S.O.S. for Cuba`s natural environment*

  "Childhood memories"

"Trees had not yet been turned into furniture and chickens ran raw through the landscape"

Nicanor Parra

By Carlos Wotzkow

From its location in the middle of the "American Mediterranean" (in the northern Caribbean), the Cuban archipelago has, thanks to the abundance of its natural resources and its favorable geographic location, held a permanent appeal for professionals and amateurs concerned with the natural environment. The great diversity of its flora and fauna, as well as its unspoiled landscapes, makes it home to many unique endemic species. A lack of resources has prevented scientists from studying this natural heritage in depth, which, combined with the current economic crisis, the unbridled powers enjoyed by the government-supported development enterprises, and the bureaucracy and duplication of tasks in the institutions responsible for the rational utilization of natural resources, is now threatening to rob the island – and all of humankind – of a large part of this marvelous natural patrimony.

The inevitable impression derived from visiting any of the country`s main natural reserves is comparable to witnessing the execution of a death sentence. The many examples of environmental degradation observed within the various protected areas all have one thing in common: the accelerated destruction of untouched nature by dubious economic interests. This article hopes to provide a wake-up call to Cubans and foreigners alike to somehow keep these treasures from being stripped away in such a deplorable and irreparable fashion. The only goal of these few lines is to plead with everyone to stop and think before turning over these precious lands to such inappropriate uses.

Biosphere "Cuchillas del Toa"

Located in the Sagua-Baracoa mountains at the eastern tip of the island, this reserve covers much of the northeastern territory of Cuba`s Oriente province. With its great diversity of flora – ranging from exuberant misty mountain rainforests to ancient pine forests, evergreen forests, and secondary woods – this area recently came to the attention of the world`s scientific community due to the rediscovery, on March 16, 1986, of one of the rarest of all species of woodpeckers. In fact, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis), thought to have become extinct, maintains its last habitats here.

The incredible preservation of many of these original forests has made them the optimal last survival refuge for many other rare and fascinating species such as the Almiquí (Solenodon cubanus), the Hutias (Capromys sp.) some species of bats and birds as the Gundlach`s Hawk (Accipiter gundlachi), the Cuban Parrot (Amazona leucocephala), the Cuban Parakeet (Aratinga euops), the Bee Hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae), the Cuban Trogon (Priotelus temnurus), the Cuban Tody (Todus multicolor) and many others. In addition the least known reptiles abound, along with such precious molluscs as the Polymita, as well as the most astounding invertebrates, most notably the Cuban Transparent-Winged Butterfly (Gretta cubana), and the Gundlach Swallowtail Butterfly (Parides gundlachianus), species of great size and beauty.

Unfortunately, the above birds and mammals are threatened by feral dogs (abandoned by humans) that prey on them regularly. Likewise, the uncontrolled digging of mollusks for commercial purposes is probably a determining factor in the precarious survival situation of the Hook-billed Kite (Chondrohierax u. wilsoni). The damage resulted of the migratory agricultural methods introduced at the Biosphere by the "Plan Turquino" (a governmental project supported by Raúl Castro to promote food self-sufficiency in remote areas) has resulted in calamity. The slopes are cleared for cultivation, but, after a year or two, the topsoil is washed by rain. New areas, cleared year after year, are irreparably lost to nature. That is why, in a manner largely invisible to the human eye, hundreds of species of insects are disappearing from Cuba, most of them never even known to science. Very simply, organisms are extinguished that we never knew existed, vanishing without a trace, impoverishing the land we all inhabit.

Nonetheless, the foregoing concern must take second place behind a project that Cuba is carrying out in cooperation with the People`s Republic of North Korea. Without a doubt, a worldwide alert should be raised about a hydroelectric project underway on the Toa river, including the diversion of the Duaba to merge these two rivers. If this project is carried forward to completion and human folly detains water behind a barrier 80 meters high, the result will be the flooding of a large portion of this natural reserve, as well as of the small unique human settlements that have long coexisted in Cuba in full harmony with nature, relying on the harmless cultivation of cocoa and coconuts at the edge of the forest.

If it really proves impossible to halt this onslaught, the flooding will also cover much of the canyons of the Toa, Duaba and Jaguaní rivers, thereby waterlogging the island`s most important forests. Then the songs of birds and insects, the use of the rivers by inhabitants, and the beauty of these pristine places will appear henceforth only in mediocre television specials, never again in real life.

"Ciénaga de Birama and Laguna Leonero"

These vast wetlands, located just southwest of Oriente province, are one of the most important areas for migratory bird research, thanks to the great abundance of migratory species that they attract, mostly waterfowl. Some years ago, within the swamp, there was created an international hunting club rented out exclusively to Italian sportsmen. Within this center for hunting activities lies the "Laguna Leonero", whose fauna is extremely rich and diverse in terms of its biodiversity. Numerous colonies of Double-Crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus) and Anhingas (Anhinga anhinga), several species of herons, Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus), White Ibis (Eudocimus albus), Roseate Spoonbill (Ajaia ajaja), Flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber), Black Hawks (Buteogallus anthracinus), Ospreys (Pandion haliaetus), Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus), shorebirds, seagulls, ducks, doves, owls, and passeriformes are some of the birds inhabiting this reservoir.

Laguna Leonero is, in addition, a key location for the observation of such migratory species as the Black Skimmer (Rynchops niger), the Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus), and the Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus), which are found here in numbers unprecedented in other reserves on the island. But the hunting to which the entire lagoon area has been opened, together with the evident immunity accorded in today`s Cuba to anything paid for in dollars, has given unbridled license to non-professional hunters to shoot at species protected by the hunting legislation, hastening the extermination of endangered species, such as the birds of prey.

Despite this abuse and exploitation, the main problem does not concern this sui generis manner of expanding the list of game species, but rather, involves the growing salinity of the aquatic ecosystem. Taking advantage of the condition of the lowlands lying east, north and south of the swamp, large tracks have been set aside for rice cultivation. Therefore, great quantities of pesticides – such as DDT, DDE, and other organocloride products (prohibited in many countries because of their harmful effects on human health and ecosystems) – are regularly dropped by crop-dusting planes and, from there, flow into the lagoon and surrounding areas via a vast irrigation network.

Concurrently, the intensive deforestation carried out in the Sierra Maestra (63% since 1992) has caused the Cauto river, the country`s largest, to shrink to nothing more than a trickle during the dry season. This impoverishment of the river flow reduces the water going into the wetlands where salinization has begun to increase alarmingly. Thus, the nutrients upon which many microorganisms, crustaceans, fishes, and birds depend have all but disappeared. The inert necks of the Double-Crested Cormorant chicks that have starved to death can be found hanging over the rims of their nests. During 1991, the lakeshore was covered with dead fish. These are only a few of the innumerable symptoms, albeit ignored, indicative of serious dysfunction in the ecological equilibrium of the Leonero biotope.

Added to all of the above are the large number of fishing cooperatives operating in the Birama Swamp. The unlimited hunting of American Crocodiles (Crocodylus acutus), Cuban Land Tortoise (Pseudemys decussata), and native fishes such as the Cuban Perch (Cichlasoma tetracantha), which are both consumed locally and exported commercially, is being carried out in a totally irrational manner and in complete violation of the CITES treaty to which Cuba is a signatory.

"Cayo Coco protected area"

This immense key off the north of Camagüey province – to which it has been administratively connected despite the absurd whims of Cuba`s 14 provincial divisions – is one of the largest protected areas within the Cuban archipelago. It is covered with great expanses of fairly well-preserved semideciduos forests and, while the coastal flora is quite important, the interior forests are the major natural refuge the year around for dozens of migratory and local species (mostly passeriformes). Flocks of Cormorants, Flamingos, seagulls, herons, Ibis, shorebirds, Fregata birds (Fregata magnifiscens), Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis), and isolated groups of Roseate Spoonbills, and other individuals from such rare species as Wood Storks (Mycteria americana), Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis), Caracaras (Polyborus plancus), Black Hawks, Peregrine Falcons, and Merlins (Falco columbarius), are frequent inhabitants of the marshes and their sparsely wooded surroundings. Nevertheless, Cayo Coco, like so many other areas, has not been exempt from the degradation of its natural environment.

Tourist projects, initiated with the participation of foreign businessmen (mainly Spaniards), has caused the destruction of a large quantity of natural forests due to the building of an unnecessary network of roads, along with the first wave of bungalows and hotels that remain vacant most of the year. To this must be added a notable increase in human activity and the production of charcoal which have had adverse effects on the local fauna.

Without minimizing the above-mentioned aspects, in the vicinity of Cayo Coco, an even more aggressive degradation of nature has taken place, rivaling even the example of the Aral Sea (in Russia). It consists of building new roads after filling up the seabed with rocks and soil. These are the sadly celebrated "pedraplenes" (stone embankments), one of Fidel Castro`s pet ideas, which now threaten to turn much of the island`s marine platform into an enormous lake of rotten salt water.

Promoted by technocrats who support and stimulate development as the only way out of the current economic crisis, these stone embankments have proved to be a barrier to the free circulation of shallow ocean waters, so crucial in preventing increases in temperature and salinity due to constant evaporation and the effects of solar rays. Since 1991, the mangroves have been losing their leaves and, subsequently, the subaquatic equilibrium has shown signs of alteration. In that same year, along the embankments extending more than 20 km between Cayo Coco and the northern coast of Camagüey, which has only 10 very short overpasses, we saw huge quantities of dead fish floating along the east side, the still waters there showing a marked contrast with the agitated movement of waves on the west side. The tidal basins to the south of the key, only one year earlier inhabited by large numbers of aquatic birds, today are sand and salt deserts isolated from the healthy influences of the tides.

To these emergency calls of alarm emanating directly from nature, the "euro-revolutionary conquerors" have simply paid no attention. On the contrary, they continue to ravish the environment in a selfish and dubious quest for more fistfuls of dollars. Those seeing the havoc that has been wreaked by Spanish hotels on the venerable natural paradise that once was Cuba will not be able to bring forth enough tears to express the full measure of their anger and frustration.

"Great National Park Ciénaga de Zapata"

South of the province of Matanzas, in the subregion of Zapata, with an area of more than 4000 km2, lies one of the world`s important neotropical wetlands. Seventy-five percent of this area consists of marshes, while the other 25 % contains a variety of biotopes, ranging from sparse coastal woodlands, natural savannas, and tidal marshes to semideciduous forests atop a limestone base that, in the rainy season, remind one of the famous Florida Everglades.

Zapata Swamp is home to 15 mammals, 160 species of birds, 27 of reptiles, 3 amphibians, and innumerable invertebrates, not to mention the richness of its native vegetation, especially along a 30 km strip between Guamá and Playa Girón. North of these woodlands lies the "Laguna del Tesoro", the largest natural body of fresh water in Cuba. Its waters harbor many endemic fishes, such as the Cuban Garpike (Atrastosteus tristoechus), the Cuban Perch, as well as endemic crocodiles (Crocodylus rombifer) and Manatees (Trichechus manatus), the later introduced at the lagoon and seriously endangered by discriminate and illegal poaching throughout the island.

The Zapata peninsula, like the Birama Swamp, is one of the island`s richest areas in birds species. Of Cuba`s 20 endemic species, 17 have not been reported here. Unique examples are the Zapata Wren (Fermina cerverai), the Zapata Rail (Cyanolimnas cerverai) and the Zapata Sparrow (Torreornis inexpectata), which are in extreme danger of extinction and found only at the northernmost tip of Santo Tomás. Also extremely vulnerable, due to continuing threats to their habitats, are the Blue-Headed Quail Dove (Starnoenas cyanocephala), the Cuban Parakeet, the Cuban Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium siju), the Cuban Bare-Legged Owl (Gynmoglaux lawrenci), the Stygian Owl, the Bee Hummingbird, the Cuban Trogon, the Cuban Tody, the Cuban Yellow-Shafted Flicker (Colaptes auratus), and the Fernandina`s Flicker (Colaptes fernandinae), as well as such passeriformes as the Yellow-Headed Warbler (Teretistris fernandinae), the Striped-Headed Tanager (Spindalis zena), the Greater Antillean Grackle (Quiscalus niger), the Red-Winged Blackbird (Agelaius humeralis), the Yellow-Faced Grassquit (Tiaris olivacea) and the Cuban Grassquit (Tiaris canora). Among mammals, the Fisher Bat (Noctilio leporinus) is one of the largest in the Americas; likewise, the aforementioned Manatee and the Hutias are some of the more important, but also among the rarest.

The destruction of our ecosystems is occurring so rapidly that change is evident from one year to the next. The Integral Forest Enterprise, which includes the forest gamekeepers is currently engaged in brutal unselective logging for charcoal production. In most instances, they leave the wood to rot along the roadside because of lack of timely transportation. The already mentioned Plan Turquino, whose tactics in the forest consist of clearcutting for subsistence farming, has not produced, nor will it ever, the anticipated results in the areas deforested for that purpose.

The continued hunting of Hutias by peasants, to make up for shrinking governmental ration-coupon market-basket, and the cutting down of endemic palms (Saval parviflora), which are used by a variety of birds for nesting, has increased over the last few years. Due to the growth of membership in the Youth Army of Workers, who, because of lack of sanctions and with the very complicity of the forest gamekeepers themselves, knock down palm trees on a daily basis looking for the chicks of parrots – considering this a lucrative way of pass their time in military service – now entire palm groves cited in the scientific literature have completely vanished. No doubt, in a very few years, unless this irrational destruction is halted, the Zapata Swamp will cease to be the important natural enclave it once was.

"La Güira National Park"

Within the Sierra del Rosario mountains in the province of Pinar del Río, the Güira National Park encompasses sub-mountanous and evergreen forests, as well as monotypical stands of pines, eucalyptus, teaks and Autralian pines all planted at the end of the 1960`s. In general, natural forests have survived best on the steepest mountain slopes or at the foot of the limestone cliffs found as one heads west, where the topography changes due to its different geological origin, and where the mountains are known as Sierra de los Órganos.

Although the area hosts an acceptable biodiversity of birds, its main attraction for scientists consists of its paleontology and its cave-dwelling fauna, found nowhere else on the island and which has enjoyed very favorable conditions for its developement. In addition, the area includes some interesting birds such as the Red-Legged Honey-Creeper (Cyanerpes cyaneus), the Cuban Solitare (Myadestes elisabeth), the Cuban Gnatcatcher (Polioptila lembeyei), the Cuban Vireo (Vireo gundlachi), the Cuban Sharp-Shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus) and the Burrowing Owl (Speotyto cunicularia) and other endemic species. But the health of the ecosystems, which was first altered by indiscriminate logging and later by reforestation with exotic species, has diminished the biological diversity in areas wherever the government has followed the example of countries whose climates have nothing in common with Cuba. These planted forests lack the necessary basic ground cover of brush and most of them are ailing. Therefore, wood production has never reached the anticipated degree of quantity and quality.

To all of the above, we must add the damaging effects brought about by the so-called "Popular Camping" movement, a recreational scheme promoted by Roberto Robaina (former Foreign Minister of Cuba) to provide a pathetic recreational outlet for young Cubans, who cannot hope to use tourist hotels where payment is required in dollars. As the result of this ill-conceived idea, forest fires have increased in many Cuban reserves, but the government will never acknowledge its mistakes, as long as dollars continue to supercede in importance the very patrimony of the nation.

Why then this S.O.S. for Cuba`s natural environment?

Because the environmental preservation agenda of the Cuban government suffers from the following inherent problems:

a.. The nonobservance of statute 81, promulgated several years ago by the National Assembly to protect the natural environment, but never put into practice.

b.. The underhanded way that competing functions (protection and exploitation) are grouped together within all the institutions charged with the protecting nature, while executive powers, as well as the government`s economic support are invested in departments involved in the exploitation, not the conservation of resources.

c.. Technicians now are given the upper hand, with little input from specialists, in discussions of projects involving the direct use of natural resources.

d.. The economic crisis of the last 11 years has been seized on by the government to justify overriding even the most elemental standards of environmental management.

To these four basic factors should be added several others, which, over the years, have become ingrained as habits due to official negligence, such as the lack of any environmental education for the public, the creation of personal fiefdom by bosses and local chieftains who open them up to all manner of illegal activities (hunting, fishing, harvesting, logging), and the overall tendency to convert – via political pressure and under pain of job loss – environmental specialists into unwilling supporters of the ideas of just one man and of his worst schemes, as well as of the incontestable decisions dictated by the government.

This urgent S.O.S. is all the more necessary if we realize that the protection of the Cuban natural environment cannot be left to the small group of Cuban scientists who understand the danger, since they have been isolated and silenced by state censorship. This S.O.S. is more than justified, because Cuba`s wildlife is also part of the world`s natural patrimony and thus belongs to everyone. Both Cubans and outsiders have a moral obligation to act to save what, after so many years of neglect, and often out of sheer ignorance, we have all allowed to be destroyed.


*This English version, now updated, was originally published in Cuba Brief, Report of the Center for a Free Cuba, Washington, D.C., U.S.A., Winter 1998 pp. 19-24.

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