HAVANA — Cuba convicted six people of cutting down African mahogany trees in the National Botanical Gardens and sentenced them to eight and 10 years in prison, the Communist Party newspaper Granma said Friday.
The men felled nine trees on two occasions in December and harvested a total of $122 worth of wood, according to the court sentencing printed alongside the article. Mahogany sells for considerably more than that elsewhere, listing for $10 to $15 per board-foot on some U.S. websites.
Angela Leiva, director of the reserve, told Granma that the 30- to 40-year-old trees were important to the ecology of the gardens and their loss cannot be repaired in the short or medium term.
Inaugurated by Fidel Castro in 1989 and located just south of the capital, the 1,500-acre (600-hectare) Botanical Gardens fell on hard times after Cuba's 1990s economic crisis precipitated by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the island's largest trade partner and benefactor.
The reserve's facilities fell into disrepair, vigilance became lax and the entire 7-mile (11.5-kilometer) perimeter fence was scavenged amid "social indiscipline," Granma said.
The government has been waging a campaign against lawbreaking and "social indiscipline," with official newspapers such as Granma carrying reminders of stiff penalties for everything from the unauthorized slaughter of cattle to illegally building home expansions onto sidewalks.
Authorities began to notice trees sporadically disappearing from the reserve in 2008, according to Granma's full-page article. The thefts increased over the next two years and reserve officials complained to authorities.
"Regrettably, misunderstanding prevailed in the face of these claims and no preventative measure or action was taken to avoid a repeat of such events," the story said.
The tough sentences announced Friday send a stern warning that illegal cutting in the reserve will no longer go unpunished.
The court said it took into account aggravating factors, such as conspiracy by three or more people and the commission of a crime at night or in an unpopulated area, in condemning two men to a decade behind bars and the rest to eight years.
It said the six acted with others who have not been identified to transport, process and sell the lumber.
Granma said a new fence made of wood and bars is being constructed around the Botanical Gardens, and authorities are adding vehicles and communications equipment to bolster the night guard. A plan to erect five observation towers has also been approved.
Cuba has scarce supplies of wood for uses from carpentry to home construction, and illegal scavenging for materials to sell on the black market is common.
The economy has recovered somewhat since the 1990s but is still struggling. Authorities regularly blame shortages on the United States' nearly 50-year-old trade and travel embargo against the island.
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