The remains of the 19th- and early 20th-century coffee plantations in eastern Cuba are unique and eloquent testimony to a form of agricultural exploitation of virgin forest, the traces of which have disappeared elsewhere in the world. The production of coffee in eastern Cuba during the 19th and early 20th centuries resulted in the creation of a unique cultural landscape, illustrating a significant stage in the development of this form of agriculture.
Coffee production was established in the island of Saint Domingue (Hispaniola) by French settlers in the 18th century. The uprisings from 1790 onwards, culminating in the establishment of the independent state of Haïti in 1804, resulted in the flight of French plantation owners, accompanied by many of their African slaves, to the neighbouring island of Cuba, then under Spanish rule. They were to be joined by other coffee planters, from Metropolitan France and elsewhere, throughout the 19th century. In the late 19th century coffee production began in other parts of Latin America, such as Brazil, Colombia and Costa Rica. New techniques were introduced, based on developed agricultural systems; the early plantations in eastern Cuba found themselves unable to compete in the growing world markets and they gradually closed down.
The site consists of the remains of 171 historic coffee plantations on the steep and rugged slopes of mountain valleys in this region of the Sierra Maestra. The traditional plantation consists of a number of basic elements: its centre is the residence of the owner, surrounded by much more modest accommodation for the slaves, both domestic and agricultural. The owner's house always dominates the main industrial element, the terraced drying floor (secadero ), on which the coffee beans were spread and steeped in water in preparation for subsequent processing. On the larger plantations are to be found workshops for working wood and metal, and sometimes lime-kilns (as at San Luís de Jacas).
The plantations are linked by clearly defined roads, fully metalled within the boundaries of the plantations themselves. Elaborate channels, often built as arcaded aqueducts (as at San Luís de Jacas), and sluices conduct water from natural streams and springs for irrigation and process purposes; many of the plantations that have been studied have large stone-built cisterns for water storage.
Coffee trees require shade, and so they were planted under the cover of the natural forest trees. In addition, cleared areas were interplanted with coffee and fruit trees, such as citrus fruits, guava and other tropical fruits, which provided a source of food for the plantation owners and their slaves. In plots attached to the houses vegetables and other crops could be raised for the use of the owners' households.
The owners' houses were substantial structures adapted to the requirements of a tropical climate. Constructed largely in wood, on stone foundations and with shingled roofs, they had rooms for living and sleeping, often decorated according to prevailing fashions. A number were equipped with fireplaces (e.g. Jaguey) and rudimentary sanitary facilities. They were usually surrounded by a ditch of some kind, for protective purposes. Their kitchens were sited in separate structures, close to the main house. Less is known about the huts of the slaves. Evidence in the form of postholes and beaten floors indicates that they were flimsy structures of wood and branches, probably roofed with branches and leaves. Scanty finds from excavations give an indication of the very low standard of living of these workers.
The secaderos are immediately recognizable, in the form of large sunken areas surrounded by low walls and linked with cisterns or water channels. Clever use is made of the natural topography so as to minimize physical labour in the production process and facilitate water handling.
Apart from the restored buildings (La Isabelica, Ti Arriba) and the garden at San Juan de Escocia, where every care has been taken to ensure that authentic materials and techniques are based on meticulous site survey and archival research, the authenticity of the ruined cafetales is total.