Sunday, December 30, 2007

Protecting Cuba's vast ecological resources

Houston Chronicle, via the New York Times: Cuba is a priceless ecological resource. That is why many scientists are worried about what will become of it after Fidel Castro and his associates leave power and, as is anticipated, the U.S. government relaxes or ends its embargo. The island, at the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, has mountains, forests, swamps, coasts and marine areas rich in plants and animals. And since the imposition of the embargo in 1962, and with the collapse in 1991 of the Soviet Union, Cuba's economy has stagnated.

Cuba has not been free of development. But it has an abundance of landscapes that elsewhere in the region have been ripped up, paved over, poisoned or otherwise destroyed since the Cuban revolution. Once the embargo ends, the island could face a flood of investors eager to exploit those landscapes.

Conservationists, environmental lawyers and other experts, from Cuba and elsewhere, met last month in Cancun, Mexico, to discuss the island's resources and how to protect them. Cuba has done "what we should have done — identify your hot spots of biodiversity and set them aside," said Oliver Houck, a professor of environmental law at Tulane University Law School who attended the conference.

In the late 1990s, Houck was involved in an effort to advise Cuban officials writing environmental laws. But, he said, "an invasion of U.S. consumerism, a U.S.-dominated future, could roll over it like a bulldozer" when the embargo ends. By some estimates, tourism in Cuba is increasing 10 percent annually. At a minimum, Orlando Rey Santos, the Cuban lawyer who led the law-writing effort, said, "we can guess that tourism is going to increase in a very fast way" when the embargo ends.

Cuba offers crucial habitat for birds, like Bicknell's thrush, whose summer home is in the mountains of New England and Canada. It has the most biologically diverse populations of freshwater fish in the region. Its relatively large underwater coastal shelves are crucial for numerous marine species, said Ken Lindeman, a marine biologist at Florida Institute of Technology.

Like corals elsewhere, those in Cuba are suffering as global warming raises ocean temperatures. But they have largely escaped damage from pollution, boat traffic and destructive fishing practices. Diving in them "is like going back in time 50 years," said David Guggenheim, an ecologist on the advisory board of the Harte Research Institute.

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