Unique Sandbar Coastal Ecosystem in Cuba Calls for Climate Solutions
By Ivet González
BARACOA, Cuba, May 19 2017 (IPS) – A battered bridge connects the centre
of Baracoa, Cuba´s oldest city, with a singular dark-sand sandbar, known
as Tibaracón, that forms on one of the banks of the Macaguaní River
where it flows into the Caribbean Sea in northeastern Cuba.
Just 13 wooden houses with lightweight roofs shield the few families
that still live on one of the six coastal sandbars exclusive to Baracoa,
a mountainous coastal municipality with striking nature reserves, whose
First City, as it is locally known, was founded 505 years ago by Spanish
These long and narrow sandbars between the river mouths and the sea have
a name from the language of the Araucan people, the native people who
once populated Cuba. The sandbars are the result of a combination of
various rare natural conditions: short, steep rivers, narrow coastal
plains, heavy seasonal rainfall and the coral reef crest near the coast.
Local experts are calling for special treatment for these sandbars
exclusive to islands in the Caribbean, in the current coastal
regulation, which is gaining momentum with Tarea Vida (Life Task),
Cuba´s first plan to tackle climate change, approved on April 27 by the
Council of Ministers.
Baracoa, with a population of 81,700, is among the municipalities
prioritised by the new programme due to its elevation. Authorities point
out that the plan, with its 11 specific tasks, has a more far-reaching
scope than previous policies focused on climate change, and includes
gradually increasing investments up to 2100.
“I was born here. I moved away when I got married, and returned seven
years ago after I got divorced,” dentist María Teresa Martín, a local
resident who belongs to the Popular Council of La Playa, a peri-urban
settlement that includes the Macaguaní tibaracón or sandbar, told IPS.
The sandbar is the smallest in Baracoa, the rainiest municipality in
Cuba, while the largest – three km in length – is at the mouth of the
“It’s not easy to live here,” said Martín. “The tide goes out and all
day long you smell this stench, because the neighbours throw all their
garbage and rubble into the river and the sea, onto the sand,” she
lamented, while pointing out at the rubbish that covers the dunes and is
caught in the roots of coconut palm trees and on stranded fishing boats.
The Macaguaní River runs down from the mountains and across the city,
along Baracoa bay, which it flows into. It stinks and is clogged up from
the trash and human waste dumped into it, one of the causes of the
accelerated shrinking of the tibaracón.
“We even used to have a street, and there were many more houses,” said
“We have lost other communication routes with the city. We have to
evacuate whenever there is a cyclone or tsunami warning,” said the local
resident, who is waiting to be resettled to a safer place in the city.
Local fisherman Abel Estévez, who lives across from Martín, would also
like to move inland, but he is worried that he will be offered a house
too far from the city. “I live near the sea and live off it. If they
send us far from here, how am I going to support my daughter? How will
my wife get to her job at the hospital?” he remarked.
Such as is happening with La Playa, the
Coastal regulations establish that municipal authorities must relocate
to safer places 21 communities – including La Playa – along the
municipality’s 82.5 km of coastline, of which 13.9 are sandy.
“We have exclusive and very vulnerable natural resources, such as the
tibaracones,” explained Ricardo Suárez, municipal representative of the
Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment. “They are a sandy strip
between the river and the sea, which makes them fragile ecosystems at
risk of being damaged by the river and the sea.”
The disappearance of the tibaracones would change the “coastal
dynamics”, explained the geographer. “Where today there is sand,
tomorrow there could be a bay, and that brings greater exposure to
penetration by the sea, which puts urban areas at risk and salinises the
soil and inland waters,” he told IPS.
He said that these sandbars are affected by poor management and human
activities, such as sand extraction, pollution and indiscriminate
logging, in addition to climate change and the resulting elevation of
the sea level. He also pointed out natural causes such as geological
changes in the area.
In his opinion, the actions to protect the sandbars are band-aid
measures, since they are destined to disappear. He said this can be
slowed down unless natural disasters occur, like Hurricane Matthew,
which hit the city on Oct. 4-5, 2016.
Suárez is the author of a study that shows the gradual shrinking of the
tibaracones located in Baracoa, which serve as “natural barriers
protecting the city”. He also showed how the population has been
migrating from the sandbars, due to their vulnerability.
In the shrinking community where Martín and Estévez live, between the
mouth of the Macaguaní River and the sea, there were 122 houses in 1958.
And on the Miel River tibaracón, at the eastern end of the city, there
were 45 houses in 1978, while today there are only a few shops and
The unique Miel River delta used to be 70 metres wide in the middle of
the last century, while today the narrowest portion is just 30 metres
wide. In Macaguaní, meanwhile, the shrinking has been more abrupt, from
80 metres back then, to just six metres in one segment, the study found.
The expert recommends differentiated treatment for these ecosystems,
which are not specifically contemplated under Decree Law 212 for the
Management of Coastal Areas, in force since 2000, which is the main
legal foundation for the current land-use regulation which requires the
removal of buildings that are harmful to the coasts.
Suárez said the removal of structures on sandy soil surrounded by water
must be followed with preventive measures to preserve the sand, such as
reforestation with native species.
In the study, he notes that the government’s Marine Studies Agency, a
subsidiary of the Geocuba company in the neighbouring province of
Santiago de Cuba, proposes the construction of a seawall and embankment
to protect the Miel River delta. And he emphasised the importance of
carrying out similar research in the case of Macaguaní.
Cuba´s Institute of Physical Planning (IPF) inspected the 5,746 km of
coastline in the Cuban archipelago, and found 5,167 illegalities
committed by individuals, and another 1,482 by legal entities. The
institute reported that up to February 2015, 489 of the infractions
committed by legal entities had been eradicated.
When the authorities approved the Life Task plan, the IPF assured the
official media that the main progress in coastal management has been
achieved so far on the 414 Cuban beaches at 36 major tourist areas.
Tourism is Cuba´s second-biggest source of foreign exchange, after the
export of medical services.
The Greater Caribbean launches a project
The 25 members of the Association of Caribbean States (ACS) approved on
Mar. 8 in Havana a regional project to curb erosion on the sandy
coastlines, promote alternatives to control the phenomenon, and drive
The initiative, set forth by Cuba during the first ACS Cooperation
Conference, in which governments of the bloc participated along with
donor agencies and countries, including the Netherlands and South Korea,
was incorporated into the ACS´ 2016-2018 Action Plan, which will extend
The project, currently in the dissemination phase to raise funds,
already has a commitment from the Netherlands to contribute one billion
dollars, while South Korea has initially offered three million dollars.
The initiative will at first focus on 10 island countries, althoug
others plan to join in, since the problem of erosion of sandy coastlines
affects local economies that depend on tourism and fishing.
Source: Unique Sandbar Coastal Ecosystem in Cuba Calls for Climate
Solutions | Inter Press Service –