Mariel port expansion may be economic boost and ecological bust

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.

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