Marabou weed, also known as the sicklebush, is a highly aggressive invasive tree species in Cuba. Originally from South Africa, it grows in all soils, altitudes and microclimates, and is located in almost all of the vegetation types on the island. It is a dense woody tree that can grow up to 8-10 meters tall and is covered in thorns.
It is estimated that Marabou weed covers 1.7 million hectares of once productive land. It invades abandoned agricultural land and can limit the productive capacity of farming areas currently in use. It competes for space in protected areas preventing the establishment of native vegetation. In forests, its presence hinders management and harvesting, significantly increasing costs.
However, because the wood is termite resistant, it is attractive for domestic use including tool handles, furniture, handicrafts, fence posts and fuelwood. Moreover, its ability to burn slowly made it an ideal source for high quality charcoal – its most widespread use. Despite its undeniable advantages, it a very difficult species to eliminate and is undesired by many farmers and land managers.
As 34% of its area is covered by the Marabou weed, Cuba’s Sabanas de Macanas Model Forest is tackling both the problem of its invasiveness as well as the opportunity it provides to improve local livelihoods. Model Forest partners are
-removing Marabou weed and restoring the land to forest;
-recovering the productive capacity of some areas with agricultural potential by introducing agricultural crops and livestock; and
– supporting local communities in the production of charcoal from Marabou weed using artisan ovens.
For example, a reforestation program in the Model Forest has enabled the conversion of 3000 ha infested by Marabou weed into highly productive forests over a period of seven years. Fast-growing, non-invasive species such as Pinus caribaea, Acacia mangium and Eucalyptusspecies were planted that produce shade and prevent Marabou weed regeneration.
Recently, the production of charcoal has increased in Cuba. It is expected that charcoal demand will continue to rise fueled by the constant growth in international tourism, the opportunity for self-employment and the need to increase exports.
The Model Forest is investigating the use of other manufacturing methods to produce charcoal that are more efficient, foster better working conditions and will result in increased production and enhance livelihoods. In the Model Forest, teams of two to three farmers work together to select the best Marabou shrubs based on diameter and accessibility. The Marabou weed is cut, transported, sorted and, after careful placement in the ovens, transformed into charcoal through a slow, controlled burn over 10-12 days. The charcoal is then exported to Canada, Turkey, Israel, Portugal, Italy, Spain and elsewhere.
Because it is a naturalized species in Cuba, and its presence has spread across the country, total elimination of Marabou is almost impossible. The Model Forest is working on reducing the rate of spread and restricting the area of impact of Marabou weed while, at the same time, improving local livelihoods.
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