By Smithsonian Magazine | Associated Press
Tiny frogs. Vast swamps. Pristine rivers. Whether by design or default, Cuba boasts the Caribbean’s best-kept wild lands, writes Eugene Linden in the May issue of Smithsonian magazine.
The percentage of safeguarded land in Cuba is among the highest of any nation, and it has the largest tracts of untouched rain forest, unspoiled reefs and intact wetlands in the Caribbean, Linden writes.
This ‘‘biological superpower,’’ as one scientist calls it, is home to 354 species, 21 of them unique to the island, including the solenodon, a chubby insectivore that looks rather like a giant shrew, and the bee hummingbird, the world’s smallest bird, weighing less than a penny. As wildlife and habitat disappear from the region, Linden found that Cuba’s importance as an ecological bastion has been rising steadily.
Condos and hotels carpet large parts of the Caribbean. Population pressures and poverty have turned much of Haiti into a denuded moonscape that bleeds topsoil into the ocean every rainy season. Cuba’s environment, too, has in the past suffered the ill effects of unchecked logging, the conversion of lowlands into sugarcane fields, urban overdevelopment and pollution in Havana Bay. Still, with its anachronistic rural life and largely healthy ecosystems, the island is a sort of ecological Brigadoon, offering a vision of the Caribbean of long ago, Linden says.
Whether Cuba can continue to remain a holdout is a question. Some of the nation’s health can be chalked up to planning by Fidel Castro’s regime, to be sure; but Cuba also is an elysian vision by default. Roads are unlittered partially because there’s nothing to litter. During the Soviet era, Cuban industry and agriculture proved highly polluting, but now many factories and fields are idle. Population pressure is not a problem; thousands risk their lives each year to flee.
A recent analysis by the Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal ranked Cuba as the world’s second most repressive economy, behind only North Korea.
But unlike North Korea, Linden says, Cuba may be on the verge of change. Commerce abhors a vacuum, and it appears that this beguiling island cannot indefinitely resist the pressures of development, which will only increase if or when Cuba resumes trade with the United States, he writes. As Cuba hovers on the brink of political and economical transition, it struggles to balance preservation and progress.