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Why Cuba is home to a bounty of rare species
As Cuba tries to open up its economy and lure western investment through tourism, environmentalists are working to prove that protection of the environment can also be a profitable pursuit. By developing the island's ecotourism, scientists hope to stimulate the economy without jeopardizing Cuba's exquisite coral reefs and wild species. Science correspondent Miles O’Brien reports.
While the Trump administration is imposing new restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba, the island nation is working to lure more tourism and economic development by showcasing its environment and biodiversity.
The catch is that, if this ecotourism development goes too fast or too far, Cuba could jeopardize the very species and environment that makes it so distinct.
Miles O'Brien reports from Cuba for our weekly segment the Leading Edge.
This breeding facility for endangered Cuban crocodiles was a revolutionary idea, in more ways than one.
Cuban President Fidel Castro ordered it built only three months after he seized power. It may seem like an odd priority for a young communist revolutionary, but it offered an early inkling that Castro would be an ardent lifelong environmentalist, able to dictate terms of preservation.
Etiam Pérez Fleitas is a researcher here.
Etiam Pérez Fleitas:
(Through interpreter) Having nearly 4,500 animals in captivity helps us to learn many things about the species that we can then use to manage them in the wild.
In addition to the scientific mission, it has also become a big magnet for tourism, making it the picture postcard vision of how to save the nation's natural resources while still attracting the sort of resources Cubans can take to the bank.
(Through interpreter) The tourism dollars it generates go back into funding the park rangers, the overall protection of the wild areas that surround us, and helping us gain a greater understanding of the species.
The idea that the ecology and the economy don't have to be at odds drew researchers from Cuba, Europe and North America to this scientific conference in Havana this summer.
Many of the exhibits and papers I saw as I walked through were trying to prove protection of the environment is a profitable pursuit.
Luis Famada is director of Manglar Vivo, the Living Mangroves project.
Luis David Almeida Famada:
(Through interpreter) We are collecting information that helps translate the true cost of savings that can be found by preserving our natural ecosystems, rather than developing them. We are proving that mangroves work better than seawalls, and that is important information that any future development project needs to understand.
American Marine biologist David Guggenheim was here giving a talk.
And that's where you are trying to keep that money in the community.
He is the founder of Ocean Doctor, a D.C.-based nonprofit focused on protecting Cuba's exquisite coral reefs.
At this point, there's a great deal of fear about the impacts of tourism. But our message is that tourism has to be part of the solution, and the question is, how do you do that sustainably?
He and many others here believe the answer lies in Costa Rica.
I have come to Costa Rica to explore.
A nation that set aside more than a quarter of its territory and made that wild beauty its appeal. It's where ecotourism was born, and still thrives.
But as Cuba opens up its economy and attempts to lure Western investment, there is a lot of pressure to emulate another model: Cancun.
I think Cancun is an example of how not to do tourism sustainably in the Caribbean. So, you actually had a collapse of the local economy in Cancun. And, in addition, the local reefs died as well.
Fortunately, so far, Cuba hasn't succumbed to that. But the pressures on the economy are enormous, and tourism is the easiest place to get hard cash right now.
At the Bay of Pigs, I suited up in scuba gear to get a glimpse of Cuba's legendary reefs. It is a popular site for divers and snorkelers, just off an easily accessible beach along a highway, and yet the coral is more vibrant and the fish more plentiful than I have seen for a very long time in other parts of the Caribbean.
Guggenheim runs a project to protect an extraordinary reef off of Cuba's Isle of Youth. It is brimming with elkhorn coral, which has vanished elsewhere in the Caribbean.
Again, Castro, the environmentalist, helped make this happen. After meeting Jacques Cousteau in the 1980s, el presidente became an avid diver, and eventually made 25 percent of Cuban coastal waters wildlife preserves, with fishing completely banned.
When you do that, it's important also to consider alternatives for the communities that live adjacent to them. And the idea of tourism is to give the community an economically sustainable future that also provides an economic incentive for them to protect their environment.
If you're not helping people solve problems in their communities, the environment isn't going to have a chance.
Cuba's enviable undersea environment is not all about dictatorial whim. It is also the silver lining to a very dark cloud, the economic devastation of the early '90s, just after the Soviet Union collapsed.
The euphemism for these grim times? The Special Period. Cubans were cut off from their supply of fertilizers and pesticides. That meant the country avoided chemical runoff from farming, a huge source of pollution and a big contributor to coral reef bleaching.
The dearth of agricultural inputs has created another unintended consequence, special in its own way.
Magdiel Collaso Garcia:
(Through interpreter) In the end, what they did was like a favor, because we rediscovered natural ways of farming. And that has preserved our natural environment.
That's Magdiel Collaso Garcia, a worker at an organic farm-to-table restaurant that caters to tourists in Vinales. They serve up a delicious lunch, everything but the fish grown right here on the property.
(Through interpreter) Today, we are seen as pioneers, and a model of how to do things right in the future, because when you apply techniques that come from nature, you also create the perfect environment to stimulate ecotourism. Our traditional way of doing things has grabbed a lot of attention.
It's a lesson these high school students from New Jersey gobbled up. Their tour leader was Stacie Freeman, a professor from Bethel University.
I have been doing this for 11 years, nationally and internally with my students, and I travel a lot personally, and this is magic. This is unique.
You are going to put your hand inside a beehive.
But she has been around enough to know unique is not guaranteed, and ecotourism is not a panacea.
Sometimes, even with ecotourism, you can do damage, you know? And so I'm hopeful that the people that are making those decisions are being careful and really thinking about the culture they have here, the heritage they have here.
Across the valley, we found someone else trying to turn Cuba's natural wonders into hard cash.
Rock climbing guide Raoul Casas is leading a pair of French tourists to the pristine limestone cliffs of Vinales. The sport is technically illegal here, but he says business is, well, looking up.
The best rock is here, many walls, many caves, like, overhung, full of stalactites, and that make it special, make it unique.
European and American climbers have been beating a path in his direction.
Lana Smith is from Los Angeles.
I have never seen anything like it. There's, like, nobody there, barely any bolts. Just the local people climb with ropes and stuff, and they have really limited climbing gear. But just the mountains are just, like, amazing, unlike anything I have ever seen.
It all sounds like another Costa Rica in the making, but, of course, human nature is often at odds with nature itself.
Plenty of evidence of that near the crocodile breeding facility. In the gift shop, stuffed crocs are for sale, and, at the restaurant, crocodile meat is on the menu. Fast money is better than no money at all.
Will Cubans save what's so rare here? Or will they love it to death?
In Cuba, I'm Miles O'Brien for the PBS NewsHour.
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Miles O’Brien is a veteran, independent journalist who focuses on science, technology and aerospace.
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