Four more from Cuba for World Wetlands Day 2002



Posted on 30 January 2002  | 
Wetland ecosystems make up around 20% of the Cuban archipelago. In 2001, the country joined the Ramsar convention under which wetland sites of national and international significance are listed for protection. As part of its accedence to the Ramsar convention, Cuba nominated the 600,000 hectares of protected wetland that constitute the Cienaga de Zapata, not only the largest wetland in Cuba but in the whole Caribbean.

Now, in time for World Wetlands Day on the 2nd February 2002, Cuba is preparing to nominate four other Ramsar wetland sites. The WWF, with support from the Canadian Development Agency, have already partnered the CNAP (Centro Nacional para las Areas Protegidas ) to implement a one million US dollar, 6-year conservation program for the wetlands of the Cienaga de Zapata and they have also supported the project to identify suitable additional sites.

The four proposed sites are dispersed across the island and have their own distinct features. Though they have different characteristics, the goal, based on the success of the work already underway in the Cienaga de Zapata, is the same in outline for all of them: to ensure conservation and protection for the area through site management activities since the existing economic activities are not sufficiently controlled or monitored and could pose a threat to these unique and fragile ecosystems.

The Cienaga de Lanier, the largest of the proposed sites, lies at the southern end of the Isle of Youth and consists of approximately 88,000 hectares of wetlands and 38,000 hectares of marine platform. The area includes various biospheres including semi-deciduous forest, coastal lagoons and mangroves and swamp grasses. The site hosts over 500 species of flora and over 50 of fauna including many endemics such as the 23 varieties of land snails that have so far been identified.

The Cienaga de Lanier is one of Cuba's most important archaeological sites with considerable evidence of pre-Columbian settlements. There are few modern inhabitants though. There are various small towns just outside the designated area but within its confines, there is just one village of three hundred inhabitants, the aptly named Cocodrilo. The people of Cocodrilo are mainly engaged in fishing and forestry but the picture is about to change as two hotel developments are planned on the magnificent beaches of Punta del Este. The imminence of tourism makes it even more important for the conservation policies to be firmly in place and funded to ensure that the fragile ecosystem suffers minimal damage from development. Within the wetland site, the current threats to the environment are seen as coming from forest fires, poaching and over-fishing, but future risk assessment all points to the major threat coming from tourism.

The management of this large area of protected wetland is in the hands of several agencies, overseen by the Ministerio de Ciencia, Tecnología Y Medio Ambiente. The team of rangers whose job it is to monitor the environment on the ground is dedicated but inadequate to cover such a large area. Plans for improving the sustainable management of the Lanier include working with primary school children from surrounding towns and the village of Cocodrilo itself to rise awareness of the local wildlife and habitats.

Cuba's longest river, the Cauto flows into the Gulf of Guacanayabo in the east of the island in Granma province. The 48,000 hectares of the Cauto delta with its complex of estuaries and lagoons is another of the wetlands to be proposed as a Ramsar site this year. This site provides the usual rich biodeversity but its special feature is as a breeding ground to many species of reptiles, fish and aquatic birds, notably the pelican and flamingo. The site is divided into three areas. the Boca de Cauto Norte is made up of large fresh and salt-water lagoons. The Boca de Cauto Sur provides the most important marine life being almost enitrely salt water and the Brazo la Puente is made up of seasonally flooded swamp grasses and mangrove. Economically, the delta relies heavily on the fishing industry, there are two fishing cooperatives here, a shrimp farm and several fresh water fish farms. The nearest town of any size is Bayamo, half an hour away, but within the area itself there are only two small villages. The Cauto delta wetland is managed by the Flora and Fauna protection division of the Ministry of Agriculture and despite limited resources, there are already 13 conservation and research projects in place. In keeping with the WWF experience in the Cienaga de Zapata, grassroots education takes a high priority in the Cauto delta. The ministries of education, culture, and agriculture have cooperated in community and local school projects.

In the north of Villa Clara province, the wetland site of Buenavista falls within a UNESCO approved biosphere reserve but paradoxically the managers of this site which include CITMA and the Provincial delgation of Sancti Spiritus complain that this site has for some reason not been granted sufficient legal protected status. They are on the very edge of an area of rapid tourist epansion, notably the cayos of La Bruja and Santa Maria reached by a 58 kilometre causeway whose construction has adversely affected the interflow of ocan currents. They list vandalism and trespass as potential threats to the ecosystem and deplore the lack of all the resources that full legal protection would provide them. The particular interest of the Buenavista site is its labyrinthine cave system, one of the most complex in Cuba which brings its own distinct variety of flora and fauna amongst which several species of bats.

The smallest wetland site proposed is the 22,000 hectares of the Maximo-Cagüey site almost exactly 55 km due north of Camagüey. The particular interest of the Maximo-Cagüey wetlands is that they provide the largest nesting site in Cuba for phoenicopterus ruber ruber, the elegant pink flamingo who provide a stunning sight when up to 100,000 gather here during the nesting season.

Whether the Ramsar convention will accept one or all of Cuba's nominated wetlands remains to be seen. What is certain is that the country has a proven record of good environmental policies, what it lacks often is the resources to implement them. International environmental and conservation agencies like WWF has been working with the government and local partners in Cuba to conserve various important ecosystems; approval by the Ramsar convention would go a long way to helping conserve Cuba's wetlands.

For more information:
Lisa Hadeed, email: lhadeed@wwfint.org

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