Patrimony, Environmentalism and Community Development in La Habana

In 1982 UNESCO named Havana Vieja a World Heritage Site.  In order to parlay this prestigious title into foreign investment, the City Historian of Havana, Eusebio Leal Spengler, undertook a massive restoration project that boasts a dual focus on tourism and community development.  I arrived in Havana Vieja a little over two weeks ago in order to understand the workings of the heritage project’s stated priority to, “increase social benefits in the community,” and explore residents’ engagement in the patrimonialization process.

Attending the City Historian’s tour through its social projects provided me with a unparalleled opportunity to immerse myself in the language of the official heritage narrative and its marketing to tourists.  Additionally, my observation of the State Working Group of the Havana Bay, a government agency founded in 1998 under the ministry of Science Technology and the Environment (partially financed by foreign donors such as the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation) gives me the chance to see how ideas of patrimony and community play out in daily life.  Conceptualizing the environment as patrimony, SWG-HB channels their modest resources into the promotion of environmentalism and Community Work in four neighborhoods that surround the Havana bay and its tributaries: San Isidro, Jesús María, El Canal y Lawton.

My institutional contacts at SWG-HB generously assisted me with gaining access to primary sources, community settings and establishing relationships with professionals and local actors.

The SWG-HB began its project of Community Work in 2008, forming Neighborhood Environmental Delegations.  These groups, made up of representatives of local institutions and mass organizations (most participants are over 60 years old), assembled for educative workshops dedicated to different environmental themes: recycling, compost, reforestation, permaculture, natural medicine, etc.  Also taught were methodologies of “popular education” such as “the green map” and “participatory evaluation.” The delegate groups worked to incorporate the participation of schools, institutions and neighbors with the stated goal that community members can define their problems, develop their own solutions, and provide tangible results.  Mainly the community initiatives are educational talks, festivals or weekly activities designed to reach members of the community with idle time (pre-school aged children, unemployed men and women, and retirees).  Also of concern is outreach to troubled youth, single mothers, and ex-prisoners.

Between daily visits to the SWG-HB office, conducting informal interviews with local actors, attending community events, and reflecting on an unfamiliar rhetoric of Cultura ambiental, Colectivismo, Integración, Pertencia and Barrios marginales, I also take the time to engage with ethnographies of development and urban renewal projects in Latin America such as Daniella Gandolfo’s, The City at its Limits and Adrian Hearn’s, Cuba: Religion, Development and Social Capital.

Posted by Kate Bedecarré MA candidate at CLACS

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