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Accidental Eden: keeping Cuba green

December 12, 2019 | by James Corporal

The famous marine explorer Jacques Cousteau kick-started sustainable initiatives in Cuba all the way back in the 1980s when he suggested that Castro protect the country’s considerable natural riches. Decades later as the country is named the most sustainable place in the world, we look at the ways the island is staying green.

“My first dive in the waters of Cuba serves as a moment of truth… around me, large fish among flourishing coral, a reef more rich than any I have seen in years.”

Said the renowned ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau upon seeing Cuba’s coral gardens.

Part by accident and part by design, Cuba has the healthiest marine ecosystem in a region estimated to have lost half of its coral cover. Up on land, the island is thriving too – with vast unspoilt areas of wilderness providing a habitat for rare wildlife.

From the UNESCO recognized dream-like landscape of Vinales Valley in the west to the emerald-clad peaks of the mighty Sierra Maestra in the east, natural heritage sites, national parks and biosphere reserves abound in Cuba.

The country has a strong history of environmental protection, even buffering its mangroves from beach resort developments while many other Caribbean islands ripped them out. In fact, Cuba was named the world’s most sustainable country in the recent Sustainable Development Index, and there are some very good reasons why.

Castro, Cousteau and Cuba

In a country famously “frozen in time”, the clock has stood still both above and below the water. Cuban government policy and an accident of history have combined to conserve nature’s riches. While the rest of the Caribbean developed rapidly over the last half century, industrialisation stalled in Cuba after the 1950s revolution, ensuring its waters were less polluted.

Then a visit from Jacques Cousteau in the eighties, to film his “Cuba, Waters of Destiny” documentary, convinced the former Cuban leader Fidel Castro to protect the country’s underwater habitats. As an avid scuba diver himself, Castro had a personal stake in preserving Cuba’s bountiful marine life and banned fishing trawlers from scouring the seabed. Today, almost a quarter of Cuba’s waters are protected by law – that’s compared to a paltry 2-3% of offshore waters in the rest of the world.

According to independent research, the vitality of northern Cuba’s reefs far surpasses the damaged reefs of Florida, only 90 miles further north, making it a great place to catch a glimpse of a sub-aquatic paradise undisturbed by pollution and marine traffic.

Five hundred years since Columbus discovered the islands, naming Cuba’s Gardens of the Queen or “Jardines de la Reina” after Queen Isabella of Spain, the area is still completely pristine too. An underwater garden of delights, it has been described by marine biologist David Guggenheim as a “living time machine” that shows the Caribbean’s reefs as they were 60 years ago. Divers report seeing goliath groupers and species rarely seen elsewhere such as mature queen conch and elkhorn corals – a barometer for thriving reefs.

Cousteau not only played a role in protecting Cuba’s waters, but he helped Castro become more ecologically minded. At the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 Castro called for the developed world to:

“Stop transferring lifestyles and consumer habits that ruin the environment to the Third World.”

Safe haven

Castro was keenly aware that mass consumerism destroys the environment, and later that decade he decided to enshrine environmental protection in national law, creating a set of world-class regulations and eco protections under Law 81 that would ensure a sustainable future for Cuba.

Part of his plan to preserve the natural world for future generations was the creation of Biosphere Reserves, National Parks and other Protected Areas throughout Cuba, some of which, like Vinales, have become UNESCO-listed for their unique beauty and endemic wildlife.

And it’s not only the island’s wildlife – strange endemics such as painted snails and the tiny tocororo bird – that have benefitted. Birdlife and all manner of migrating species come from as far away as Canada and the East Coast of the USA, traversing the Gulf of Mexico to shelter in Cuba for winter. Limited human intervention and its geographical position mean that the Cuban islands continue to be an attractive haven for an immeasurable number of birds, turtles and other creatures looking for sanctuary.

Future proof

With tourism growing exponentially, and new resorts popping up in key spots across the island, the next decade will be vital in maintaining Cuba’s stance on sustainability. Like many of the region’s nations, Cuba is betting on tourism to bolster its economy, and plans to triple the number of visitors by 2030.

Although it benefits from environmental protection, plastic pollution is as big an issue in Cuba as it is elsewhere. A “make do and mend” mentality persists among locals who may choose to reuse plastic containers and bags for other things, but the rise in tourism places a heavier plastic burden on Cuba.

One way visitors to the island can help to minimise their environmental impact is with reusable water bottles. And Cubania has partnered with Water-To-Go to provide reusable bottles to its clients, making it easier for travellers to reduce plastic waste. It’s estimated that every Cubania Water-to-go bottle used can eliminate up to 400 single-use plastic bottles from going to landfill, while at the same time ensuring cost-effective, safe clean drinking water.

Ideally suited to keep the adventurous travellers that Cubania hosts in Cuba fully hydrated, the water bottles contain a filter that removes 99.9% of all microbiological contaminants, viruses, bacteria and chemicals from any non-saltwater source.

It’s a small step, but a key initiative in conserving Cuba’s natural bounty.

Written by

James Corporal

James Corporal - Avid cyclist and cubaphile.

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