Blessed in terms of geography and climate, like all Caribbean islands, threats to Cuba’s ecology began with the arrival of European settlers. Historically, the native islanders, the Taíno, mostly died within a century from Eurasian diseases; the few who were left, working essentially as slaves for Spanish farmers. The Taíno had been farmers themselves, and the Spanish recognized Cuba’s rich biodiversity and agricultural potential; unlike other Caribbean islands, Cuba started out with a large variety of crops, which still include sugar, tobacco, citrus, rice, and potato. During the 19th century, a monoculture arose because of the high price sugar commanded in the international market. This monoculture has been blamed for some of Cuba’s environmental as well as economic problems.
A Tenuous Natural Wonder
Cuba’s environmental history has been a mixed bag of successful preservation and accidental extinction. The settlers who introduced new plants that thrived in Cuba’s soils also caused the extinction of certain animals, including species of sloth and monkey. The communist overthrow in 1959 brought with it new environmental efforts, but it was Cuba’s lack of trading with most of the world, and thus its focus on agriculture instead of heavy industrialization, that accidentally did wonders for wildlife throughout the 60’s and 70’s. The embargo between the U.S. and Cuba, and the resulting travel ban, kept beaches and habitats safe from the strain of a tourism industry.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union had an interesting impact on the Cuban environment. With the Soviet Union gone, Cuba lost 80 percent of its import and export economy; as a result, Cuba plummeted into widespread poverty. To remedy the situation, Cuban government embraced international tourism for the good of the economy, creating the need to build new buildings on the coastline which inevitably damages the environment. However, without as much food to import, Cuba also had to implement new permaculture strategies, which actually lessen environmental impact. Today, Cuba’s biodiversity still thrives, but considering the country’s need for revenue, its future is uncertain.
Communism and the Environment
Cuba has adopted some sustainable habits over the past few decades, garnering considerable press. The Environmental Educational Program seeks to empower citizens through neighborhood cleanup efforts (though these remain to be proven); chemicals have been largely cut out of farming, and designated areas for waste are being established in response to the longstanding dumping of garbage into Havana Bay.
Bike culture is apparent in urban areas, and while it started due to the lack of car imports, the city of Havana has worked to make biking a safe and smart mode of transportation: adding bike lanes, and even a bus just for bicyclists, so they can bus in and out of the downtown area with their bikes, avoiding the heavy car traffic.
When Spanish settlers landed in Cuba, 90 percent of the island was forested, as opposed to the 14 percent documented at the time of the 1959 revolution. The communist regime set about replanting almost immediately, but the efforts were disorganized, and since they did not have proper cultivation most of the new trees died. Today, the National Forestry Act regulates logging and new planting across the country, with over 40,000 government employees dedicated to forestry work. Three types of forests are being cultivated: productive forests for wood and charcoal, protective forests to purify water and stop land erosion, and conservation forests to preserve the flora and fauna of Cuba. The Cuban government claims that almost 28 percent of the island is currently forested.
But perhaps it is the citizens of Cuba themselves who make the most visible strides for the environment: in Havana, a small group of local citizens got together to replant an area of forest called Pogolotti, at the edge of a low-income neighborhood of the same name. The mowed area had become a garbage dump for the neighborhood, and residents decided to plant trees, including bamboo to filter impurities from the river and prevent soil erosion. This effort grew into a beautiful park, a cleaner river, and even an educational program. The forest has historically been considered sacred, and today the community holds ceremonies under its trees once again.
Tourism and the Environment
Cuba became a true tourist destination only recently, and is still in the process of growing its tourism infrastructure. From the revolution in the mid-60’s to 1991, when the Soviet Union (Cuba’s main trading partner) collapsed, the communist regime essentially eliminated tourism. The 90’s saw the government rush to reinstate it, to bolster the suddenly flatlined economy. For many years, this was restricted mainly to “enclave tourism,” with resorts built on remote beaches, to keep Cubans and foreign visitors from exposure to each other.
Today, with the embargo between the U.S. and Cuba lifted, and tourism there growing steadily, the coastal areas of Cuba are at risk, with resorts and hotels built on once-pristine beaches, in the habitats of rare species of bird, rodent, and iguana. Cuban scientists can sometimes persuade the government to halt projects with proven threat to natural habitats, but the need for income is often considered more urgent. Travelers can have a positive influence on Cuba's ecological future by ensuring that tourist dollars go toward supporting the nation's protected areas.
For obvious reasons related to the communist regime, official reports on the health of Cuba’s water and air are guarded as state secrets. The Ministry of Public Health has made a few less than glowing documents available, however, including a study that reveals severe air pollution in Havana. This is largely due to old power plants and factories, complete with huge, stacked chimneys, run by domestic crude oil (Cuba hosts five offshore drilling sites).
Automobiles in Cuba tend to be quite old, due to a lack of trade with most of the countries that manufacture cars, but the charming look of the classic cars has a downside: these rolling museums emit extra carbon monoxide, which has negative health effects on drivers, passengers, and pedestrians.
While the global community does not have access to official reports on Cuba’s rivers and lakes, Havana Bay is considered one of the most polluted marine environments on Earth. Cuba’s standards for waste treatment allow waste 12 times higher in concentration of metals and chemicals than in the U.S. This waste is often dumped into the ocean. Despite Cuba’s high standards for drinking water (the second-best in all of Latin America, Uruguay being the first), the health of Havana Bay will have to become a top priority of the Cuban government, for the overall health of the Caribbean Sea.
Hope for Cuba’s Environment
It is true that the Cuban government has begun to make strides in improving certain elements of the ecosystem, including their much publicized organic farming, and the new permaculture system. There embargo has had another unexpected benefit for Cuba’s environment — Cuba’s inability to import pesticides and chemical fertilizers has improved the health of waterways, soil, and crops.
There is hope for Cuba’s rich coastal land, too: the communist regime actually has stricter standards for pre-building approval than many Caribbean nations. The hotels and resorts that will inevitably spring up on beaches all over the island will have to meet new standards, and will (hopefully) put minimal stress on native plants and animals.
Cuba’s environmental glory is its unspoiled coral reef. Called Jardin de la Reina, this extensive reef is incredibly healthy, especially compared to other reefs in the Caribbean and worldwide. Scientists study it to figure out just why it is so resilient, and how its secrets might help preserve other reefs. Those who have seen it up close compare it to Jurassic Park — thronging with species extinct everywhere else in the ocean. Perhaps its health is also due to the regime’s strictness: all fishing, except for lobster, a major product of the Cuban economy, is banned in the region. And while tourism is alive and well in mainland Cuba, access to the 367-square mile (950 sq. km) preserve is, of course, restricted.