Cuba Environmental Protection A Mixed Picture
Sunday, March 31, 2013 at 5:47 by Tom Palmer
I'd been wondering about environmental management in Cuba for several
Recently I had an opportunity to learn more about it first-hand during a
10-day trip organized by Audubon.
Like things here in Florida, it's a mixed picture.
Cuba has set aside quite a bit of land for conservation to protect its
unique wildlife species, though trapping of wild birds for the pet trade
continues with little regulation.
Pollution and waste management regulations appear to have some ways to go.
It's the largest island in the West Indies and many species that breed
in the United States migrate to or through Cuba, making its conservation
management important to the survival of some North American species.
I learned that about 20 percent of Cuba's land has some kind of
conservation protection in a network of preserves that include mountain
and lowland habitats as well as marine ecosystems.
We were interested in birds primarily. There are more than 20 species of
birds found only on Cuba. They range from the bee hummingbird to
Gundlach's Hawk. Many are hard to find outside of some very local
There are hundreds of other endemic species ranging from snakes and
turtles to butterflies and bats,
One positive thing is that the Cuban government understands the value of
A Cuban biologist accompanied us on our tour and our tour group used
local guides to find species in certain parts of the island.
That provides local people with incentives to study and to preserve
their unique wildlife.
Cuba's national bird is a species called the Cuban trogon, which is a
striking bird species related to species found in the Southwest United
States and the quetzals in Central America.
It was fairly widespread in rural forests.
By the way, our group saw or heard 162 species, including all of the
Cuban endemics except the Zapata rail, which may be extinct.
One troubling aspect of bird protection in Cuba is the long-standing
cultural habit of capturing wild birds and putting them in cages at
homes or in restaurants.
We were in one restaurant that had a mockingbird, a Cuban bullfinch and
a Cuban parakeet in cages.
Students at one school we visited in Havana are collecting data on this
issue, By the way, this is a problem in Miami, too. Wintering painted
buntings are a popular target there, according to Tropical Audubon
Society, the local chapter.
We were told in one of the lectures that was arranged as part of out
tour by tour guides employed by the Cuban government, that the U.S.
trade embargo has helped environmental protection by limiting outside
development pressure on natural areas in Cuba.
However, that's not the whole picture.
When were on the Zapata Peninsula, the only known habitat for some
species, I learned that the only reason we were able to take a bus trip
into parts of it was because of a road built in anticipation of a peat
mining venture that never occurred. That resulted in the protection of
this extensive expanse of sawgrass that looks somewhat likes parts of
Everglades National Park.
There is extensive modern tourist-related development on Cayo Costa, a
barrier island off Cuba's northern coast. We spent the last three days
of the trip at one of several beachfront resorts there that were full of
Canadian and other non-U.S. tourists.
I did learn that before the resort development began, the Cuban
government set up a coastal research center to gather data on the area's
natural resources to guide development projects to mitigate the impact
as much as possible. That's probably the opposite of what would have
Scientists at the center said they continue to do extensive wildlife
surveys and regularly update the area's management plans.
The area reminded me of the Florida Keys in two ways.
There was beautiful clear water and large stands of native habitat,
though I did learn that some of it was second growth forests originally
cleared for charcoal production, a main source of fuel for cooking in
rural areas of Third World countries.
However, despite the work to protect or restore conservation lands
outlined in the planned lectures, I found some problems when I was out
on the land.
I saw extensive dumping of construction debris and other materials on
some side roads near the resorts. I also learned that recycling
programs, which could have diverted this waste, are pretty minimal. I
saw a lot of recyclable trash ranging from cans to scrap iron along the
roadsides, though some it was no worse than what I find in some rural
areas of Polk County.
I did see a couple of guys at one beachfront area collecting aluminum
cans out of trash barrels to turn in for money, but less than they wood
in a private market economy.
Sewer treatment and water pollution regulations appeared to be laxer in
We visited a sewer impoundment to look for birds. While we were there, a
septic tank truck drove up the crew opened the valves and dumped
everything raw into the pond, which had no aerator as is typically
The industrial plants belch black smoke, though there don't appear to
be too many of them.
The numerous older American and Russian-made cars that are a common
sight certainly lack modern pollution control systems, but the good news
is that there aren't that many cars on the road in Cuba.
Even on some of the main highways there were stretches were I saw as
many horse-drawn carts and bicycles as cars and trucks. Mass transit and
ride-sharing seem to be commonplace out of necessity.
The water in many of the rivers I saw was algae green. I didn't see
much in the way of stormwater retention anywhere, though rooftop
cisterns to collect water for household use and larger structures in
farming areas were common.
Cuba's a beautiful island with many still intact ecosystems, but
protecting them will require more work.