nyt- Conserving Cuba, After the Embargo
Posted: 25 December 2007 08:26 AM   [ Ignore ]
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New York Times
December 25, 2007
Conserving Cuba, After the Embargo
Through accidents of geography and history, Cuba is a priceless ecological resource. That is why many scientists are so worried about what will become of it after Fidel Castro and his associates leave power and, as is widely anticipated, the American government relaxes or ends its trade embargo.
Cuba, by far the region’s largest island, sits at the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. Its mountains, forests, swamps, coasts and marine areas are rich in plants and animals, some seen nowhere else.
And since the imposition of the embargo in 1962, and especially with the collapse in 1991 of the Soviet Union, its major economic patron, Cuba’s economy has stagnated.
Cuba has not been free of development, including Soviet-style top-down agricultural and mining operations and, in recent years, an expansion of tourism. But it also has an abundance of landscapes that elsewhere in the region have been ripped up, paved over, poisoned or otherwise destroyed in the decades since the Cuban revolution, when development has been most intense. Once the embargo ends, the island could face a flood of investors from the United States and elsewhere, eager to exploit those landscapes.
Conservationists, environmental lawyers and other experts, from Cuba and elsewhere, met last month in Cancún, Mexico, to discuss the island’s resources and how to continue to protect them.
Cuba has done “what we should have done — identify your hot spots of biodiversity and set them aside,” said Oliver Houck, a professor of environmental law at Tulane University Law School who attended the conference.
In the late 1990s, Mr. Houck was involved in an effort, financed in part by the MacArthur Foundation, to advise Cuban officials writing new environmental laws.
But, he said in an interview, “an invasion of U.S. consumerism, a U.S.-dominated future, could roll over it like a bulldozer” when the embargo ends.
By some estimates, tourism in Cuba is increasing 10 percent annually. At a minimum, Orlando Rey Santos, the Cuban lawyer who led the law-writing effort, said in an interview at the conference, “we can guess that tourism is going to increase in a very fast way” when the embargo ends.
“It is estimated we could double tourism in one year,” said Mr. Rey, who heads environmental efforts at the Cuban ministry of science, technology and environment.
About 700 miles long and about 100 miles wide at its widest, Cuba runs from Haiti west almost to the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico. It offers crucial habitat for birds, like Bicknell’s thrush, whose summer home is in the mountains of New England and Canada, and the North American warblers that stop in Cuba on their way south for the winter.
Zapata Swamp, on the island’s southern coast, may be notorious for its mosquitoes, but it is also known for its fish, amphibians, birds and other creatures. Among them is the Cuban crocodile, which has retreated to Cuba from a range that once ran from the Cayman Islands to the Bahamas.
Cuba has the most biologically diverse populations of freshwater fish in the region. Its relatively large underwater coastal shelves are crucial for numerous marine species, including some whose larvae can be carried by currents into waters of the United States, said Ken Lindeman, a marine biologist at Florida Institute of Technology.
Dr. Lindeman, who did not attend the conference but who has spent many years studying Cuba’s marine ecology, said in an interview that some of these creatures were important commercial and recreational species like the spiny lobster, grouper or snapper.
Like corals elsewhere, those in Cuba are suffering as global warming raises ocean temperatures and acidity levels. And like other corals in the region, they reeled when a mysterious die-off of sea urchins left them with algae overgrowth. But they have largely escaped damage from pollution, boat traffic and destructive fishing practices.
Diving in them “is like going back in time 50 years,” said David Guggenheim, a conference organizer and an ecologist and member of the advisory board of the Harte Research Institute, which helped organize the meeting along with the Center for International Policy, a private group in Washington.
In a report last year, the World Wildlife Fund said that “in dramatic contrast” to its island neighbors, Cuba’s beaches, mangroves, reefs, seagrass beds and other habitats were relatively well preserved. Their biggest threat, the report said, was “the prospect of sudden and massive growth in mass tourism when the U.S. embargo lifts.”
To prepare for that day, researchers from a number of American institutions and organizations are working on ecological conservation in Cuba, including Harte, the Wildlife Conservation Society, universities like Tulane and Georgetown, institutions like the American Museum of Natural History and the New York Botanical Garden, and others. What they are studying includes coral health, fish stocks, shark abundance, turtle migration and land use patterns.
Cuban scientists at the conference noted that this work continued a tradition of collaboration that dates from the mid-19th century, when Cuban researchers began working with naturalists from the Smithsonian Institution. In the 20th century, naturalists from Harvard and the University of Havana worked together for decades.
But now, they said, collaborative relationships are full of problems. The Cancún meeting itself illustrated one.
“We would have liked to be able to do this in Havana or in the United States,” Jorge Luis Fernández Chamero, the director of the Cuban science and environment agency and leader of the Cuban delegation, said through a translator in opening the meeting. “This we cannot do.” While the American government grants licenses to some (but not all) American scientists seeking to travel to Cuba, it routinely rejects Cuban researchers seeking permission to come to the United States, researchers from both countries said.
So meeting organizers turned to Alberto Mariano Vázquez De la Cerda, a retired admiral in the Mexican navy, an oceanographer with a doctorate from Texas A & M and a member of the Harte advisory board, who supervised arrangements for the Cuban conferees.
The travel situation is potentially even worse for researchers at state institutions in Florida. Jennifer Gebelein, a geographer at Florida International University who uses global positioning systems to track land use in Cuba, told the meeting about restrictions imposed by the Florida Legislature, which has barred state colleges from using public or private funds for travel to Cuba.
As a result of this move and federal restrictions, Dr. Gebelein said “we’re not sure what is going to happen” with her research program.
On the other hand, John Thorbjarnarson, a zoologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, said that he had difficulty obtaining permission from Cuba to visit some areas in that country, like a habitat area for the Cuban crocodile near the Bay of Pigs.
“I have to walk a delicate line between what the U.S. allows me to do and what the Cubans allow me to do,” said Dr. Thorbjarnarson, who did not attend the conference. “It is not easy to walk that line.”...

Posted: 25 December 2007 10:10 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
Total Posts:  992
Joined  2005-11-19

Good story but “...an invasion of U.S. consumerism, a U.S.-dominated future, could roll over it like a bulldozer” when the embargo ends. “

seems a bit too extreme. What are they implying that the US will be too strong or the Cuban government will be too weak? This statement is insulting to Cuba really.


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Posted: 29 December 2007 09:58 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
Total Posts:  86
Joined  2007-07-07

maybe his meaning is simpler
From talking to my American friends, many many would love to visit Cuba, were it not for the embargo.
Once the embargo ends, there will be many many Americans wanting to visit Cuba, and am sure from the Cuban end, both increased acomodation and a change to make Americans feel more like home as has been done elsewhere will occur.
And am sure that in Cuba, as has been done elsewhere, in the hunt for the US$, environmental factors will take a backseat.

“We paved paradise, put up a parking lot”

(Disclaimer, am not in any way shape or form trying to suggest Cuba today is paradise though)

Posted: 29 December 2007 10:04 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
Total Posts:  992
Joined  2005-11-19


This line “...many scientists are so worried about what will become of it after Fidel Castro and his associates leave power…” is kinda funny. I think the scientists should be worrying about the CURRENT state of Cuba’s environment with the filthy polluted Havana harbor and rivers. The sewer and wastewater situation is a disgusting mess in many places and there is some pretty bad air pollution there too.

I guess that was not important to the New York Times author though.

US investors will CLEAN UP Cuba, not pollute it more.


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