online debate has proved to be fruitful. Last July the paving of gardens in the last tranche of Calle G – a major Havana’s avenue – set social media on fire. Months after the criticism, works were undone and a full project to reshape the area was announced.
Inventorying individual plants, revitalizing saplings’ production and campaigning for green urban spaces should also rank higher on local agendas. This is not only for the sake of the future, but also chiefly for the present.
A version of this story was published as part of Climate Tracker‘s Global Mentorship for Young Media Professionals.