Will tourism spoil Cuba’s environment?
Will tourism spoil Cuba’s environment?
By Kevin Spear
contact the reporter Cuba Caribbean Travel Environmental Defense Fund
HAVANA – At a recent international conference on environmental
protection, a Cuban official stressed that her nation’s treasures would
not be polluted, bulldozed or otherwise sacrificed by invading American
“No, no, no,” she said in English, smiling. “Sometimes we lack
resources, but we are not afraid.”
Nearby, a government agent displayed colorful brochures, marketing
Cuba’s dazzling Keys that are akin to the Florida Keys but are still
unspoiled and wrapped with stunning beaches and coral reefs.
The two perspectives in that one exhibit hall at the Cuban-sponsored
gathering last month embodied the looming question of how Cuba will
balance a predicted tsunami of American tourists and the nation’s
celebrated environmental treasures.
“Americans are dying to come and Cubans get that,” said Dan Whittle, a
lawyer and director of Environmental Defense Fund’s conservation efforts
“Most Cubans I know want to be more like a Costa Rica than a Cancun,”
Whittle said. “If they allow Americans to love Cuba to death in the
first couple of years, then its long-term prospects are much worse.”
Costa Rica has protected its natural places for eco-tourism, while
Mexico’s Cancun opted for dense hotel development near coral-rich waters.
That Cuba even has the chance to pick between those two models is thanks
in part to the U.S. embargo that has blunted the nation’s economic
A third model for Cuba is Florida, which has extensive environmental
rules and resources. But they were not implemented soon enough or
effectively enough to spare springs, wetlands and estuaries from
Cuba, too, has sophisticated laws and extensive protected areas, but
they are yet to be tested significantly by development pressure and
remain largely unfunded.
Among Cuban jewels are vast beds of sea grass, extensive mangrove forest
and the celebrated Gardens of the Queen, an expansive reef, thriving
with elkhorn coral that has all but vanished in Florida. Cuba designated
it as a national park in 2010.
Whittle said biologists describe the reef, with its goliath groupers of
nearly 500 pounds, as what Florida’s marine life was until the mid-1900s.
Mary Frances Emmons, an Orlando-based deputy editor at Scuba Diving
magazine, visited the reef last year.
“There were three to 30 sharks on every dive,” said Emmons, who
encountered an incredible display of elkhorn coral while snorkeling.
“It was the biggest stand of elkhorn coral I’ve ever seen in the
Caribbean and it was in great shape,” she said.
Two other environmental jewels are easily reached a few hours southeast
of Habana: the Bay of Pigs and Zapata Swamp, referred to as the
Everglades of Cuba.
A guide, Yeniel Abreu, a national park employee, is fluent in the names
of birds, crabs, snakes and trees, and readily explains the tortured
geology of limestone that rises from the Zapata Swamp and cradles giant
Rocky steps lead to one pool, which is striking for the plunging depth
of its slightly salty water and the rock walls rising above the water.
At another pool, Abreu tossed in a stone, which remained visible for 30
seconds, fluttering as it sank. Abreu said diving in the 150-foot pool
is “like being a fly in the galaxy.”
Also during his tour, he leads groups through jungle perched on a table
of jagged limestone, where there is little indication of a trail, to a
cave with pockets of crystal-clear water, crabs, owls and bats clinging
to the ceiling.
The ladder into the cave is handmade from tree branches. “The idea in
Cuba is to keep it natural,” Abreu said.
Nearby, visitors can park along a narrow blacktop and walk a few feet to
snorkel in the Bay of Pigs where a rich display of coral and reef fish
unfolds at the bay’s edge.
But Cuba does not have a clean slate when it comes to environmental
When the Castro regime took power in the late 1950s, the nation already
had cleared much of its forest for charcoal production, coffee
plantations and other agriculture.
As Cuba pursued Soviet-style development, Havana Bay was polluted with
industrial chemicals and human sewage. Aggressive production goals for
sugar cane and other crops spoiled rivers and natural landscapes and
unleashed extensive soil erosion.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 cut off critical assistance to
Cuba, including fuel, chemicals and machinery. With little choice, Cuba
began a green transformation, turning from big tractors to oxen and horses.
In 1992, at a United Nations summit in Rio de Janeiro, Castro delivered
an impassioned speech about the planet’s plummeting health.
“The forests are disappearing. The deserts are expanding. Billions of
tons of fertile soil are washed every year into the sea. Numerous
species are becoming extinct,” Castro said.
A few years later, Cuba established a ministry for environmental
protection, which led to an overarching law that spawned a host of
specific protections that are “every bit as far reaching as those in the
U.S.,” Whittle said.
Cuba’s environmental agencies came to be staffed, not surprisingly in a
nation of free education, by qualified employees.
One of them, Sonia Orue, said at the environmental conference that her
agency ensures that environmental education starts at an early age in
Orue studied in Holland and Brazil and has advanced degrees in chemical
engineering, waste management and risk management.
Also at the conference was Sebastian Africano, who lives in Colorado and
is international director for Trees, Water & People, a group working to
improve sustainability of communities. He focuses on household energy
and reforestation in Central America.
“I’m blown away,” Africano said, during a conference break, of Cuba’s
environmental laws and expertise. “They are very sophisticated.”
Whittle, who has made more than 60 trips to Cuba in the past 15 years,
said there is vigorous debate among leaders over whether to fully
embrace tourism as the economic driver or strike a more careful balance
between tourism development and conservation.
He predicts some of that will be resolved next April during what will be
only the seventh congress of Cuba’s communist party.
“The U.S. won’t determine Cuba’s future,” Whittle said. “The Cuban
people will do that. The Cuban government will do that. And nobody has a
crystal ball to say what they will do.”
Source: Cuba’s environment is in cross hairs of tourism – Orlando