A Cuban Conservation Challenge
The easing of the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba brings significant conservation impacts.
The biological links between Cuba and the United States are considerable, particularly in the marine world where ocean currents don’t recognize international maritime borders or embargoes. The fish larvae, coral, and crustaceans as well as migratory sea turtles, sharks, and marine mammals flow between the two countries, seeking healthy habitats in order to survive. The U.S. lies upstream from Cuba and depends on Cuban biodiversity for the health of its coastal habitats from south Texas to Massachusetts.
Since the U.S. and Cuba began to normalize relations in late 2014, the number of U.S. visitors to Cuba have increased 70 percent. The full easing of the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba will open the country to an even greater influx of visitors from the U.S., drawn to Cuba’s unique culture as well as marine and terrestrial environments.
While Cuba has instituted strong coastal development measures, how well will they hold up in the face of major tourism waves from the U.S.? Will Cuba become the next Cancun? Cuba is our last chance to do things right in the Caribbean. Normalizing relations between the U.S. and Cuba brings significant conservation impacts but also opportunities to apply market-based approaches to conservation.
Top 5 Lessons for Conservation in Cuba
1. Science can break down barriers. Science is an avenue for exchanging ideas and connecting people on common ground. Sharing resources and solutions and assessing threats are keys for science diplomacy. The U.S. and Cuba were politically separated by the U.S. embargo, but environmental conservation paved the way for the two countries to address common and immediate needs despite tense politics.
2. Respect is critical when working on a Cuban conservation project. Planning to include everyone in the project at the start will ensure that everyone’s needs are met.
3. Science in Cuba has a very long history and solid reputation. Cuban science is of exceptionally high quality and prestige. Founded in 1861, the Cuban Academy of Sciences predates its American counterpart (The National Academy of Sciences) by two years.
4. The Cuban government is very receptive to science when making policy decisions. Cuba is a centralized system, so decisions are more straightforward. The government makes all the decisions, but with an ear toward how these decisions affect natural resources and human communities. They also set high goals, having announced that 25 percent of the Cuban archipelago will be protected by 2020. They’re already halfway there.
5. Cuba has enacted very progressive environmental legislation. These laws have done a good job of regulating coastal growth in particular, which is valuable because Cuba is biologically special. 50 percent of the 3,000 of plants in Cuba are endemic. Home to the smallest hummingbird and smallest frog in the world, 284 species of birds that breed in the United States nest in Cuba. There’s an incredible flow of biology between Cuba and the U.S.
About the Author
Fernando Bretos (2011 Fellow) directs the Cuba Marine Research and Conservation Program. Throughout his career he has collaborated on major marine biodiversity expeditions, coral reef health studies, and marine wildlife conservation programs. Fernando also directs the Trinational Initiative for Marine Science and Conservation in the Gulf of Mexico and Western Caribbean, a multinational program initiated in 2007 to restore coastal and marine resources shared by the three nations of the Gulf of Mexico: Cuba, Mexico, and the United States.
Fernando is also the Director of MuVE at the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science, a volunteer-based habitat restoration project that empowers South Florida residents to restore urban coastal ecosystems such as mangroves, dunes, and tropical hardwood forests. As Curator of Ecology he is also helping to design marine science-based exhibits for a 250,000 square foot state-of-the-art museum and aquarium where the museum will move in 2016. Fernando is a 2010 Audubon Together Green Fellow. He holds a master's degree in marine affairs and policy from the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a bachelor’s degree in biology from Oberlin College.