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Mariel port expansion may be economic boost and ecological bust

Posted on Saturday, 06.01.13

Mariel port expansion may be economic boost and ecological bust
By Juan O. Tamayo
jtamayo@ElNuevoHerald.com

A $900 million project to expand the Cuban port of Mariel into a
strategic hub for shipping in the Atlantic has been painted in Havana as
the country’s best opportunity in decades to set a new course for its
stagnant economy.

It might also be an ecological calamity, the latest in a series of
schemes by Cuba’s all-powerful communist government to boost its
economic development at the expense of its nature, according to experts
on the island’s environment.

The Mariel project has killed nearly 10 acres of mangroves in the bay
and silted the waters of the bay and one of the rivers that feeds into
it, said Eudel Cepero, a Cuba-born environmental consultant and activist
in Miami.

Working from satellite photos of Mariel available on Google Earth,
Cepero said he also measured 20 acres of coves within the bay filled in
to expand the port’s container and other land operations, and 25 acres
of surrounding land quarried for fill.

Cepero acknowledged that without a first-hand study of Mariel — the
starting point of the 1980 boatlift that brought more than 125,000
Cubans to U.S. shores — he cannot definitively establish the
environmental damage.

“But if you kill 10 acres of mangrove in the Florida Keys, there’s a
revolution,” said Cepero, a lecturer at the University of Miami and
Miami-Dade College. “That would be like destroying an entire eco-system.”

“What’s going on (in Mariel) certainly seems alarming,” said Sergio
Diaz-Briquets, a Washington-based consultant who co-authored a book on
the island’s environmental record, “Conquering Nature.”

Cuba usually gets high marks from the international environmental
community for its regulatory framework and the pristine condition of
many of its national preserves, especially along its southern coastline.

About one-quarter of its land and marine habitats are legally protected,
one of the highest percentages in the world. And Havana has signed many
of the key international agreements and declarations on the environment.

Yet, like other developing countries, the government at times has tossed
aside environmental and other concerns over projects considered to be
strategically needed for economic growth, said Diaz-Briquets.

“The reality is that in the situation that Cuba faces, with economic
difficulties, the question becomes whether that (regulatory) framework
can be enforced when the very survival of the revolution is at stake,”
he said.

The Mariel project is a “once in a century” chance to set a winning
development strategy for the country and “probably the biggest
investment project today in Cuba,” Havana economist Pedro Monreal wrote
in a column last month.

Once completed next year, he argued, the mega-port could easily become a
hub for shipping all along the Atlantic, an area expected to grow
following the expansion of the Panama Canal that is due to be completed
in 2015.

Mariel will have space for 3 million cargo containers, a duty-free zone
that could serve the entire Caribbean and bonded assembly plants —
“maquiladoras” — that could produce goods for Latin America and Europe,
according to official Havana reports.

“No one is thinking about the environment. This is always about jobs and
money,” said Dan Kipnis, a Miami activist who has fought the ongoing
dredging of the port of Miami. “Why would Cuba be any different?”

But Cuba is very different.

For one, the Western Hemisphere’s lone ruling Communist Party runs a
top-down system in which agencies and the state monopoly on the media
can be ordered to overlook or hide any problems with the Mariel project,
said Diaz-Briquets.

Cuba also has no known independent environmental activists who can
monitor the project. Cepero started the Around Cuba Environmental Agency
in 1996 to report on such issues but fled the island four years later.
It was never recognized by the government.

“In Cuba it’s the same government that’s doing the construction and the
monitoring, so there’s no independent review,” said Cepero. “Where’s the
independent check? Well it’s in these satellite photos that anyone can
see on Google Earth.”

Havana has not revealed any details on the environmental impact of the
Mariel project. And the Brazilian government, which is financing $640
million of the $900 million price tag, said last month its agreement
with Cuba requires the details be kept secret.

The environmental impact statement for the port of Miami dredging is two
inches thick and publicly available. A dozen federal and state agencies,
as well as non-government environmental activists, are monitoring the
project.

Brazil’s state-owned National Bank for Economic and Social Development
(NBESD), which is providing the financing, did not answer El Nuevo
Herald’s detailed questions about Mariel but emailed the newspaper a
brief statement.

“As in any operation that deals with exports of Brazilian goods and
services that we finance, in the case of the Mariel project we abide by
local environmental regulations,” bank spokesman Paulo Braga wrote in
the statement.

The bank’s web page asserts that a “responsible social and environmental
work is indispensable for development … Based on this vision (the bank)
embraces socio-environmental development as an issue that cuts across
all its activities.”

Odebrecht, the Brazilian construction firm carrying out the Mariel
expansion — as well as the expansion of parts of Miami International
Airport, said the Cuban government was in charge of all pre-construction
research, such as environmental impact statements.

“Companhia de Obras em Infraestrutura (COI), an Odebrecht independent
special purpose entity engaged in the development and execution of
infrastructure projects in Cuba, is not responsible for any preliminary
study concerning the Port of Mariel. All previously researches of this
project were developed by the Cuban government,” said a statement to El
Nuevo.

Cuban diplomats in Washington did not reply to requests for comment.

Brazil is Cuba’s second-largest commercial partner in Latin America
after Venezuela, with bilateral trade topping $624 million in 2008.
Relations improved further after President Dilma Rousseff took power in
2011.

Mariel is a so-called “pocket bay” 28 miles west of Havana, with a
1,066-foot wide mouth opening into a bay 2.8 miles long and 2.3 miles
wide, and up to 31 feet deep. The town of Mariel, with a population of
about 43,000, sits on its southeastern end.

A 2008 report by Cuba’s Ministry for Science, Technology and the
Environment ranked the bay as slightly contaminated, mostly by untreated
sewage from the town and spills from its port operations.

Cuba saw its share of environmental misadventures under former ruler
Fidel Castro, notorious for his recklessly impulsive ideas on economic
development throughout his nearly half-century in power.

Just six weeks after he seized power in 1959, Castro announced that he
was preparing to drain the Zapata Swamp, rich in myriad types of
wildlife, and turn it into farmland. A number of acres were drained, but
the project was shortly abandoned.

In the 1960s, Castro ordered virtually every river dammed for
irrigation, under the slogan “not one drop wasted.” Diaz-Briquets said
it was likely that saltwater encroachment increased and brackish waters
receded, impacting coastal habitats.

In 1985, he ordered construction of a 65-mile “Southern dyke” along the
southern coast of Havana province to block the infiltration of saltwater
and the loss of freshwater. Pollutants from agricultural runoff
accumulated on the land side of the dyke, killing acres of mangrove.

And in the 1990s, a 12-mile stone causeway was built across the shallow
waters of the Bay of Dogs off the north central coast to make it easier
to shuttle larger numbers of tourists to the Cayo Coco resort. The
causeway cut off tidal flows, salinity spiked and oxygen dropped, and
the bay became a lifeless body. Later modifications reportedly improved
the water flow, but the results are not publicly known.

The bays of Moa and Nuevitas on the northeastern coast have been
reported to be highly contaminated by pollution from nickel processing
plants and other industries. The state news media monopoly has published
little on those cases.

http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/06/01/v-fullstory/3428522/mariel-port-expansion-may-be-economic.html

Tags: airport, economy, Fidel Castro, investment, president, university, Venezuela, Zapata

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