Human Rights in Cuba

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Cuba Environmental Protection A Mixed Picture

Sunday, March 31, 2013 at 5:47 by Tom Palmer

I'd been wondering about environmental management in Cuba for several


Recently I had an opportunity to learn more about it first-hand during a

10-day trip organized by Audubon.

Like things here in Florida, it's a mixed picture.

Cuba has set aside quite a bit of land for conservation to protect its

unique wildlife species, though trapping of wild birds for the pet trade

continues with little regulation.

Pollution and waste management regulations appear to have some ways to go.

Why Cuba?

It's the largest island in the West Indies and many species that breed

in the United States migrate to or through Cuba, making its conservation

management important to the survival of some North American species.

I learned that about 20 percent of Cuba's land has some kind of

conservation protection in a network of preserves that include mountain

and lowland habitats as well as marine ecosystems.

We were interested in birds primarily. There are more than 20 species of

birds found only on Cuba. They range from the bee hummingbird to

Gundlach's Hawk. Many are hard to find outside of some very local


There are hundreds of other endemic species ranging from snakes and

turtles to butterflies and bats,

One positive thing is that the Cuban government understands the value of

promoting ecotourism.

A Cuban biologist accompanied us on our tour and our tour group used

local guides to find species in certain parts of the island.

That provides local people with incentives to study and to preserve

their unique wildlife.

Cuba's national bird is a species called the Cuban trogon, which is a

striking bird species related to species found in the Southwest United

States and the quetzals in Central America.

It was fairly widespread in rural forests.

By the way, our group saw or heard 162 species, including all of the

Cuban endemics except the rail, which may be extinct.

One troubling aspect of bird protection in Cuba is the long-standing

cultural habit of capturing wild birds and putting them in cages at

homes or in restaurants.

We were in one that had a mockingbird, a Cuban bullfinch and

a Cuban parakeet in cages.

Students at one we visited in Havana are collecting data on this

issue, By the way, this is a problem in Miami, too. Wintering painted

buntings are a popular target there, according to Tropical Audubon

Society, the local chapter.

We were told in one of the lectures that was arranged as part of out

tour by tour guides employed by the Cuban government, that the U.S.

trade has helped environmental protection by limiting outside

development pressure on natural areas in Cuba.

However, that's not the whole picture.

When were on the Zapata Peninsula, the only known habitat for some

species, I learned that the only reason we were able to take a trip

into parts of it was because of a road built in anticipation of a peat

mining venture that never occurred. That resulted in the protection of

this extensive expanse of sawgrass that looks somewhat likes parts of

Everglades National Park.

There is extensive modern -related development on Cayo Costa, a

barrier island off Cuba's northern coast. We spent the last three days

of the trip at one of several beachfront resorts there that were full of

Canadian and other non-U.S. tourists.

I did learn that before the resort development began, the Cuban

government set up a coastal research center to gather data on the area's

natural resources to guide development projects to mitigate the impact

as much as possible. That's probably the opposite of what would have

occurred here.

Scientists at the center said they continue to do extensive wildlife

surveys and regularly update the area's management plans.

The area reminded me of the Florida Keys in two ways.

There was beautiful clear water and large stands of native habitat,

though I did learn that some of it was second growth forests originally

cleared for charcoal production, a main source of fuel for cooking in

rural areas of Third World countries.

However, despite the work to protect or restore conservation lands

outlined in the planned lectures, I found some problems when I was out

on the land.

I saw extensive dumping of construction debris and other materials on

some side roads near the resorts. I also learned that recycling

programs, which could have diverted this waste, are pretty minimal. I

saw a lot of recyclable trash ranging from cans to scrap iron along the

roadsides, though some it was no worse than what I find in some rural

areas of Polk County.

I did see a couple of guys at one beachfront area collecting aluminum

cans out of trash barrels to turn in for money, but less than they wood

in a private market .

Sewer treatment and water pollution regulations appeared to be laxer in


We visited a sewer impoundment to look for birds. While we were there, a

septic tank truck drove up the crew opened the valves and dumped

everything raw into the pond, which had no aerator as is typically

required here.

The industrial plants belch black smoke, though there don't appear to

be too many of them.

The numerous older American and Russian-made cars that are a common

sight certainly lack modern pollution control systems, but the good news

is that there aren't that many cars on the road in Cuba.

Even on some of the main highways there were stretches were I saw as

many horse-drawn carts and bicycles as cars and trucks. Mass transit and

ride-sharing seem to be commonplace out of necessity.

The water in many of the rivers I saw was algae green. I didn't see

much in the way of stormwater retention anywhere, though rooftop

cisterns to collect water for household use and larger structures in

farming areas were common.

Cuba's a beautiful island with many still intact ecosystems, but

protecting them will require more work.

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