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Dan Whittle Discusses EDF and Cuba’s Long-term Mutually Beneficial Relationship

Dan Whittle with Zenaida Navarro from the University of Havana. Photo:

This year, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) celebrated 20 years of collaboration with Cuba in marine ecosystems conservation and rebuilding fisheries. In honor of this anniversary of scientific collaboration we approached EDF’s Senior Director and Attorney, Dan Whittle, to understand how EDF became involved in this long-term mutually beneficial relationship.

Mr. Whittle is involved in Latin American and Caribbean projects to promote sustainable fisheries and coral reef, marine and coastal ecosystems conservation. Since 2007, he has worked with the Tri-National Initiative on Marine Sciences and Conservation that facilitates collaborative research and conservation projects between scientists in Cuba, the US, and Mexico.

He has been active in promoting scientific exchange, environmental dialogue and cooperation between the United States and Cuba and in 2011 he organized a fact-finding delegation to Cuba with William Reilly, co-chair of former President Obama’s national oil spill commission.

Currently, Mr. Whittle directs EDF’s efforts in Puerto Rico advocating for clean energy policies and collaborating with rural communities to design and build low carbon microgrids to harness clean energy.

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Mr. Whittle has taught environmental law at Wake Forest University Law School and is a former policy advisor for the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources.  He also practiced environmental and energy law with Van Ness, Feldman and Curtis in Washington, DC.

EDF has the mission to preserve natural systems and find sustainable solutions to serious environmental problems. The organization maintains relationships with scientists, managers, NGOs and policymakers in the U.S., Cuba and around the world.

Dan Whittle spoke with Elise Hartill, a marine scientist and National Geographic Explorer who studied at the University of Maine’s School of Marine Sciences, in a Zoom conference on June 8, 2020. This is an in-depth interview and will be published in three parts.

Elise Hartill: How did EDF become involved in conservation efforts in Cuba? What did that work look like initially and what does it look like today?

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Dan Whittle:

We got involved in Cuba conservation efforts by accident, about 20 years ago, when I was part of our oceans program working from North Carolina to Florida on two things, trying to end overfishing and protecting essential fish habitat.

We were working with U.S. federal advisory councils to come up with rules to ensure that fishing levels were not excessive, and that fish stocks could rebound. We were spending a lot of time on that. And then in the year 2000, we hired a fisheries biologist from Miami to help us out on that effort. And he said, “you know, I’ve spent some time studying reef fish with Cuban scientists, especially snappers, groupers, grunts, and others that spawn off the southwest Coast of Cuba and get carried by the currents up to the southeast coast of the U.S.” So, it became clear to us that our success in managing fisheries in the U.S. depends upon what Cuba does.

And that was the first seed of an idea to reach out and work in Cuba. We got invited to give a series of papers in December of 2000 in Havana at an international marine conference. And the moment we walked into that conference, Cuban scientists and lawyers (I’m a lawyer, not a scientist) were very welcoming and seemed eager to work with an American group like EDF on just about anything related to the environment and science.

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And so, we just started as a one off and after that trip, it was clear that there were opportunities to collaborate on science and possibly to compare ideas on management, law and policy as well. In the mid- to late nineties, Cuba had an environmental Renaissance where they developed ambitious environmental laws, policies and programs. In 1995, they established the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment, which was the first ever cabinet level position for the environment. In 1997, the government adopted Law 81 of the Environment, and then in the late nineties, they developed several additional environmental policies and laws, including measures on protected areas, coastal zone management, and environmental review and licensing.

It was really interesting for me as a lawyer to see how ambitious Cuba was being at a time when their economy was just beginning to come out of a serious economic crisis.

After that I had several conversations with lawyers there about how they could implement those laws successfully. In other words, the question was, “these environmental laws could just be paper tigers, how do you plan to implement and enforce them?”

And then on the science side, there was so much to learn from each other. Cuba was just barely in the process of trying to develop a national park system for the ocean. They had a pretty good network of green protected areas on land, and they wanted to extend that notion of protecting important habitats around the Island.

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Our first opportunity was working to protect essential fish habitats, just like we were trying to do in the U.S. and so we decided we could, if nothing else, compare notes on the science. EDF could bring resources to the country to host workshops, and get scientists talking to each other to identify which coastal types, which marine ecosystems, were most important to protect and how to prioritize their protection. So that’s how we started, and it just never stopped. We found that there was a real value in collaborating on marine protected areas.

Fast forward 20 years, and Cuba has already protected almost 25% of their insular platform, the coastal and marine waters. Many of those protected areas include mangroves and shorelines, which are critically important to the life history of fishes and other marine life.

That early collaboration produced valuable science that has resulted in conservation on the ground. That’s a legacy that we’ve built upon. We continue primarily to serve as a science-based organization that facilitates scientific collaboration that can inform management and policy.

In 2002, we were part of an exchange between the U.S. and Cuba on environmental law.

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Unfortunately, the exchange did not fully happen. The Cuban professionals were not able to get visas to come to New Orleans in 2002 because of U.S. policy, but all of the U.S. professionals got permission to go to Cuba. So, we had the entire exchange in Havana, and that provided an opportunity for lawyers and policy experts to talk about the challenges of implementing these various environmental laws. And I remember at the end of that exchange, there was a list of what factors would be necessary for Cuba to be successful in implementing these ambitious laws while still growing its economy.

There seemed to be a consensus that what’s needed is good science, good law and policy. And you also need the political will to implement them and collaboration on the Island among all the different agencies to work together and not work in silos. Public awareness and support is also key and not just within the Island.

And I have to say, the Cubans know what they’ve got, they know that they have incredibly a bio-diverse, rich, special place. Every Cuban knows that Columbus said when he landed on the Island years ago, “this is the most beautiful land human eyes have ever seen.” And Cubans take a take pride in that, but you need public awareness and support in order to protect the environment, in a time when the economy is really most important to people, you need money and there has to be a way to pay for it, and finally, you also need international collaboration.

Since we share waters, we share the environment. It’s critically important, not just the U S and Cuba, but Cuba and The Bahamas, Mexico, and the whole region. And again, that’s been a reality that’s guided us, over the years.

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I can talk more about where we are now. We focused more and more over time on fisheries, how to rebuild fish populations and protect habitats. Along the way we focused on conservation of coastal areas more broadly. We’ve worked on renewable energy in Cuba and, after the BP oil spill in 2010, EDF was able to facilitate exchange of information between two governments that had no diplomatic relations and therefore weren’t officially talking to each other. We were able to facilitate in 2011, a delegation of experts to Cuba to talk about how to collaborate on oil spill prevention and response. That delegation was led by former EPA administrator, William Reilly, who was the EPA administrator under the first Bush administration, in the early nineties.

That part of the approach is dialogue, science and goodwill, and collaboration. Basically, science diplomacy. But in terms of subject matter, our work in Cuba has really aligned with our work in the U.S. and now around the world. And that’s to end the dire threat of overfishing. Billions of people around the world depend upon fish protein and many small communities around the world depend upon fishing for their economy and jobs. How do you work with government officials, scientists, and fishermen, and fishing families to end over-fishing in a manner that doesn’t sacrifice their livelihoods? How can you catch fewer fish and make more money, essentially.

After the reestablishment of diplomatic relations in 2015, EDF began thinking about other areas like sustainable agriculture and renewable energy, where we have experience in the U.S. and elsewhere that might be beneficial in Cuba. And then finally, I’ll say that something that often gets overlooked or forgotten is that this is a two-way street. We’ve never seen our work as being aid or assistance. We benefit as much as our Cuban partners do. We’ve learned a lot from our Cuban partners, on why their coral reefs are generally healthy and resilient to coral bleaching and various other things. So, we’ve studied their corals to bring those lessons elsewhere. They have some of the most impressive mangrove forests in the world, really, that are incredibly important buffers to sea level rise and intensifying hurricanes. We see Cuba as a classroom for U.S. scientists and experts in conservation.

Ms Hartill: Does EDF collect its own data, conduct its own research in Cuba? Does EDF employ scientists or is it mostly funding and collaboration/consulting? How exactly does the collaboration take form?

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Mr. Whittle:

Yeah that’s a really good question because it’s changed over the years. We’re limited on how we spend money through the U.S. law, basically Department of Treasury regulations. We’re allowed to legally conduct research and we’ve had specific licenses over the years, and in recent years, we’ve had what they call general licenses that allow research, and that extends to collaborative research. We’ve spent a fair amount of time on the water with Cuban scientists in the Gardens of the Queen National Park and the Gulf of Batabano conducting fieldwork, and that’s the best approach. We prefer to do it that way, where scientists are in the field together. Sometimes that’s difficult to do, not because of U.S. rules, but because of all the permitting challenges and the time involved.

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Also, we’ve helped facilitate other groups. We either participate in or help facilitate U.S.-Cuba collaborative science in the field. We have provided support for Cuban researchers in the Gardens of the Queen and elsewhere to conduct the research, provided it’s part of a joint work effort.

This interview with Dan Whittle of EDF will continue tomorrow.

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