Cuba’s Biodiversity Offers Hope for Caribbean Ecosystem Conservation

A tentative new relationship between Cuba and the United States, which were formerly at odds, may help build conservation finance and research opportunities in Cuba.

Cuba, the “Pearl of the Antilles,” is one of the most important biodiversity hotspots worldwide, being the most biologically dense and diverse island in the Caribbean – with some of the most pristine beaches, the largest and densest forests, and the healthiest reefs. In the 1990s, a World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) comprehensive global inventory found four of the Earth’s most biologically outstanding conservation priorities lie here: the moist forest, pine forest, freshwater, and marine ecoregions of the Greater Antilles.

According to WWF, the 111,000-square-kilometer archipelago of over 4,000 islands and their surrounding waters supports thousands of animal species and the largest number of migratory bird species in the region. It is home to more than 300 species of birds, 18,000 species of insects, 38,000 species of crustaceans, and 1,500 species of mollusks – many of which are endemic. More than 6,000 species of flowering plants are found only here.

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Conservation Challenges

The United States embargo that began in the early 1960s and the deep crisis (período especial) that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s resulted in a drastic economic slowdown that has had both positive and negative effects on conservation.

“Agriculture was forced to move to a more organic approach,” said José Luis “Pepe” Gerhartz, former executive director at WWF Cuba and current marine conservation adviser at Avalon Outdoor. “Cuba has been saving resources – we just cannot afford to be wasteful. And as industries closed, pollution in many watersheds was reduced.”

However, at the same time, resources for conservation and for implementing actions in the field were very limited. Largely due to the 55 years of sanctions from the United States, a lack of transfer of knowledge and technology continues to slow scientific advancement. These limitations also precluded Cuba from accessing international conservation funding.

Patricia González, director of the Center for Marine Research at the University of Havana, said that Cuban scientific research has been hugely compromised by the sanctions. Up until recently, many American scientific journals did not publish the work of Cuban researchers living in Cuba and working for the Cuban government.

This also puts a strain on logistics. Cuban organizations – including universities and NGOs – cannot purchase materials that contain more than 10 percent parts manufactured in the United States. This includes essential materials such as computers, field equipment, and office supplies. As a result, sourcing from more distant countries such as China and Russia becomes cost-prohibitive in most cases.

Challenging conditions notwithstanding, “the Cuban government is committed to environmental protection and natural-resources conservation,” said Dan Whittle, Cuba Program senior director at the Environmental Defense Fund, during a webinar hosted by Yale Center for Business and the Environment.

Environmental protection is an important national priority. “In the last ten years, Cuba has realized that some of the best conservation tools it has available stem from its National System of Protected Areas (Sistema Nacional de Áreas Protegidas) (SNAP),” Whittle said. There are currently 211 protected areas, of which 104 are designated Marine Protected Areas. These represent 20.25 percent of the Cuban Archipelago, 24.96 percent of the insular platform, and 17.26 percent of the terrestrial surface.

Green Diplomacy

On Dec. 17, 2014, the historic breakthrough agreement was announced by Washington and Havana to normalize relations between the United States and Cuba, formally restoring diplomatic ties between the two countries for the first time since 1961. “Since then, the Obama administration has been working around the clock to leave its mark – to ensure these changes are irreversible,” Whittle said.

Environmental cooperation has been at the forefront of these newly re-established ties. Indeed, the first bilateral accord since normalization was the Sister Sanctuaries Agreement between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; the National Park Service; and Cuba’s Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment.

The agreement is designed to foster joint efforts on stewardship and scientific research in Marine Protected Areas between the United States (Florida Keys NMS, Flower Garden Banks NMS, Dry Tortugas National Park, and Biscayne National Park) and Cuba (Guanahacabibes National Park, one of Cuba’s largest protected areas, and its offshore Banco de San Antonio.)

The second formal agreement, the Joint Statement on Environmental Cooperation, was signed just a week later. “This is a broader agreement intended to acknowledge we share the environment, we share ecosystems, and the two governments have to be working together,” Whittle said.

The need for cooperation in this area between Cuba and the United States is long overdue: the two countries, separated by just 140 km of water, share resources and environmental threats – such as oil spills or invasive species – that cannot be managed in isolation.  For instance, incorporating coral reef connectivity into marine protected area management is critical for the long-term survival of coral reefs. According to a recent study published in PLOS One, Mesoamerican reefs, the Bahamas, and Cuba are all key to coral reef connectivity in the Gulf of Mexico and throughout the Caribbean.

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Sustainable Finance

Another key challenge for biodiversity conservation is securing financing that is durable. According to a World Bank report on expanding financing for biodiversity conservation in Latin America and the Caribbean, the optimal funding for protected-area management in Cuba is estimated to be $36.8 million. As of 2010, the funding available was $14.6 million, leaving a deficit of $22.2 million and requiring a 152-percent increase.

Cuba is in a unique and difficult position when it comes to sustainable financing. The country has no direct access to funds from the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, or many regional banks, said Gricel Acosta, Cuba program officer for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The international multilateral or bilateral donors willing to work with Cuba are limited, but do include Canada, the EU, and Japan. Additionally, the Cuban government is hesitant to allow foreign investment.

The justification of nature conservation for the mobilization of national funds – including revenue generated from protected areas – also has to be carefully positioned to comply with Cuban government priorities, which are often geared towards social and economic objectives, Acosta said. As a result, many biodiversity-conservation projects are centered around delivering additional economic and social outcomes.

Such is the case with the UNDP/World Bank biodiversity projects in the Sabana-Camagüey region, a strip of mangroves, coral reefs, sea grass ecosystems, and sandy beaches spanning 465 kilometers along the north-central coast of Cuba. The development projects in this region comprise a significant portion of the $11.52 million that was allocated to the Global Environment Facility’s (GEF) biodiversity projects in 2010-2014 (GEF-5), including projects focused on tourism, fisheries, and agricultural practices for biodiversity conservation.

However, “every day, the environmental agencies are more and more aware of the importance of sustainable sources of financing,” Gerhartz said.

Funding Mechanisms

There are several funding mechanisms in place throughout the country, including the National Fund for Forest Development (FONADEF). FONADEF funds marine protected areas that include terrestrial ecosystems, given there are no specific funds for marine ecosystems.

The National Fund for Protected Areas (FONAP) is currently under consideration, thanks in part to GEF’s project to strengthen the Cuban government’s institutional capacity to preserve protected areas in a financially sustainable way.

A new GEF project on sustainable land management has also allocated $1.5 million to financing mechanisms in forestry and livestock ecosystems. However, two of the most notable measures that might play a larger role in the future are those undertaken via payments for ecosystem services ( ) and public-private partnerships (PPPs).

PES methodologies are currently being validated throughout Latin America. They will now be likely implemented in Cuba as part of a recent $10 million GEF project on ecosystem services and goods valuation. This project focuses on biodiversity, land degradation, and sustainable forest management. GEF’s aforementioned project on Strengthening the Protected Areas System also contributed to the proposal for collecting payments for environmental services, which should be submitted to the Cuban Parliament for approval.

However, Whittle expressed caution. “There have been a number of efforts to evaluate ecosystem services, but not yet around creating markets for these services.”

Gerhartz said this may be due to the lack of flexibility the Cuban legal framework offers for exploring new funding avenues.

The PPP model is exemplified by the Gardens of the Queen (Jardines de la Reina), dubbed the crown jewel of Cuba’s coral reefs by The New York Times. It is a prime example of how consolidated institutional coordination capabilities and financial structures can work for the protection of biodiversity and establishment of key protected areas. In April 2010, the 838-square mile preserve was legally declared a National Marine Park along with seven other protected areas.

Located off Cuba’s southern coast, this park contains the best-preserved coral reef system in the Caribbean. “The waters hold approximately ten times the shark population of surrounding waters and are also home to the rare Goliath Grouper. [Being there is] like being in the Florida Keys 200 years ago,” Whittle said.

Tourism in Jardines is managed by Avalon Outdoor, an Italian company, in a joint venture with Marlin S.A., a Cuban government tourism company that manages most of the nautical business in the country. The case of Avalon is unique in Cuba: the company was awarded the tourism management contract over 20 years ago and signed an extension for an additional 20 years in 2016.

Avalon has a vested business interest in conserving these pristine ecosystems, with a business model based on exclusivity and on maintaining constant levels of tourists throughout the year. Last year, under the government’s limits, fewer than 2,000 divers, fly-fishermen, and eco-tourists visited Jardines de la Reina. Given its outstanding success, this tourism management model is being now implemented in six other marine reserves in Cuba, as well as in Ecuador and Brazil.

Implementation of conservation activities, such as ecological monitoring or enforcement activities, is carried out primarily by the National Enterprise for the Protection of Flora and Fauna, with funding coming from national government funds or by means of projects funded by cooperation agencies or international NGOs (e.g. WWF, Birdlife). Avalon’s capacity supports these conservation efforts: As a foreign business, it can operate with certain benefits, such as an ability to import equipment to be installed in its own vessels. Avalon also acts as a leverage for bringing in additional resources.

Filippo Invernizzi, co-owner of Avalon, said that key risks to Jardines include lack of coordination between the United States and Cuban governments while easing travel restrictions to Cuba, which could allow an influx of tourists to arrive before the proper precautions have been undertaken, particularly from a legal point of view. Additionally, overfishing remains a serious risk as boaters from the Florida Keys continue to illegally pass into Cuban waters.  

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Biodiversity Finance Initiative

One of the most recent developments in relation to biodiversity finance is Cuba’s joining the Biodiversity Finance Initiative (BIOFIN) in 2015. The need for a clearer economic valuation of environmental resources occurred in 2011 when the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment had difficulties quantifying the damage caused by hurricanes, explained Gricel Acosta, who is also the lead for BIOFIN in Cuba.

Launched in 2012 by UNDP, BIOFIN is a global partnership that seeks to address biodiversity finance challenges in a comprehensive manner, building a sound business case for increased investment in the management of ecosystems and biodiversity.

BIOFIN efforts are critical, given there is an estimated $130-440 billion of additional, annual investment needed to achieve the 20 Aichi Targets defined in the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Strategic Plan for 2011-2020. Cuba is among the newest additions to the 30 BIOFIN participant countries.

The BIOFIN team in Cuba is in the process of preparing its annual work plan, which must be approved before funds can be mobilized to hire a team of dedicated conservation experts. Eventually, Cuba hopes to carry out the Biodiversity Expenditure Review and the Biodiversity Finance Policy and Institutional Review, two processes that will articulate the impacts of economic growth on biodiversity in Cuba.

UNDP will then draft a biodiversity needs assessment to calculate the national finance gap needed to reach all goals established in the National Biodiversity Action Plan. Last, the Biodiversity Finance Plan should outline a strategy to mobilize potential finance actors and mechanisms to achieve Cuban biodiversity targets.

Gricel Acosta said that although BIOFIN is in its very early stages, it has already positioned itself as a key player in raising awareness about biodiversity conservation by connecting with the Minister of Economy and Planning, the Minister of Finance and Prices, international donors, banks, and other financial institutions.

“BIOFIN provides advice and knowledge, but most importantly, it is generating dialogue between the environmental resource managers and the financial entities,” Acosta said. “This is a huge step forward.”

Note: Logan Ashcraft and Olivia Sánchez Badini traveled to Cuba in March 2016 with support from the F&ES Carpenter-Sperry Internship and Research Fund, the Yale Center for Business and the Environment, and the Fundación Antonio Núñez Jiménez para el Hombre y la Naturaleza. Some of the quotes in this article are from a Yale Center for Business and the Environment Nature’s Returns series webinar, “Protecting Marine Reserves: Public-Private Partnerships in Cuba’s Gardens of the Queen.” The photos were taken by the authors.

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