The Nature of Cuba

Tiny frogs. Vast swamps. Pristine rivers. Whether by design or default, the island boasts the Caribbean's best-kept wildlands. But for how long?

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Such a place already exists, I say.

“What’s the standard of living?” the mandarins ask.

Well, I’d say, it’s one of the poorest nations in its hemisphere, and the economy is so screwed up that doctors work as housekeepers because they can earn six times the hard cash they get for being a surgeon. Then I point out that the government is not a democratic republic but a Communist police state.

That, of course, is the rub. It is unlikely that there will be a stampede among nations to replicate Cuba’s path toward sustainable development. In Cuba, Communism and poverty have not proved as disastrous for nature as they have elsewhere. In Soviet Russia, the need for productivity spurred central planners to pursue agricultural policies that poisoned rivers and destroyed lands on an epic scale. In contrast, Cuba’s move toward organic farming has had beneficial side effects on bird and fish populations. Farmers have learned to live with a trade-off in which they tolerate birds eating some of their crops as a type of wage for the birds’ work controlling pests.

It is easy to be seduced by Cuba’s beauty, but some ecologists temper their enthusiasm for Cuba’s future. MacPhee wonders whether ecological trends in Cuba are as healthy as they seem at first blush, and contrasts the island’s future with that of Puerto Rico, once a prime example of honky-tonk development. Cuba may have more of its original forests left, says MacPhee, but Cuba’s poverty and dependence on agriculture means that wildlands remain under threat. In Puerto Rico, he says, the forests have staged a remarkable recovery since World War II as the economy has shifted away from crops.

In the United States, practically anything concerning Cuba arouses passion and even anger, and the island nation’s environment is no exception. Sergio Díaz-Briquets, a consultant with the Council for Human Development, and Jorge Pérez-López, a U.S. Labor Department economist, have authored a recent book, Conquering Nature, arguing that socialism has harmed Cuba’s ecosystems and that any recent “greening” of the Castro regime is cosmetic. They describe ZapataSwamp as a wounded ecosystem that faces dire threats from drainage schemes, peat extraction and wood cutting for charcoal.

But Eric Dinerstein of the World Wildlife Fund, the author of one study cited by Díaz-Briquets and Pérez-López, disputes their interpretation of the evidence. In fact, Dinersten says that the ZapataSwamp appears better off than wetlands elsewhere in the Caribbean. Anew, unpublished edition of his study, Dinerstein adds, shows that Cuba is making progress by increasing the acreage of protected wetlands.

Likely as not, Cuba’s natural areas will be buffeted by colossal forces when the nation, now on the threshold of a dizzying political and economic transition, opens up. Not all of Cuba’s 11 million people necessarily share their leaders’ austere ideology, and many may want to satisfy material aspirations. Conservationists fear that Cuban exiles will return to their homeland with grand development plans, undermining environmental safeguards. There are precedents. In Russia during the Soviet years, apparatchiks trampled forests and polluted rivers out of ignorance; now many of those same officials, turned capitalist, plunder nature for profit.

Cuba just might be different. A network of protected areas is in place, and the regime’s singular blend of oppression, poverty and environmentalism has created an unusual wealth of wildlands. To me, that legacy was embodied in a ruined old estate in the forest overlooking TacoBay. Before the revolution, the estate was owned by Americans remembered by locals today only as “Mr. Mike” and “Mr. Phil.” The ghostly villas have no roofs, and strangler figs slowly crack apart the remaining walls of the crumbling building. To some, the sight is a sad reminder of a lost way of life. But it’s also a sign that nature, given a chance, will prevail.


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