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.
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.