On a global scale, environmental conservation is a recurring theme, and more than just a fleeting trend, now features within many countries’ legal, economic and socio-political frameworks, above all as a clear and daily example of humans’ relationship with their natural surroundings.
Considering Cuba’s importance to biodiversity conservation in the Caribbean, efforts to protect the country’s flora and fauna are a priority for the Cuban government.
As well as organizing actions in honor of World Environment Day, celebrated every June 5, initiatives dedicated to environmental protection are continuously carried out throughout the year in Cuba. The country also benefits from institutions which organize projects and programs for elementary school children, while others develop programs involving young people and adults and senior citizens.
World Environment Day was established in a United Nations General Assembly resolution, approved December 15, 1972, following the organization’s Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm, June 5-16 that same year.
1973 saw the start of the first global environmental summits organized by the UN, one of the most important of which was held in 1992 in Río de Janeiro - also known as the Earth Summit – at which time ecological problems and environmental damage, such as deforestation, desertification, erosion, and global warming, among others, had reached troubling proportions.
The event sparked important debates, many of which are still applicable today, such as those led by the leader of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro Ruz.
The discussions addressed the decline of biodiversity in different regions around the world due to changes in natural habitats, the result of urban and in particular industrial development, which produce polluting gases and substances.
As Fidel rightly stated, it is consumerist society which on the whole causes the greatest damage, thus it is obvious that the most affected countries are also the least developed.
This year World Environment Day coincided with the 7th Summit of the Association of Caribbean States (ACS) held in Havana, meanwhile UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon made a global call to protect wild plants and animas from illicit trafficking, noting that elephants are being killed for their ivory, rhinoceros for their horns, and pangolins for their armor.
He warned that illicit trafficking has contributed to a rise in endangered plant and wildlife species, including sea turtles, tigers, and certain trees. In a year dedicated to wildlife, the UN senior official urged the organization’s 193 member states to adhere to and implement international instruments designed to protect the environment, according to Prensa Latina.
Furthermore, during the conference entitled “The Caribbean tackling the challenges of climate change,” which took place in the context of the 7th ACS Summit, regional experts stated that global temperatures have risen between 0.8ºC-1.0ºC, which when also taking into consideration the regional economic situation, noted that changing weather patterns in the zone could pose a threat to regional development.
Therefore, transport, sustainable tourism and disaster preparedness in the main ACS zones were key issues on the meeting's agenda.
THE STARTING POINT
Shortly after the Earth Summit in an article published in a professional journal, experts from Cuba’s Institute of Ecology and Systematics stated that certain issues continued to hinder the successful implementation of existing legal requirements, given the lack of mechanisms to hold persons or entity accountable, despite the fact that Cuba is a longstanding adherent to the CITES convention - an international treaty drawn up in 1973 to protect wildlife against over-exploitation, and to prevent international trade from threatening species - and at the time of the report, there existed over 70 scientific institutions linked to biodiversity conservation efforts, while the country had also created multiple legal structures and organizations working to protect the environment.
The very same experts confirmed that Cuba subsequently adopted over 10 international accords and agreements on biological biodiversity, and has developed over 30 legal instruments to that end. They highlighted that the 1990s saw new environmental protection guidelines drawn up; the creation of the National Biodiversity Center; environmental protection laws modified and reformulated; work to implement measures established in Resolution No.1 of 1994 on biological protection undertaken; and agreements on state environmental inspection carried out; in addition to other important measures on the supply and sale of seeds, the creation of organizations to oversee the comprehensive development of mountain regions, implementation of Plan Turquino-Manatí, and other initiatives geared toward protecting the environment.
Committed to complying with established environmental protection norms, the government, relevant institutions and nature-lovers, are continually perfecting efforts and developing their knowledge in order to turn Cuba into a shining example of environmental conservation.
Efforts are being carried continually to educate more citizens about maintaining and keeping cities clean, and that if before 1959 campesinos were forced to cut down hardwood trees, damaging the forest, in order to have a little piece of land where they could grow food, it was in order to survive; while today, there still exists a fair amount of arable land where crops can be grown without affecting forests.
According to writers of the colonial era, a person could walk the entire length of the island shaded by its abundance of trees. However, that was over five centuries ago. Since then millions of hectares of forest have been felled, burned, practically eliminated, causing the permanent loss of untold amounts of precious woods, and with them animals and plants. The damage was so severe that in 1800 only 58% of forests on the island remained, while 159 years later that number dropped to 14. Today, efforts are underway to recover wooded areas which had almost completely disappeared and increase the number of trees which cover Cuba’s various mountain ranges.
The consequence of such predation was the disappearance of habitats belonging to a range of plant and animal species, a significant number of which are currently endangered or extinct, such as the guacamayo or papagayo (Cuban macaw) considered to be one of the most beautiful birds on the island.
As such, the Cuban government and environmental protection institutions in particular are working to increase the country’s forest area to 29.4%. Since the triumph of the Revolution to date, wooded areas have more than doubled. According to ANC the most recent figures show that forests currently cover 28.66% of national territory. The article also notes that more than 180 different species of tree have been planted, 77% timber-yielding and the rest fruit-bearing.
In Cuba, there exist 211 protected areas dedicated to the conservation of the island’s natural, historic, and cultural riches, representing 20% of national territory - almost one million hectares - across the island’s 4,295 cays and islets scattered between the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea.
According to a source from the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment, around 25% of these protected areas cover surrounding waters and 17% land, while a large number are managed by the ministry itself, and include various types of protection such as Plant Reserves, Animal Sanctuaries, Ecological Reserves, and Managed Resource Protected Areas.
Among these feature National Parks, such as Turquino, La Bayamesa, Alejandro de Humboldt, and Desembarco del Granma. Despite the fact that the latter two have been declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites, all possess noteworthy natural qualities and have been sites of important historical events in the country. Meanwhile, several of the island’s protected areas have also been designated Ramsar Sites - a wetland designated as of international importance - by global experts, such as the Máximo-Camagüey River wetlands, home to the largest population of pink flamingos in the Caribbean, as well as the Cauto River in the province of Granma, an important habitat for crocodiles.
Despite the fact that a large number of animals throughout the country have become extinct, the result of indiscriminate hunting or the destruction of their natural environment, Cuba - with its diverse ecosystems and natural landscapes - continues to have the largest variety of plant and animal species in the Caribbean.
In regards to animal life, according to experts, the fact that Cuba is an island means that species are concentrated within a single location, with some inhabiting only specific areas. According to experts on the subject, there are over 12,000 species of animals in Cuba: 450 types of vertebrates, over 7,500 of insects and arachnids, while the island is also home to more than 4,000 different species of mollusk. In regards to marine life, its worth noting that Cuba has some of the most diverse coastlines in the Caribbean, with around 600 different species of fish, 60 of coral and over 180 sponges.
Dr. Vicente Berovides, professor at the University of Havana’s Biology Faculty, notes that records of species extinction only officially began in the 19th century, with the onset of natural sciences studies in the country. He states that Ramón de La Sagra’s1845 work, Historia Física Política y Natural de la Isla de Cuba, includes the indigenous names of animal species, many of which the author never encountered during his time, and were presumably extinct during the colonial period, without a single document on the issue remaining. Berovides notes that at that time, in the 19th century, the Cuban guacamayo was thought to be officially extinct; however the bird was still common in Ciénaga de Zapata in 1850.
Another three species of animal and one of bird were officially recorded as extinct by the 20th century. These included the San Felipe and Garrido Bush Rat, and Mediterranean monk seal, which despite not being native to Cuba did live in and around its waters.
According to experts the monk seal probably disappeared around the late 20th century, as there still remained some in the Bahamas in 1974, but by 1990 an expedition aiming to locate their whereabouts found no trace of the animal. Meanwhile, theivory-billed woodpecker, which once lived in the mountains of Sagua Baracoa, was declared extinct in the 1980s.
The island also has an estimated 6,200 interesting species of flora (approximately 51% of them exclusive to Cuba): including around 300 different species of wild orchid, to cite just one example.
The long, wide shape of the island, in addition to its geographical position, and complex geological structure, among other features, have given the country a unique climate, wide variety of soils and immense wealth of flora and fauna; hence the importance of conservation initiatives for educational, scientific, recreational and touristic purposes; vital to national conservation efforts in areas which, given their many natural qualities, present special conditions.
Cuba is also home to virtually unexplored areas: virgin forests, uninhabited cays and islets, with natural beaches and crystal clear waters. It is therefore unsurprising the previously unheard-of species or archaeological sites which abound the country are being discovered in these places. Sites inhabited by the indigenous population of Cuba are often found in the most remote areas of the island - almost a dozen of which are internationally recognized, such as the Guanahacabibes Biosphere Reserve, Sierra del Rosario, Ciénaga de Zapata, Buenavista, Baconao and Cuchillas del Toa, as well as the Alejandro de Humboldt and Desembarco del Granma national parks, also declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites.