Bracing themselves for burgeoning tourism, Cuban environmentalists and their international counterparts focus on conservation efforts
Ever the revolutionary, the Commandante of the Revolution, Guillermo Garcia Frias, speaks of preserving the Cuban environment in terms of a fight to the death:
“We will be better equipped soldiers to fight for life on the planet,” Garcia said of what he hoped to see come out of a conference on coastal ecosystems that was held on the Ancon Peninsula in south-central Cuba in early November.
Garcia is head of a Cuban-government-run corporation, La Empresa Nacional para la Proteccion de la Flora y Fauna, which, simplistically stated, has the task of overseeing every plant and animal in the communist island state.
It is for this reason Garcia was seen at the opening of an international trade fair days before in the company of Naples resident and cattleman J. Parke Wright. Wright wore a large gray Stetson hat while he showed the uniformed Garcia two of the first dairy cows exported to Cuba from the United States since a trade embargo was enacted more than 40 years ago. Wright was at the fair hoping to negotiate future contracts, in addition to one he currently holds to export the first beef cattle from Florida since Fidel Castro took power in 1959. And Garcia was there looking at the agricultural wares more than 70 U.S. companies were offering.
But later in the first week of November on the Ancon Peninsula at an all-inclusive beachfront hotel, Garcia was opening a second annual conference attended by international environmentalists.
“We should not feel satisfied with what we have attained but continue working toward (conservation),” he said. “Nature is grateful, and she will reward you with a better world.”
Cuba has a vested interest in that better world. In fact, since the Soviet Union’s collapse led to a total withdrawal of Cuban economic supports, the Cuban government has turned toward tourism as its primary means of revenue—if an estimated $1 billion annually in remittances from friends and relatives outside Cuba is overlooked. What the Cubans realize is that if they don’t maintain their island’s natural environment and beauty, they won’t attract tourists.
John Fitch, a professor of environmental studies at Florida Gulf Coast University who attended the conference, says Southwest Florida should be so lucky to have such a clean slate.
“This is an area that has yet to be exploited as far as the environment. That’s not to say there aren’t some problems here,” said Fitch, who directs the university’s Institute for Sustainability. “What has been lacking in Southwest Florida is being able to start at the beginning. We don’t have the luxury in Florida to really build the eco-tourism infrastructure that we need.”
Cubans, on the other hand, have that luxury.
“The real challenge is if you don’t plan for eco-tourism, if you don’t set the thresholds, if you don’t build the infrastructure, then you degrade the ecosystems Cuba has,” Fitch said. “Cuba has a very interesting opportunity right now. The thing that gives me a lot of optimism is they seem to understand and value that.”
For each of the past two years, foreign tourism has remained a steady 1.8 million. Until the early 1990s, the number of foreign tourists in Cuba could be counted in the thousands annually. Now the Cuban government has set the goal of 10 million tourists a year by 2010.
An environmentalist and a biologist say Americans—and Floridians in particular—need to care about this.
“We share similar ecosystems and similar animals,” said Ilze Berzins, a fish veterinarian and biologist who is vice president for biological programs at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa.
The Ocean Conservancy’s vice president for environmental policy, David Guggenheim says Cuba and the United States—Florida again in particular—share the same resource: the Gulf of Mexico.
“Cuban fish grow up to be American fish,” said Guggenheim, who is a past president of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. “Sea turtles that nest on Cuban beaches forage in American waters, and vice versa. It is one ecosystem, and we have to treat it that way.”
And so Berzins was in Cuba exploring ways to further relations with Cuba’s National Aquarium.
“I look at it as the ability to assist in conservation efforts on a regional (level),” Berzins said. “Any effect that they’re going to have could affect our waters.”
Guggenheim and Ocean Conservancy President Roger Rufe were there seeing how their organization’s resources could tie in with the work of Cuban scientists.
The Ocean Conservancy has been focusing on Cuba’s Gulf Coast, which runs from Havana to the western tip of the island. Guggenheim said the area is sometimes referred to derogatorily as the Cinderella Region, because it is the poor stepsister, a neglected coast that has never been studied comprehensively.
“The good news is that it’s also been neglected in terms of development,” Guggenheim said.
The Ocean Conservancy has a four-step approach to helping Cuban scientists study the area: 1. Map the region; 2. Map the critical habitats of manatees and sea turtles; 3. Study the impact of pollution of reefs and fish populations; and, 4. Roll the information together and provide recommendations to the Cuban government.
Already the Ocean Conservancy has found the Cuban government amenable to suggestions. Rufe said his organization was able to help the Cubans write the Coastal Zone Management Act of 2000 by bringing copies of California state law on which to base it.
Any problems with government that American organizations have had, in fact, have been with the U.S. government. Rufe pointed out that WWF-Canada is able to help in ways the Ocean Conservancy cannot because of the embargo.
“It’s getting much easier to do our work in Cuba through the Cuban government,” Guggenheim said, “but it has gotten next to impossible to do our work because of the U.S. government.”
He cited exchange programs with Cuban scientists as one impossibility. And last year, the Ocean Conservancy applied for a U.S. Treasury Department license so its scientists could continue to visit Cuba. The application process took two weeks. This year, in reapplying for the same license, it took four months.
No immediate improvement is on the horizon. At the threat of a presidential veto, Congress recently removed a provision that would have lifted a ban on American travel to Cuba. And President Bush has resolved to tighten the limited travel that had been allowed. The embargo and its travel ban is intended to end the authoritarian rule of Fidel Castro, who took over in a socialist revolution in 1959.
While the politics in the United States are tightening the screws on organizations like the Ocean Conservancy that want to exchange knowledge for the good of the environment, those same organizations are pressing forward. At the same time, so too are their Cuban counterparts.
“In the face of economic challenges,” said Mike Garvey of WWF-Canada, “Cuba has become known for its conservation efforts.”
In the next five to seven years the Cubans intend to place as much as 25 percent of their land and surrounding waters in marine reserves. Additionally, Cuba plans to phase out marine trawling completely over the next 10 years.
“That is brave, and that is ground-breaking,” Guggenheim said, and he said he intended to hold that up as an example upon his return to the United States.
Berzins noted too that the Cubans seem to be ahead in terms of conservation education.
In a secondary school in the town of Las Terrazas in the Pinar del Rio province west of Havana, that conservation education begins in first grade.
Las Terrazas is a town of about 1,000 inhabitants in the midst of the Sierra del Rosario Biological Reserve, a 12,000-acre preserve that was completely deforested half a century ago. In 1968 reforestation began, along with an experimental town that was intended to coexist in harmony with nature. Six million trees were planted with 27 species of hardwood, the hillsides were terraced, and the 80-house, 10-apartment-building town of Las Terrazas was founded.
From the mountain mahoe trees that are harvested on a limited basis, Cubans make baseball bats. And in the shade of carob trees grows coffee—a far cry from the sprawling coffee plantations that had covered these deforested hills for almost 200 years.
In 1985 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) named the area Cuba’s first biosphere reserve. In 1991, the 26-room Hotel Moka was built in order to attract eco-tourists for bird-watching and hiking.
“It’s a social project where man, history and culture play an important role,” said Freddie Ramirez, who works for the park. “We need tourism to carry out the social project, otherwise it would not be possible.”
Part of carrying out that project is creating a new generation to act as stewards of the land.
On the wall of a first-grade classroom in the town school is painted a mural of a happy bluebird about to alight on the branch of a tree, where an equally happy squirrel is just about to munch on an acorn. It looks like a mural that could be on the classroom of any elementary school in the United States. Outside the door of the classroom is painted a 8-foot portrait of Fidel’s head in profile. On another building is painted a portrait of Celia Sanchez, and on another, Camilo Cienfuegos—heroes of Castro’s revolution. None looks as happy as that squirrel about to munch on an acorn.
Inside the classrooms, the children are taught of sustainable development and living environmentally responsible lives. Outside, they are reminded of their leader and his ongoing revolution. And from above, appropriately, fall from a real tree leaves that are silver on one side and dark brown on the other, this characteristic leading to its name, “yagruma,” or “two-faced tree.”
From here where these children pose for a snapshot in the shade of a two-faced tree west of Havana, to the east, where families hug their goodbyes in the glare of the sun and a sleepy yellow three-legged dog at the Cienfuegos airport, international politics hit home. And while the governments of Cuba and the United States may continue to remain at odds, the people, the families, the children of both countries continue to forge toward reconciliation, only sometimes daunted.