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United Nations Environment Programme

Centuries-Old Mine Struggles to Save Its Surroundings

By Patricia Grogg *

Experts are working to rehabilitate the ecosystem damaged by a mine that operated in Cuba for nearly five centuries.

SANTIAGO DE CUBA - The people now responsible for the oldest copper mine in Latin America, located in eastern Cuba and shut down in 2001, want the site to be recognized as national and global heritage.

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

The environmental harm is visible, and the effort to reverse it requires patience and a healthy budget. "This was farmland, with many fruit groves, 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. Its greatest era was the first half of the 19th century, when it produced 67,000 tons of copper. 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 sulfurs 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 program, the great scope of which meant it had to be divided into several projects.

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

The quarry gave rise to an enormous pit, now a big lake whose water is being tested, because its high mineral content -- especially sulfurs -- 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 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 -- with 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 training, and some retired. Nobody was surprised by the mine closure, but not everybody approves of that decision.

"I was really upset by the news. Since I was 17 I worked there. I think the mine could still produce. They hurried the closure," says Jesús Calzado Falcón, who adds that despite his age, 63, he would return to working the mine.

He considers the mine closing "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.

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