Cienaga de Zapata wetlands benefit from grassroots education programmeSanto Tomás, Cuba - The Gallinela de Santo Tomás, or Zapata rail, is an odd-looking bird. Mainly brown and grey with a green bill and red feet, its wings are so short that it can barely fly at all. This bird, endemic and unique to the Cienaga de Zapata wetlands of Cuba, has recently become the subject of particular interest to local children.
In the village of Santo Tomás, the "friends of the birds" club meets regularly to study the gallinela, along with many of the other 160 species living in this unique ecosystem that includes 18 of Cuba's 22 endemic species. The children of Santo Tomás are learning that they share their part of the world with the Cuban parakeet, blue-headed quail dove, the world's smallest bird, the zunzuncito or bee-hummingbird, and the brightly coloured tocororo � symbol of Cuba itself.
The "friends of the birds" club is just one of the many grassroots environmental education projects established in the region as part of a broad-based wetlands conservation and management programme funded in part by WWF in partnership with Cuban government agencies.
The shoe-shaped Zapata peninsula lies 156km southeast of Havana and extends east and west of the Bay of Pigs. The area to the west of the bay is a national biosphere reserve and the largest and best-preserved wetland in the Caribbean. Cuba designated the 600,000-ha Cienaga de Zapata reserve when they acceded to the Ramsar convention in 2001. The area is sparsely populated; around 9,000 people are scattered in small villages like Santo Tomás and the western reaches are uninhabited. Historically, charcoal burning was the main occupation of the cianagueros, the swamp people, and it wasn't until the revolution that the area was accessible to the rest of the island at all. Now, the inhabitants of this richly diverse ecosystem are mainly engaged in fishing, hunting, and, increasingly, in eco-tourism.
Though somewhat short on people, the Cienaga de Zapata harbours more than 900 species of flora, 31 species of reptiles, and 12 species of mammals, including the endemic rodent, the pygmy jutía. The diverse ecosystem includes marsh grass, mangrove thickets, and swamp forests of dense marabú.
Some national parks did exist in Cuba before the revolution, but with little in the way of regulation or funding. While environmental conservation was an early priority for the revolutionary government, it wasn't until 1980 that effective legislation was introduced and several nature reserves were created across the island. In 1985, conservation received another boost when UNESCO began working with Cuba to select sites, collect data on biodiversity, and prioritise conservation areas. In 1991 a new national system of protected areas was established and 12 per cent of Cuba's territory was protected virtually overnight.
Although it has difficulties with adequate resources and trained personnel, Cuba is rightly held up as an example of good practice in its environmental policies. In fact at the Rio summit of 1993, Cuba was one of only two countries to receive A+ rating for implementation of sustainable development practices. In 1997 a new environmental law was passed which gave teeth to the existing structure and policies. A system of protection is now in place that covers 30 per cent of the island, including its marine platform. Protected areas include 14 national parks and four biosphere reserves of which Cienaga de Zapata is the largest.
Cuba's admirable environmental policies have attracted international funding from several agencies keen to help with some of the technological and human resources needed. WWF was one of the first to commit resources to the country, and for the last fifteen years has been involved in planning the conservation of a selected network of Cuba's ecoregions, including wetlands. Now, with support from the Canadian Development Agency, WWF has formed a partnership with the key government conservation agency, the CNAP (Centro Nacional para las Areas Protegidas), to implement a $1 million, 6-year conservation programme for the Cienaga de Zapata wetlands.
Environmental education at a grassroots level forms an important part of the programme. Located close to the entrance to the park, the centro de educación ambiental provides a small museum that displays a scale model of the park and some of the most important flora and fauna found within it. A series of classrooms have been built next to the museum, where environmental education is provided for local residents and guides, managers, and tourist agencies.
The Ministry of Education is also involved: village schools have incorporated environmental units into the regular curriculum. Extra-curricular clubs and activities such as Santo Tomás children's "friends of the birds" club carry the message beyond the classroom.
The success of the Zapata wetland programme has led to similar initiatives in other parts of the island. While the Cienaga de Zapata is the largest and best known of Cuba's wetlands, 20 per cent of the archipelago is made up of wetlands and WWF is also supporting a project to identify additional Ramsar sites. Four sites have so far been identified, each with its own particular characteristics, but the model of environmental education and strong grassroots involvement that has proved so successful in the swamps of Zapata remains the same. Wherever there is a wetland village in Cuba, there are likely to be young "friends of the birds".
*Claudia Lightfoot is a teacher, writer, and translator of Cuban literature based in Havana.