Can Cuba preserve ecosystems while profiting from tourism? - Lake Harding Association

Can Cuba preserve ecosystems while profiting from tourism?

Can Cuba preserve ecosystems while profiting from tourism?

By Micah Moen 0 Comment August 14, 2019


JUDY WOODRUFF: 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. MILES O’BRIEN: 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 Perez Fleitas is a researcher here. ETIAM PEREZ FLEITAS, Researcher (through translator):
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. MILES O’BRIEN: 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. ETIAM PEREZ FLEITAS (through translator):
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. MILES O’BRIEN: 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, Manglar Vivo (through
translator): 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. MILES O’BRIEN: American Marine biologist David
Guggenheim was here giving a talk. DAVID GUGGENHEIM, Marine Biologist: And that’s
where you are trying to keep that money in the community. MILES O’BRIEN: He is the founder of Ocean
Doctor, a D.C.-based nonprofit focused on protecting Cuba’s exquisite coral reefs. DAVID GUGGENHEIM: 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? MILES O’BRIEN: He and many others here believe
the answer lies in Costa Rica. WOMAN: I have come to Costa Rica to explore. MILES O’BRIEN: 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. DAVID GUGGENHEIM: 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. MILES O’BRIEN: 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. DAVID GUGGENHEIM: 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. MILES O’BRIEN: 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, Soil Technician (through
translator): In the end, what they did was like a favor, because we rediscovered natural
ways of farming. And that has preserved our natural environment. MILES O’BRIEN: 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. MAGDIEL COLLASO GARCIA (through translator):
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. MILES O’BRIEN: It’s a lesson these high school
students from New Jersey gobbled up. Their tour leader was Stacie Freeman, a professor
from Bethel University. STACIE FREEMAN, 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. MAN: You are going to put your hand inside
a beehive. MAN: OK. MILES O’BRIEN: But she has been around enough
to know unique is not guaranteed, and ecotourism is not a panacea. STACIE FREEMAN: 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. MILES O’BRIEN: 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. RAOUL CASAS, Rock Climbing Guide: The best
rock is here, many walls, many caves, like, overhung, full of stalactites, and that make
it special, make it unique. MILES O’BRIEN: European and American climbers
have been beating a path in his direction. Lana Smith is from Los Angeles. LANA SMITH, Tourist: 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. MILES O’BRIEN: 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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