Through accidents of geography and history, Cuba is a priceless ecological resource. That is why many scientists are so worried about what will become of it after Fidel Castro and his associates leave power and, as is widely anticipated, the American government relaxes or ends its trade embargo.
Cuba, by far the region’s largest island, sits at the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. Its mountains, forests, swamps, coasts and marine areas are rich in plants and animals, some seen nowhere else.
And since the imposition of the embargo in 1962, and especially with the collapse in 1991 of the Soviet Union, its major economic patron, Cuba’s economy has stagnated.
Cuba has not been free of development, including Soviet-style top-down agricultural and mining operations and, in recent years, an expansion of tourism. But it also has an abundance of landscapes that elsewhere in the region have been ripped up, paved over, poisoned or otherwise destroyed in the decades since the Cuban revolution, when development has been most intense. Once the embargo ends, the island could face a flood of investors from the United States and elsewhere, eager to exploit those landscapes.
Conservationists, environmental lawyers and other experts, from Cuba and elsewhere, met last month in Cancún, Mexico, to discuss the island’s resources and how to continue to protect them.
Cuba has done “what we should have done — identify your hot spots of biodiversity and set them aside,” said Oliver Houck, a professor of environmental law at Tulane University Law School who attended the conference.
In the late 1990s, Mr. Houck was involved in an effort, financed in part by the MacArthur Foundation, to advise Cuban officials writing new environmental laws.
But, he said in an interview, “an invasion of U.S. consumerism, a U.S.-dominated future, could roll over it like a bulldozer” when the embargo ends.
By some estimates, tourism in Cuba is increasing 10 percent annually. At a minimum, Orlando Rey Santos, the Cuban lawyer who led the law-writing effort, said in an interview at the conference, “we can guess that tourism is going to increase in a very fast way” when the embargo ends.
“It is estimated we could double tourism in one year,” said Mr. Rey, who heads environmental efforts at the Cuban ministry of science, technology and environment.
About 700 miles long and about 100 miles wide at its widest, Cuba runs from Haiti west almost to the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico. It offers crucial habitat for birds, like Bicknell’s thrush, whose summer home is in the mountains of New England and Canada, and the North American warblers that stop in Cuba on their way south for the winter.
Zapata Swamp, on the island’s southern coast, may be notorious for its mosquitoes, but it is also known for its fish, amphibians, birds and other creatures. Among them is the Cuban crocodile, which has retreated to Cuba from a range that once ran from the Cayman Islands to the Bahamas.
Cuba has the most biologically diverse populations of freshwater fish in the region. Its relatively large underwater coastal shelves are crucial for numerous marine species, including some whose larvae can be carried by currents into waters of the United States, said Ken Lindeman, a marine biologist at Florida Institute of Technology.
Dr. Lindeman, who did not attend the conference but who has spent many years studying Cuba’s marine ecology, said in an interview that some of these creatures were important commercial and recreational species like the spiny lobster, grouper or snapper.
Like corals elsewhere, those in Cuba are suffering as global warming raises ocean temperatures and acidity levels. And like other corals in the region, they reeled when a mysterious die-off of sea urchins left them with algae overgrowth. But they have largely escaped damage from pollution, boat traffic and destructive fishing practices.
Diving in them “is like going back in time 50 years,” said David Guggenheim, a conference organizer and an ecologist and member of the advisory board of the Harte Research Institute, which helped organize the meeting along with the Center for International Policy, a private group in Washington.
In a report last year, the World Wildlife Fund said that “in dramatic contrast” to its island neighbors, Cuba’s beaches, mangroves, reefs, seagrass beds and other habitats were relatively well preserved. Their biggest threat, the report said, was “the prospect of sudden and massive growth in mass tourism when the U.S. embargo lifts.”
To prepare for that day, researchers from a number of American institutions and organizations are working on ecological conservation in Cuba, including Harte, the Wildlife Conservation Society, universities like Tulane and Georgetown, institutions like the American Museum of Natural History and the New York Botanical Garden, and others. What they are studying includes coral health, fish stocks, shark abundance, turtle migration and land use patterns.
Cuban scientists at the conference noted that this work continued a tradition of collaboration that dates from the mid-19th century, when Cuban researchers began working with naturalists from the Smithsonian Institution. In the 20th century, naturalists from Harvard and the University of Havana worked together for decades.
But now, they said, collaborative relationships are full of problems. The Cancún meeting itself illustrated one.
“We would have liked to be able to do this in Havana or in the United States,” Jorge Luis Fernández Chamero, the director of the Cuban science and environment agency and leader of the Cuban delegation, said through a translator in opening the meeting. “This we cannot do.” While the American government grants licenses to some (but not all) American scientists seeking to travel to Cuba, it routinely rejects Cuban researchers seeking permission to come to the United States, researchers from both countries said.
So meeting organizers turned to Alberto Mariano Vázquez De la Cerda, a retired admiral in the Mexican navy, an oceanographer with a doctorate from Texas A & M and a member of the Harte advisory board, who supervised arrangements for the Cuban conferees.
The travel situation is potentially even worse for researchers at state institutions in Florida. Jennifer Gebelein, a geographer at Florida International University who uses global positioning systems to track land use in Cuba, told the meeting about restrictions imposed by the Florida Legislature, which has barred state colleges from using public or private funds for travel to Cuba.
As a result of this move and federal restrictions, Dr. Gebelein said “we’re not sure what is going to happen” with her research program.
On the other hand, John Thorbjarnarson, a zoologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, said that he had difficulty obtaining permission from Cuba to visit some areas in that country, like a habitat area for the Cuban crocodile near the Bay of Pigs.
“I have to walk a delicate line between what the U.S. allows me to do and what the Cubans allow me to do,” said Dr. Thorbjarnarson, who did not attend the conference. “It is not easy to walk that line.”
But he had nothing but praise for his scientific colleagues in Cuba. Like other American researchers, he described them as doing highly competent work with meager resources. “They are a remarkable bunch of people,” Dr. Thorbjarnarson said, “but my counterparts make on average probably less than $20 a month.”
American scientists, foundations and other groups are ready to help with equipment and supplies but are hampered by the embargo. For example, Maria Elena Ibarra Martín, a marine scientist at the University of Havana, said through a translator that American organizations had provided Cuban turtle and shark researchers with tags and other equipment. They shipped it via Canada.
Another thorny issue is ships.
“If you are going to do marine science, at some point you have to go out on a ship,” said Robert E. Hueter, who directs the center for shark research at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla., and attended the Cancún meeting.
But, he and others said, the United States government will not allow ships into American ports if they have recently been in Cuban waters in the previous six months, and the Cuban government will not allow American research vessels in Cuban waters.
One answer might be vessels already in Cuba, but nowadays they are often tied up in tourism-related efforts, Cubans at the Cancún meeting said.
And even with a ship, several American researchers at the conference said, it is difficult to get Cuban government permission to travel to places like the island’s northwest coast, the stretch closest to the United States. As a result, that region is the least-studied part of the Cuban coast, Dr. Guggenheim and others said.
Another big problem in Cuba is the lack of access to a source of information researchers almost everywhere else take for granted: the Internet.
Critics blame the Castro government, saying it limits access to the Internet as a form of censorship. The Cuban government blames the embargo, which it says has left the country with inadequate bandwidth and other technical problems that require it to limit Internet access to people who need it most.
In any event, “we find we do not have access,” Teresita Borges Hernández, a biologist in the environment section of Cuba’s science and technology ministry, said through a translator. She appealed to the Americans at the meeting to do “anything, anything to improve this situation.”
Dr. Guggenheim echoed the concern and said even telephone calls to Cuba often cost as much as $2 a minute. “These details, though they may seem trite,” he said, “are central to our ability to collaborate.”
Dr. Gebelein and several of the Cubans at the meeting said that some American Web sites barred access to people whose electronic addresses identify them as Cuban. She suggested that the group organize a Web site in a third country, a site where they could all post data, papers and the like, and everyone would have access to it.
For Dr. Guggenheim, the best lessons for Cubans to ponder as they contemplate a more prosperous future can be seen 90 miles north, in the Florida Keys. There, he said, too many people have poured into an ecosystem too fragile to support them.
“As Cuba becomes an increasingly popular tourist resort,” Dr. Guggenheim said, “we don’t want to see and they don’t want to see the same mistakes, where you literally love something to death.”
But there are people skeptical that Cuba will resist this kind of pressure. One of them is Mr. Houck.
The environmental laws he worked on are “a very strong structure,” he said, “But all laws do is give you the opportunity to slow down the wrong thing. Over time, you can wear the law down.”
That is particularly true in Cuba, he said, “where there’s no armed citizenry out there with high-powered science groups pushing in the opposite direction. What they lack is the counter pressure of environmental groups and environmental activists.”
As Mr. Rey and Daniel Whittle, a lawyer for Environmental Defense, put it in the book “Cuban Studies 37” (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006), “policymaking in Cuba is still centralized and top down.” But, they wrote, “much can be done to enhance public input in policymaking.”
Mr. Rey said in the interview that Cubans must be encouraged to use their environmental laws. By “some kind of cultural habit,” he said, people in Cuba rarely turn to the courts to challenge decisions they dislike.
“There’s no litigation, just a few cases here and there,” Mr. Rey said. “In most community situations if a citizen has a problem he writes a letter. That’s O.K., but it’s not all the possibilities.”
Mr. Rey added, “We have to promote more involvement, not only in access to justice and claims, but in taking part in the decision process.”
“I know the state has a good system from the legislative point of view,” Mr. Rey said. But as he and Mr. Whittle noted in their paper, “the question now is whether government leaders can and will do what it takes to put the plan on the ground.”