On a winding road not far from the vibrant colonial city of Santiago de Cuba, we stop to admire a particularly stunning coastline of cliffs, coves and beaches that seems to stretch to infinity. And just inland are the towering Sierra Maestra. The lower slopes are a patchwork of grasslands and trees that give way at higher altitudes to dense forests. Clouds form, disperse and tatter around the peaks.
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The road is empty, and no passing car disturbs the sounds of the surf and wind. “If I were a developer,” I say to Antonio Perera, an ecologist and former director of the Cuban government agency that oversees protected lands, “this is where I would site my hotel.”
“In that case,” he says, “I’d be fighting you.” Chances are, he’d win: Perera once helped defeat a plan to widen and straighten this very road.
During a recent 1,000-mile trip through Cuba to see its wildlands at this pivotal time in its history, I saw a lot of unspoiled territory that is largely a monument to battles that Perera and his colleagues have won: swamps bursting with wildlife, rain forests and cloud forests, grasslands and lagoons. Perera says 22 percent of Cuba’s land is under some form of protection. The percentage of safeguarded environment in Cuba is among the highest of any nation, says Kenton Miller, chairman of the Switzerland-based World Commission on Protected Areas.
As wildlife and habitat have disappeared from the region, Cuba’s importance as an ecological bastion has steadily risen. As one scientist put it, Cuba is the “biological superpower” of the Caribbean. The island has the largest tracts of untouched rain forest, unspoiled reefs and intact wetlands in the Caribbean islands. Cuba also is home to many unique, or endemic, species, including the solenodon, a chubby insectivore that looks rather like a giant shrew, and the bee hummingbird, the world’s smallest bird, weighing less than a penny.
Condos and hotels carpet large parts of the Caribbean. Population pressures and poverty have turned much of Haiti into a denuded moonscape that bleeds topsoil into the ocean every rainy season. Cuba’s environment, too, has in the past suffered the ill effects of unchecked logging, the conversion of lowlands into sugarcane fields, urban overdevelopment and pollution in HavanaBay. Still, with its anachronistic rural life and largely healthy ecosystems, the island is a sort of ecological Brigadoon, offering a vision of the Caribbean of long ago. Neat thatch-roofed villages line quiet roads; litter-free highways connect provincial cities whose approaches are graced by tamarind or guaiacum trees. Large populations of migratory birds flock to Cuba—ducks, vireos, sapsuckers and woodpeckers—and wetlands hold a gorgeous profusion of warblers, egrets, herons and flamingos.
Whether Cuba can continue to remain a holdout is, of course, a great question. Much of the nation’s ecological health can be chalked up to planning by Fidel Castro’s regime, to be sure; but Cuba is an elysian vision also by default. Roads are unlittered partly because there’s nothing to litter. During the Soviet era, which ended in 1991, Cuban industry and agriculture, boosted by Soviet support, proved highly polluting, but now many factories and fields are idle. Population pressure is not a problem; indeed, thousands risk their lives each year to flee. A recent analysis by the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal ranked Cuba as the world’s second most repressive economy, behind only North Korea.
But unlike North Korea, Cuba seems on the verge of change. Commerce abhors a vacuum, and it appears that this beguiling island cannot indefinitely resist development. Spanish, Canadian, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, German, French and other investors have taken advantage of the 43-year-old U.S. trade embargo to forge their own trade relationships with Castro’s government. And the pressure to develop the island is likely to increase if—or when—Cuba resumes trade with the United States.
John Thorbjarnarson, a zoologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York, has worked in Cuba for several years. He says that although development poses a threat to Cuba’s ecology, the nation “stands head and shoulders above anywhere else in the Caribbean in terms of government support for conservation.”
Once out of the Holguín airport, where we started our improvised ecotour, we seem to travel back in time. Oxcarts and bicycles abound, and evidence of modern construction or technology is scarce. Very little in the way of consumer goods manages to get into Cuba, partly because the government is broke but also because officials micromanage decision making about imports to a grinding halt.