The other Cuban revolution

Posted on April, 28 1999

Having survived years of careless exploitation and tumultuous political and social change, Cuba is setting an example to the whole of the western hemisphere with its enlightened environmental policies
Havana, Cuba: This island has had its share of disasters, delivered by both nature and man, but one of the country's most consistent strengths lies in its natural resources. Cuba boasts the highest number of plant and endemic species in the West Indies. It is a land of extremes with some of the smallest existing species of wildlife, such as the butterfly bat and the bee hummingbird, as well as the world's largest shrews.

The socio-economic development policies in the first half of this century have left Cuba a poor country - like many of its neighbours in Latin America. A few powerful individuals and foreign corporations controlled the country's wealth, while illiteracy, poverty and lack of medical services contributed to a desperate situation among a large proportion of the population.

In 1959 the island's natural resources were severely damaged when there was a massive shift from mixed agriculture to sugar cane, leaving natural vegetation in only 14 per cent of the country. Further threats to Cuba's capacity for long-term sustainability came from poor land-use practices, pollution and over logging, often driven by short-term economic and political demands. This has resulted in deforestation, loss of wetlands and rampant tourism, which is growing at a rate of 30 per cent annually.

The socialist revolution addressed social needs in Cuba, and the one-party regime transformed all aspects of society. One highly significant change was a drive for environmental conservation rare in Latin American countries. This emphasis led the country to take a longer-term view of planning while stressing integrated approaches to sustainable development.

Since the revolution, vegetative cover has increased to just over 17 per cent, and Cuba now has the lowest deforestation rate in Latin America and the lowest human population growth rate.

These statistics are a source of pride and encouragement to Cubans engaged in the conservation struggle. More than 2 per cent of the world's flora are found in Cuba, and approximately 51 per cent of Cuban flora is endemic. New species are still being discovered in the more remote areas.

Opportunities for success in conservation and sustainable use are probably higher in Cuba than anywhere else in the western hemisphere. This is because Cuba has accepted sustainable development as an official government policy with the goal of seeking solutions to its needs in both the short and long terms.

"Cubans are not only highly trained and professional, they are extremely motivated to work hard and to co-operate with one another," says Steven Price, international programme director of WWF- Canada.

For more than ten years, the conservation organisation WWF has been funding conservation and development projects in Cuba. Its Cuba Programme has a five-year conservation plan to restore eco-systems and encourage conservation of the island's natural treasures. The plan aims to advance the conservation of biological diversity, to promote sustainable use of natural resources while reducing environmental contamination and waste, and ultimately to safeguard essential ecological processes.

Other WWF initiatives include support for the infrastructure of Turquino and Desembarco del Granma National Parks, and projects to band and analyse the habitats of migratory birds as well as to protect parrots and sandhill cranes. WWF is also increasing protection of the Alejandro von Humboldt National Park, and supporting the Cuban National Museum of Natural History.

In addition, the Canadian International Development Agency recently joined WWF on a conservation and development project in the largest and most important wetland in the Caribbean, the Cienaga de Zapata. This 500,000- hectare wetland is home to thousands of migratory species, as well as several endemic birds, such as the bee hummingbird.

WWF plans to increase its conservation investment in Cuba in the coming years. "A modest investment of funds yields a tremendous conservation dividend," says Steven Price.

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Elizabeth Agnew is Cuba Programme Director for WWF, based in Toronto, Canada.