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Farming Could Spell Disaster for Cuba’s Coral Reefs

Farming Could Spell Disaster for Cuba’s Coral Reefs
Unbridled agriculture, not tourism, could be the largest threat to
Cuba’s coral reefs, say experts.
05.10.2016 / BY Aleszu Bajak

Last month, a 704-passenger cruise ship — the first to visit in almost
forty years — pulled into Havana harbor, signaling a sea change in
Cuba’s tourism industry. With the American embargo on the country
lifting, droves of tourists will again be able to enjoy not just Cuba’s
historic charm, but its abundant wildlands — including coral reefs that
surround the archipelago.

And that has conservation scientists worried. The island nation is home
to relatively pristine, Galapagos-like habitats like the Gardens of the
Queen, a stunning coral reef teeming with rare species like the goliath
grouper. And while policies that limit the impact of scuba diving,
fishing and other activities are important, experts say that ensuring
the long-term protection of Cuba’s coral reefs will come down to
limiting the impact of another industry poised to flourish there: farming.

As the United States and Cuba normalize relations, agriculture on the
main island is poised for drastic changes. In order to bolster food
security and move towards self-sufficiency, Cuba wants to turn around
its reliance on food imports, which currently account for 80 percent of
its supply. Ensuring that agricultural growth is planned in a
sustainable manner is a top priority among conservation scientists, and
they hope it will be for the Cuban government, too.

In three weeks, scientists from the University of Florida and the Nature
Conservancy, an advocacy group, will meet with Cuba’s Ministry of
Agriculture to discuss sustainable farming and limit the impact of
agriculture on coral reefs. Research from the Caribbean has shown the
two systems to be inextricably linked.

“The quality of the reefs can’t be separated from the land use,” said
Luis Solórzano, executive director of The Nature Conservancy’s Caribbean
program, who will be part of the envoy. “Tourism can concentrate in
specific regions, but agriculture could be from north to south, east to
west. That could have a much larger impact than tourism.”

Of primary concern to Solórzano is the unbridled growth of farming
practices that release excess nutrients and agricultural runoff into
surrounding ecosystems. In places like Barbados, Curaçao and Mexico,
this kind of nutrient enrichment has been shown to disrupt coastal
ecosystems and damage coral reefs.

The scientists meeting with Cuban officials hope to help minimize the
country’s reliance on fertilizers and pesticides as it grows
its agricultural sector. Their solutions include a patchwork of small-
and medium-sized farms that integrate sustainable farming techniques
with pesticide reduction tactics like integrated pest management. The
opposite could be harmful, they say.

“If they revert to a monoculture system, that could be disastrous,” said

Pedro Sanchez, a professor at the University of Florida and former
director of the Agriculture and Food Security Center at the Earth
Institute of Columbia University, agrees. “If [farming] is done the
old-fashioned way, like when the Soviets were there, it will be an
ecological disaster,” he said, referring to the monocultural system
consisting of mostly sugar cane imposed by Cuba’s Cold War ally. “Too
much fertilizer, too much water, too much pesticides. If it’s done
poorly, it will damage the marine ecology.”

Sanchez, who was born in Cuba, will join Solórzano in three weeks for
the meeting. He is optimistic that Cuba can grow its farming sector in a
sustainable way. “We have learned the hard way in other countries,” he
said. “But we know how to do it right.”

Source: Protecting Cuba’s Coral Reefs From Unbridled Farming –

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