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Discover Cuba’s Six UNESCO Biosphere Reserves: How a red country went green

February 19, 2021 | by James Corporal

For many tourists looking for a sunny getaway, Cuba conjures images of long white sandy beaches, crystalline seas, 1950s American Cadillacs, big cigars, Che Guevara, and Mojitos. Very few people are actually aware that Cuba is one of the planet’s front-runners in natural conservation and sustainability.

Indeed, there is a reason as to why there are long white sandy beaches and crystalline seas. Overall, there are currently 11 UNESCO Biosphere Reserves throughout the Caribbean islands and six of these are in Cuba, each one protecting a diverse range of habitats and wildlife.

Read on and find out how this unique Caribbean island leads the way in sustaining a myriad form of natural life.


A bit about UNESCO, Cuba and accidently preserving this natural paradise

If you’re unsure exactly what UNESCO is, or what it sets out to do, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation is an agency of the United Nations set up in 1945 to promote world peace and security through international cooperation in education, the sciences, and culture.

Specifically, its founding mission is to advance peace, sustainable development, and human rights by facilitating collaboration and dialogue among nations. It pursues this objective through five major programme areas. These areas are education, natural sciences, social and human sciences, culture, and communication.

Cuba has been a member of UNESCO since 1947 but to understand the real reason how Cuba ended up as such a "Garden of Eden", we have to go back over 50 years. Cut off from the Western world by trade blockades and embargos, President Fidel Castro chose a different course and focussed on trade with the Eastern Bloc. So, while other Caribbean islands were developing resorts to accommodate the tourist boom of the 1960s and 1970s, Cuba was protecting the natural wonders and endemic wildlife it possessed.

When the Soviet Union collapsed and withdrew support for Cuba in the early 1990’s, Castro had to rapidly rethink his economic strategy, relinquishing the Soviet industrial model in favour of something far more sustainable.

After the landmark UN Earth Conference in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, Castro set about amending the constitution to safeguard land, air, and water resources, becoming one of the first leaders in the world to do so.

There is a poetic irony that when Castro turned his back on mass tourism during these solitary years for Cuba, the result is that Cuba now holds the ace card. The island’s biosphere reserves, and natural, untouched wonders are key to Cuba’s travel and tourism industry today and will be in the future too. People come from all over the world to see flora and fauna that simply doesn’t exist elsewhere.

It’s estimated that half of the 7,000 species of plants in Cuba are endemic, as well as nearly 80% of the animals too. Cuba really should be just as famous for its sustainable policies and biosphere reserves as it is for its laidback lifestyle and catchy music.

Sustainability and conservation are genuinely part of the Cuban DNA. In fact, the WWF named this captivating island as the most sustainable country in the world in 2016.

Discover Cuba’s six Biosphere Reserves

In order to further understand how important conservation and sustainability is in Cuba, let’s look in detail at each of the six Biosphere Reserves.

Sierra del Rosario Biosphere Reserve

Pinar del Rio

Covering over 26,000 hectares on an old 19th century coffee plantation, Sierra del Rosario underwent a huge reforestation programme and was named Biosphere Reserve by the UNESCO in 1985.

Cubania Travel cyclist riding the gentle hills of Sierra del Rosario

Following the reforestation programme, the area is now full of lush, evergreen forest where an estimated 900 species of endemic plant-life now thrive. These forests are home to over a 100 species of bird, many of them endemic to Cuba.

This nature reserve is also home to Las Terrazas, a large area of unspoiled land and a small village, founded in 1971.

Previously made uninhabitable by deforestation and the resultant erosion of soil, Las Terrazas is now a self-sustaining community made up of 273 families and 1,300 inhabitants, all surrounded by a total of over six million planted trees. The inhabitants mainly work in handicrafts, cattle-raising, agriculture and maintaining the forests. It has become a paradise for local flora and fauna and a haven for migrating and emigrating birdlife.

Visitors can now go birdwatching in the woods, hike the mountain trails amongst the indigenous flora, swim in the natural waterfalls and lakes, or explore the forests on horseback and bicycle.

Cuchillas del Toa Biosphere Reserve

Guantanamo

Next to the Alejandro de Humboldt National Park in Cuba’s mountainous north-eastern corner is Cuchillas del Toa Biosphere Reserve.

Travellers taking a selfie in banks of Toa river

The area is known for its diverse array of flora and fauna, of which there are hundreds of endemic species. Some of Cuba’s most endangered species can be found in Cuchillas del Toa, such as the Cuban solenodon – one of the world’s only venomous mammals.

Recognised as one of the most important sites for preservation in the western hemisphere, and one of the areas with most biodiversity in the world, Cuchillas del Toa reserve covers 208,000 hectares of land and sea as it extends out to the coral reefs offshore.

Despite being a massive expanse of land, everything is in miniature here! Cuchillas del Toa is home to the world’s smallest frog, measuring in at just 10mm in length, and the 60mm bee hummingbird, the world’s smallest bird.

There are also parrots, parakeets, amphibia, reptiles, manatees, Polymita – the multicoloured snail – molluscs and some scientists still think the Royal Woodpecker inhabits the hidden areas of this reserve, despite the last sighting of it being thirty years ago.

Guanahacabibes Biosphere Reserve

Pinar del Rio

The Guanahacabibes peninsula is located in Cuba’s far south-west corner, stretching across over 120,000 hectares of land, including Guanahacabibes National Park.

Flamingos feeding in the shores of Guanahacabibes Peninsula

Due to its location in the Gulf of Mexico, this exposed finger of land jutting out into the sea is extremely vulnerable to seasonal hurricanes and it was significantly damaged by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and Hurricane Wilma in 2005.

However, the Guanahacabibes Reserve is noted for its diverse range of beautiful landscapes, including mangrove forest, coastal areas, and grasslands, some 100 lakes and marshes, caves, as well as the largest and purest fields of silica sand found in Cuba, estimated at being 99.8% pure.

In terms of wildlife, Guanahacabibes boasts almost 200 species of birds, including the famous "zunzuncito" hummingbird – the world’s smallest bird.

In addition to this, four of the seven species of marine turtles on the planet have survived and thrived here on the Guanahacabibes Peninsula. The uninhabited beaches are important nesting sites for both green and loggerhead turtles.

The Peninsula was also home to the "Guanahatabeys", one of the last surviving indigenous peoples after the Spanish conquest, and as a result, there are some 150 archaeological sites connected to their lost lives and culture.

There are a few small hotels in Guanahacabibes, all of which focus on ecotourism, as well as the usual excellent “casas particulares” in the villages of La Bajada and Sandino.

Guests and visitors can hike, dive the waters, cycle, and observe the fascinating avian and turtle life.

Baconao Biosphere Reserve

Santiago de Cuba and Guantanamo

Declared a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 1987, the Baconao Biosphere Reserve is located in the south-eastern region of Cuba, not too far from Santiago de Cuba, known as Cuba’s most Caribbean city, and founded by the Spanish conquistadors.

Sierra Maestra mountains in Baconao National Park, in the background the Caribbean Sea

Spanning 84,000 hectares between the majestic Sierra Maestra Mountains and the Caribbean Sea, the reserve is a mixture of tropical forests, cloud (or fog) forests, coastal regions, and caves.

What’s interesting about the caves is that a number of Cuba’s threatened endemic species of bats (the Funnel-Eared Bat, Bulldog Bat, Pallid Bat and the Cuban Fruit Eating Bat) live here, along with nearly 2,000 species of plants and numerous indigenous species of reptiles and mammals.

The people who live in this area of Cuba are principally engaged in ecotourism, forestry, cattle raising and cultivating coffee or fruit. Baconao Biosphere Reserve attracts nearly 100,000 local tourists and well over 250,000 foreign visitors every year. Many of these come not for its natural wonders but to gaze at the life-sized dinosaur sculptures or visit the outdoor car museum!

Cienaga de Zapata Biosphere Reserve

Matanzas

Located on the southern coast of Cuba in the province of Matanzas, Cienaga de Zapata is one of the largest and most diverse biosphere reserves in Cuba and is the biggest wetlands area in the entire Caribbean region. Designated a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 2000, it covers almost 630,000 hectares, and is made up of grasslands, various types of forest, coastal regions, and coral reefs.

Swamps in Cienaga de Zapata in Matanzas province

Cienaga de Zapata is home to a large population of two species of crocodile – the Cuban crocodile which is highly endangered, and the American crocodile. There is a large hatchery, dedicated to preserving both species through enforced protection and breeding programmes.

Not far from crocodile hatchery, you’ll find a small centre dedicated to the "manjuari", a prehistoric fish which is found in the rivers and lakes of this part of Cuba. Also known as the Cuban gar, this endangered species has a distinctive reptile-like bill for a mouth.

The coastline is surrounded by smaller islands and lagoons within large, relatively unspoiled coral reefs – perfect for the 175 species of birds, such as the great flamingo, Zapata Wren, Zapata Rail, and the Zapata Sparrow which all reside here.

Ecotourism is one of the main focusses at Cienaga de Zapata, and over three quarters of a million people visit the area annually. As Cienaga de Zapata contains numerous protected zones and areas, all long-term projects for conservation and sustainability targets for the use of the land must be met.

Buenavista Biosphere Reserve

Villa Clara, Sancti Spiritus and Ciego de Avila

The Buenavista Biosphere Reserve was declared by UNESCO in 2000 and now covers over 310,000 hectares in the centre of Cuba’s northern coast. The area consists of sand and rock beaches, various types of forest, archaeological sites and complex cave systems which show fascinating wall paintings by the indigenous people who lived here.

Tourist enjoys the view of mangroves in a lagoon near the sea in Caguanes Park

Buenavista covers more than 20 kilometres of beaches, possessing the biggest dunes in Cuba, swamps where aquatic birds breed, mangroves, and forests. There are two national parks located within the Biosphere Reserve: Caguanes and Cayo Santa Maria.

Within the boundaries of these National Parks, over 230 plant species and more than 800 animal species, of which almost 200 are endemic, have been registered.

The inhabitants of the area work in ecotourism, handicrafts, traditional medicine, apiculture, traditional agriculture (sugar cane), fishery, forestry, and community agriculture.

Each year, nearly 10,000 tourists are estimated to visit the area, coming to fish, dive, and hike. This tourism also focusses on the conservation of traditional practices carried out by local communities, using natural resources, thus strengthening the cultural identity there.

Many environmental education programmes as well as several international scientific projects are undertaken in the Reserve too. Current research activities include the ongoing conservation of beaches and research projects on the mangroves.

Taking steps to preserve paradise

So they paved paradise, put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique and a swingin’ night spot
They took all the trees and put ’em in a tree museum
And they charged all the people an arm and a leg just to see ’em
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone
They paved paradise put up a parking lot

Do the lyrics seem familiar? Joni Mitchell certainly thought so. It’s possible that she wrote the song about the 1960s tourism boom in the Caribbean. While air travel democratised and Europeans and Americans came to the Caribbean in their droves, just about every island built up their open spaces with holiday resorts, hotels, beach apartments and golf courses.

The result was a short-term boost to their respective economies, but a long-term problem regarding drawing a line in the (fast disappearing) sand. At what point do you stop building? If tourists are coming for the natural beauty of a tropical island, at what point must you stop developing on it?

Zunzun, protected species found in many of Cuba's Biosphere Reserves

Cuba is less affected than most by this conundrum. Cuba’s constitution has protected its natural resources since the 1990s so this beautiful country is in a better position than most when it comes to preserving its land and oceans and sustaining flora and fauna.

As a result, Cuba is unrivalled when it comes to endemic plant and animal life, and it was ranked as the world’s most sustainable country on the Sustainable Development Index, a report that measures a country’s CO2 emissions and life expectancy.

Taking steps to promote "sustainable tourism" in Cuba is of paramount importance to ensure that Cuba remains a place for endangered species to thrive, and local communities to flourish. But how can we do this?

Primarily, you have to be serious about engaging in ecotourism from the off, and that goes right down to the travel company you use. Seek out travel companies that show how they protect and preserve the environment, support the local economy, as well as respecting the local culture.

These companies will be happy to display their responsible tourism policy and will be making conscious efforts to support local business while reducing their carbon footprint.

You can take important steps towards sustainability by using locally owned accommodation and restaurants instead of chain hotels and resorts, as well as using environmentally friendly ways of getting around. Obviously, visiting by foot or by bicycle are the most environmentally friendly ways of getting to know a local area and they can be a lot more fun than simply jumping in a taxi or hiring a car.

Eating local food will also contribute to making your holiday sustainable, as will staying in locally owned casas particulares. This is why Cuba’s fantastic network of these typically Cuban B&Bs are the best option for accommodation, as they support the livelihoods of the local people that run them.

Farmers drive their horse drawn carriage around Las Terrazas

Likewise, paladares, often set up in people’s own homes, are an unmissable way of sampling genuinely home-cooked cuisine made from the organic produce grown in Cuban soil.

Choose a sustainable holiday to Cuba

Visiting Cuba and helping to contribute to the island’s sustainability programmes has never been easier with Cubania Travel. Our focus on ecotourism aligns with that of Cuba’s, and we’re determined to play our part.

Cuba is definitely on the right track as far as conservation and sustainability goes, and every other nation on the planet could take a leaf out of the Cuban book in this regard.

Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone? Individually, just by forming a small part in sustainable tourism, each of us may one day get to tell our grandchildren that they may see a Hawksbill sea turtle one day, before it disappears forever.

Written by

James Corporal

James Corporal - Avid cyclist and cubaphile.

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