Cuba: Restoring Lost Balance in Nature

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By Patricia Grogg

From Inter Press Service 

SANTA CLARA, Cuba, Oct 23 (IPS) – Efforts to restore degraded island ecosystems are already producing results in the central Cuban province of Villa Clara, where scientists from different disciplines have been fomenting environmentally-friendly practices since the beginning of this decade. One of the restoration projects is in Cayo Conuco, a tiny island located seven kilometres across the water from Caibarién, a town in the north of Villa Clara. Cayo Conuco, which is joined to the mainland by a stone causeway, was recently covered only by thin, dry pasture. Now, the green leaves of native plant species have resumed their rightful place.

This 210-hectare key is a favourite recreational area, especially for families from Caibarién, who like to holiday there in rustic cabins, Jesús Matos Mederos, the head of the Cuban Group for Ecological Restoration (GCRE) and an expert with the National Flora and Fauna Protection Division, told IPS.

Historians point to Cayo Conuco as the site of the first Spanish colonial settlement in the area. Only reached by sea in those days, the traces they left behind show that there were houses here, charcoal was made and valuable timber was extracted from the forest. Now it is a protected area and part of the province’s natural heritage.

“The project to restore the degraded parts of this key is a challenge not only in itself, but also because of the presence of people. We looked for a way of integrating environmental education activities, public use and community participation,” said Matos.

With this aim in mind, a natural walkway was made in the woods where work is ongoing, which shows visitors how restoration makes a difference.

“From the woods of today to the woods of tomorrow,” says the sign at the beginning of the walk, which allows visitors to see for themselves how the vegetation develops and how animals gradually return to the recovered habitat.

Another environmental education project brings schoolchildren from Caibarién to Cayo Conuco. They gather seeds and help in the nurseries, where tree species like mahogany, brazilwood, carob, guayacán and others are grown, to reforest the key.

Matos said that in the last three years, four hectares have been restored to health through multidisciplinary actions.

The aim is to restore as far as possible the original characteristics of the site before it was degraded, although other experts point to the difficulty of bringing back an ecosystem that no longer exists in that place.

“But there is no doubt that ecological restoration is the only option human beings have to ensure that the vast degraded areas all over the world have a biodiverse future,” Matos said.

The starting-point is to discover what is preventing the ecosystem from recovering by itself, and then work on eliminating these elements. “In other words, you try to manage those elements, whether they are soils, water systems, biological interactions, vegetation, soil microorganisms or anything else that is damaging the ecosystem,” he said.

Among the causes of ecosystem degradation that are common to Cuba and the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean, Matos mentioned soil degradation, deterioration of environmental conditions, pollution of rivers and seas, deforestation and loss of biodiversity.

Other negative influences on the environment, according to experts at the First Iberian-Latin-American Symposium on Ecological Restoration, held in Santa Clara, the capital of Villa Clara province, in 2004, are desertification, irrational exploitation of resources, the spread of invasive species, forest fires, monoculture, expansion of agriculture and stock-raising, and tourism activities in fragile or non-sustainable areas.

In April this year, participants at the Second Symposium, also held in Santa Clara, created an Ibero-American and Caribbean Ecological Restoration Network (RIACRE) to share knowledge, experience and technology among all the region’s experts.

RIACRE’s goals include securing funds and international cooperation to carry out joint restoration projects which, Matos said, are costly, and to provide well-founded, up-to-date scientific information for administrators and policy makers.

Local networks of environmental activists in countries such as Colombia, Brazil, Mexico and Argentina, as well as Cuba, have already joined RIACRE.

“Other countries in the region should set up national groups, and elect representatives to RIACRE,” said Matos, who coordinated the formation of the network together with other Latin American experts.

Matos would like to see RIACRE consolidated, with statutes approved by a majority of members, by 2009. He wants it to have a web page, an established email newsletter, funding and a coordinating board, among other goals.