14ymedio, Bertha Guillen and Ricardo Fernandez, Artemisa/Pinar del Rio, 9 February 2017 – When he was a boy, Jorge Luis Ledesma Herrera played around the charcoal ovens his father had built. Now, approaching 50, this Pinar del Rio man dedicates his days to a shrub that is both hated and appreciated: the invasive marabou weed, raw material for the first product that Cuba has exported to the United States in more than five decades.
Ledesma lives in El Gacho, a few miles from San Juan y Martinez, where the best tobacco on the island is grown. Also growing in the area is the spiny plant that has invaded the island since its arrival 150 years ago. Now, its hard branches provide sustenance to thousands of families across the island.
Cuba annually exports between 40,000 and 80,000 tonnes of charcoal produced from marabou, which occupies roughly 2.5 million acres of land that would otherwise be suitable for agriculture, or almost 17% of the island’s arable land.
Livestock areas have also been affected by this invasive weed that has conquered 56% of the land used for animal husbandry. The plague of threatening thorns spreads, thanks to the plant’s strong nature, but also due to the neglect and poor organization that affects the Cuban countryside.
The state maintains a good deal of control over land despite the fact that in recent years the cooperative sector has been expanded and land has been leased in usufruct to private farmers.
The Basic Units of Cooperative Production manage 25% of the land, the Agricultural Production Cooperatives 8% and the Credit and Services Cooperatives 38%, while state farms manage 29%, according to figures provided in 2015 during the XI Congress of the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP).
Popular jokes praise the marabou as if it were the royal palm. They propose to replace that haughty national emblem on the Republic’s coat of arms and in its place enshrine the tangled anatomy of the invading species.
A decade ago Raul Castro joked about the repudiation of the bush during a speech in Camagüey, during the official commemoration of the assault on the Moncada Barracks. “What was most beautiful, what stood out in my eyes, was how beautiful the marabou was along the whole road,” he said after traveling from Havana to that central province.
After that harangue, the crusade against the marabou took on ideological status and became a symbol of Raul’s government, right alongside the promises of eradicating the dual monetary system, curbing corruption and lowering food prices. Shortly afterwards, enthusiasm for the battle was lost and it disappeared from the government’s list of critical projects.
In an irony of fate, the enemy plant has gradually become an ally. In 2007 the Spanish company Iberian and Solid Fuels (Ibecosol SL) began to commercialize charcoal made from marabou in several European countries. Its ability to burn slowly and the delicate flavor it adds to food has earned it a good reputation.
Jorge Luis Ledesma Herrera knows these qualities well, because part of the marabou he processes ends up in his own stove. Every morning he spends hours cutting the logs that he then transports in an oxcart. His life is not very different from his grandfather’s, but he boasts of being able to count on “legal electricity” in an environment where low voltage “clotheslines” – as makeshift electrical wiring is called – abound.
He describes working with marabou as a real hell. The main limitation is the tools he has to work with. The axes and machetes are of poor quality, bought on the black market, and must be repaired all the time. With ingenuity, some have recycled blades from sugar cane harvesters to aid in cutting.
About two hundred yards from the farmer’s house is the flat ground where the oven is built. The earth is burned and looks fine, like black powder. The marabou must be heated to temperatures between 750° and 1300° F, with the wood stacked in a cone, covered over with straw and earth.
“Two months ago I took out of the oven an amount I calculated as 20 sacks – about half a tonne – and it started to rain. Although the rain only lasted a few minutes the hard coals cracked like broken glass,” he said. “I could only save five sacks.
In the nearby Artemisa Joaquín Díaz, 56, has been engaged in the manufacture of charcoal since he was a child. He has been using marabou for years to cook, but now, with the news of its export, he processes it more delicately and takes greater care of the ovens. Like Ledesma, he only has access to water through a well, takes care of his personal needs in a latrine outside the house and his house has a light weight roof.
This charcoal producer in the village of Fierro, in the municipality of San Cristóbal, bears up under the sting of the rebellious shrub; like other farmers he uses gardening gloves to protect himself. Keeping his eyes away from thorns is also part of the precautions. When he prepares an oven he tries not to leave a gap between one stick and another, because “it doesn’t hold in the fire and then it goes out.” Care is essential. “As long as white smoke is coming out, the wood isn’t burned,” and it will only ready to dismantle when the smoke turns blue, which may take a week or more, Diaz explains.
In Pinar del Río, the companies that buy charcoal from the burners are the state-owned Acopio and the Integral Forest Enterprise. Payment is made through a temporary contract that allows them to be paid directly and not through the cooperatives. The charcoal-burners thus avoid the check cashing fee charged by those entities.
The state pays for charcoal at 1.20 Cuban pesos (CUP – roughly 5 cents US) per kilogram (2.2 pounds) wholesale, or 30 CUP for a 25 kilogram sack. For premium charcoal they pay 0.10 CUC (roughly ten cents US) per kilogram. With luck, the producer will pocket the equivalent of 150 dollars for every tonne of best quality charcoal, which the state enterprise will sell in the United States for 420 dollars, almost three times what the charcoal-burner makes.
However, selling to the state comes with many problems of late payments. In addition, “the rigging of the process of selection and the weighing of the premium coal, makes it more reliable to sell it to private individuals,” says Ledesma. The private buyer pays 40 CUP per sack, “and many owners of pizzerias and private restaurants in Pinar del Rio” come to him to stock up.
Ledesma dreams of being able to sell his marabou charcoal directly, without going through the state as an intermediary. “If that could be done, I would buy myself a chain saw to increase production so I could change the way I live.” Of course if that were the case, he reflects, “even doctors would come here set up charcoal ovens in El Gaucho.”