Saturday, May 25, 2013

Cuba and its Biodiversity

Cuba and its Biodiversity
May 24, 2013
Erasmo Calzadilla

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
(500,000 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

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

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.

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