Cuba - The Crown Jewel of the Caribbean - But for how much longer?

01 May 2009 | News story

Earlier this week the Brookings Institution brought together a panel of marine experts to outline a new path for the United States and Cuba to work together on environmental issues to protect diverse marine resources in the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.

President Barack Obama's recent easing of travel restrictions on Americans visiting relatives in Cuba may open the door to greater cooperation between these two nations, long at odds with one another. This could be of immense importance not only to Cuban-Americans and their native island neighbors, but to preserving Cuba’s unique, and increasingly threatened, coastal and marine environments.

Lying just 90 miles south of the Florida Keys, where the Atlantic, the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico meet, Cuba has one of the Caribbean's most diverse marine environments, with extensive coral reefs stretching as far as North Carolina and mangrove forests that have remained remarkably unspoiled, despite growing tourism and development pressures.

Cuba's coastal waters are also vital to healthy fisheries and fishing communities along the southeastern coast of the United States. The island's 4,200 islets and keys support important commercial reef fish species like snapper and grouper and not to mention other marine life like sea turtles, dolphins and manatees. Prevailing ocean currents carry fish larvae into U.S. waters, making the protection of Cuba’s coastal ecosystems critical to replenishing our ailing fisheries.

In many ways, Cuba sets an example to its Caribbean neighbors in terms of biodiversity conservation. In 2007, Cuba helped establish the first Caribbean Island Biological Corridor with the Dominican Republic and Haiti in order to contribute to the reduction of biodiversity loss and to facilitate the human-nature relationship. The corridor offers important linkages among landscapes, ecosystems, habitats and cultures to maintain essential and evolutionary ecological processes and environmental services and to promote sustainable development.

Cuba has a centralized and well-coordinated institutional arrangements for the management of protected areas and its academic and public research institutions are some of the most active in conservation and natural resource management in the Caribbean. However, there has been limited scope for community-based initiatives.

Today, offshore oil and gas development threatens Cuba's and Florida’s environmental treasures while exploitation of nickel reserves is on the increase. The recent discovery of oil and natural gas reserves in the Florida Straits has lured foreign oil exploration companies from as far away as China, and they are all eager to begin extracting these resources.

IUCN, our members and partners, including the Environmental Defense Fund, are working with Cuban scientists and policy experts to increase the flow of information between the two countries, ensure that sustainable methods are implemented and to lay a strong legal and policy foundation for conservation as the island's tourism and mining industries expand.

As the United States revisits its relationship with Cuba’s revolutionary government, we should remember to tread carefully so as to prevent the destruction of this island’s resources and unique ecosystems on which so many depend.