Cuba and its Biodiversity

Erasmo Calzadilla

In Havana endangered species are captured and sold.
In Havana endangered species are captured and sold. Photo: Irina Echarry

HAVANA TIMES — In 2000, with the aim of alerting humanity to the extinction of ecosystems, species and genes and the accelerated decline in biodiversity it was causing, the United Nations’ General Assembly declared May 22 International Day for Biological Biodiversity.

One may think that, ultimately, humanity does not need so many bugs around it to get by, that it is an aesthetic, or, at most, an ethical issue. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In addition to all of the direct or indirect “services” these bugs offer, diversity is the stabilizer of the biosphere, its shield against disturbances and aggressions. Without it, we’re toast.

We are the species with the most sophisticated brain the earth has ever known and we behave like a lowly plague attacking a planet. We’re a sorry sight indeed.

Though the problem appears complex, the options before us are simple enough: either we slowly, rationally slow down our growth as a species, avoiding catastrophes wherever possible, or we do it through wars, environmental and social crises, epidemics and natural disasters. Let no one be naïve enough to be deceived, at this stage in the game, by that misguided notion called “sustainable development”.

Biodiversity in Cuba

In spite of phenomena such as the proliferation of aggressive fish species, the creation of artificial land bridges, irresponsible sugar-cane harvesting practices, the use of transgenic products and the propagation of marabou across our fields and cities, Cuba continues to be a prodigious island in terms of biodiversity.

The Cuban archipelago boasts of a broad variety of plants and animals (7,500 and 19,600 species, respectively), a very high number of which are endemic to the island (50 and 42%). In terms of biodiversity, Cuba ranks fourth among the world’s islands and first in the Caribbean region.

The Cuban revolution has undermined biodiversity with one hand, and worked arduously to preserve it with the other. On the one hand, it has been characterized by a drive towards development, by voluntarism, then by the bureaucratization of society, carelessness, shortages and negligence.

Once an invader, Leucaena reigns in Cuba’s neighborhoods today.
Once an invader, Leucaena reigns in Cuba’s neighborhoods today. Photo: Irina Echarry

On the other, it has shown an ecological awareness never before seen in the region: it has created research centers, trained professionals and developed a sophisticated legislation to protect the country’s flora and fauna.

I won’t draw a balance of the positive and negative things done in this connection.  I’ll leave that in the hands of more informed persons. I would instead like to avail myself of the lines that follow to touch on a situation I know well, having experienced it personally.

Cuba’s Ecology and Systematics Institute

A bit over five years ago, I worked at Cuba’s Ecology and Systematics Institute (IES), one of the 70 scientific institutions involved in the protection of the country’s ecosystems.

Back then, the IES had a valuable team of researchers at its disposal but no money (and the crisis hadn’t even hit yet). To earn a bit of dough or get their hands on quality equipment, the scientists employed by the institute had to become involved in international projects, which were not always related to the aims of the organization.

As if this wasn’t enough, bureaucratic hurdles kept everyone on a tight rein and even prevented the use of the money that was available. There was a sense of frustration all around one and it was typical for scientists to ask for asylum abroad when given the opportunity to travel outside of Cuba.

There was no money for the institute’s essential work and, of course, for anything else. There were never enough custodians around and, every month, the institute bemoaned the theft of an expensive piece of equipment or even collections which, I was told, were considered part of the country’s natural heritage.

Needless to say, the food and transportation available for employees was terrible.

I don’t know whether the IES I got to know over 5 years ago was the exception or the rule. But if the other 70 research centers are in similar condition (and this is what I presume), then Cuban biodiversity ought to begin looking for a way of protecting itself.

Erasmo Calzadilla

Erasmo Calzadilla: I find it difficult to introduce myself in public. I've tried many times but it doesn’t flow. I’m more less how I appear in my posts, add some unpresentable qualities and stir; that should do for a first approach. If you want to dig a little deeper, ask me for an appointment and wait for a reply.

5 thoughts on “Cuba and its Biodiversity

  • May 24, 2013 at 3:01 pm
    Permalink

    Surely the correct figure is 50,000 plant species, not half a million. Still impressive.

    Reply
  • May 24, 2013 at 3:10 pm
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    Erasmo, I suppose that what you are trying to do in Havana Times is journalism, and one of journalism principles is not to write something if you don’t have enough knowledge about it. Two things:
    1.- Although research is important for biodiversity studies and conservation; it is upon education and society action that those goals can be achieved. Amazonian natives don’t need any research center to properly deals with biodiversity and conservation in their land. If you want to criticize the problems Cuban scientific centers face, you could find much better examples to support your arguments.
    2.- Who told you the use of transgenic products are bad for biodiversity
    and environment? Transgenic organisms (GMOs) are organisms obtained through specific manipulation of their genome, and are extensively tested for safety before used in a larger commercial scale. In this sense, GMOs are safer than traditionally obtained varieties and breeds, where the process of exchange and rearrangements in the genomes are unpredictable and hard to track. It is true that transgenesis has the ability to introduce new genes into and organism, but ultimately this is a way of increasing the biodiversity through enriching the
    genetic background of that species. The lack of biodiversity in many plant and
    animal varieties has occurred at alarming pace for the last 200 years without
    having anything to do with GMOs. GMOs can only harm the environment if used
    incorrectly (as any technological product can do, but you can’t blame the technology if somebody makes a wrong use of it); however, it has been demonstrated that they can be a very useful tool to reduce the use of pesticides (while at the same time promoting the use of much more environmental friendly
    ones), increase agricultural productions and its nutritional value. I want to point out here that without chemicals it’s not possible to produce enough food for all Earth inhabitants; the all organic dream is a myth and its apologetics are wrong (this experiment was already run many times during Human history, and its product yield limitations and extremely dependence of weather conditions for example, has clearly shown that organic agriculture is unpractical for properly feeding present and future world population). Therefore, GMOs if managed properly (as it should be done with every variety or breed independently of the way they were obtained) represent an opportunity and not a danger. Many
    people fight against GMOs for ignorance, or because of their anti-capitalism
    fanaticism due to they link the GMOs with big transnational companies. In any
    case, false statements should not be used.

    Reply
  • May 25, 2013 at 11:31 pm
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    twittGSHS,

    actually it is you has provided zero evidence for your statements. Do you have a commercial interest in GMO technology?

    Regards

    Reply
    • May 26, 2013 at 9:04 am
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      I know what I’m talking about because I have worked on the issue for many years. You can look for evidence in internet (of course with open mind and fair intentions); just to help you, I would
      recommend you to begin reading this: http://www.dista.unibo.it/doublehelix/proceedings/SECTION_VI/HELIX%20pp%20689-698.pdf
      and BTW, personally, I don’t have any interest in commercialization of GMOs; by suggesting this you are displaying yourself as a mean person.

      Reply

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