The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) celebrates 20 years of collaboration with Cuba in marine ecosystems conservation and rebuilding fisheries this year. In honor of this anniversary, we interviewed EDF’s Senior Director and Attorney, Dan Whittle, to understand how EDF became involved in this long-term mutually beneficial relationship. Today, Part 3 concludes our interview with Mr. Whittle and Elise Hartill, M.Sc., a marine scientist and National Geographic Explorer who studied at the University of Maine’s School of Marine Sciences.
Elise Hartill: That’s a great segue to my next question, what do you think the future of ecotourism is and balancing responsible economic development with conservation?
I think it almost comes back down to the list we made back in 2002. Good science, you have to have laws and policies, not just the ones that were written in the late nineties, but they need to be updated. They have the new fisheries law I mentioned, which mandates that science drive fisheries management, you’ve got to have the political will. So, you know, as things change, it’s imperative that leaders throughout the country believe in and respect the importance of conservation and environmental protection. The collaboration we’ve talked about is fundamental, public awareness and support within Cuba and outside of Cuba. I think one reason that they’ve done such a good job of conserving the Gardens of the Queen park is that it has an international reputation. And then, of course, money is a big issue.
The economy in Cuba at the moment is hurting. I think it’s in everyone’s best interest that it have the wherewithal to grow its economy. It’s important for the people living in Cuba to have good jobs and to put food on the table. And without growing the economy it will be hard to invest in, to finance conservation. And that’s critically important. I think maybe the number one thing that Cuba has done is that they’ve earned a reputation as a biodiversity hotspot, a place where many of its natural areas still look like they did a hundred years ago in the Caribbean. And they can truly have their cake and eat it too.
People want to come to Cuba for its history, music, sports, architecture, etc. They really stand alone in the Caribbean, it’s a truly special place. Closing the door to collaboration, closing the door to Americans who want to visit, taking away opportunities for Cuban entrepreneurs to make a living off of tourism or conservation is the wrong way to go. We saw in 2014 and then 2015 through early 2017, real progress being made, that was beneficial, not only to the Cuban people, by the way, but also to people in the U.S. As we mentioned at the outset, Cuba was doing a good job of protecting its environment and we’re down current of Cuba. We benefit from that. And again, we also have a lot to learn from their success. So, the goal is to get things back on track. We’re treading water now, but hopefully we can soon get back to normal again.
Ms Hartill: Another way to put it is that there is a fear of big developers coming to Cuba and building big hotels or resorts on the shores and destroying mangroves and other habitats that are so important, not only to the fish that end up in coral reefs, but also to the integrity of the shoreline. If there’s the political will to protect the environment, hopefully that takes precedent over big developers wanting to come in.
That’s the principal question. And that was the question people were asking as diplomatic relations were getting back on track during the Obama administration. That was the question and that continues to be the question, and ultimately, it’s up to the Cuban people and their government to strike the right balance. I think the advantage they have and that they have had is that they’ve been able to learn from mistakes made throughout the region, all of the issues you described, that have happened from Cancun to other Caribbean destinations and their lessons for what not to do. I think Cuban scientists certainly, but many people in Cuba in general, are aware of those cautionary tales. And over the years there are best practices that have allowed developers to more sustainably build resorts, hotels, et cetera, in a manner that does not undermine the environment and conservation, it’s always a challenge.
Arguably, Cuba made some decisions in the last few years that may or may not have been the best in terms of where to site hotels or new development. The cruise ships were controversial around the Caribbean and have had a tremendous impact on the natural environment. The Cuban government decided to allow cruise ships in, which was an understandable decision, as they brought thousands and thousands and thousands of American tourists and others to the islands, which was critically important for the economy. And they were aware of the potential drawbacks. There were decisions made not to allow cruise ships in certain areas of Cuba, but moving forward, those are the questions, provided that the process is inclusive and transparent and as science really leads the way, they’ve got the potential to grow the economy in a manner that works.
So that’s the big one. And that’s why it’s in our interest. It’s certainly in our interest that we support Cuba in protecting its environment and in developing its economy in an environmentally sustainable way. Therefore, it’s in our interest to encourage scientific collaboration among experts and investment in renewable energy.
We all benefit, as Cuba tries to transition to renewable sources of energy and away from the use of dirty, imported and expensive fossil fuels. Cuba has also led the way, in recent years, on sustainable agriculture, agroecology where the farm to table movement happened for a variety of reasons. And now during this pandemic, the farmers who are prospering the most are local organic and sustainable farmers. I think there are many lessons out that demonstrate there’s a right way and a wrong way. But it’s always going to be up to governments to adapt, and for decision makers to change the approach to development and conservation over time. Maintaining political will be critically important. And again, the best way to move forward is by dialogue and collaboration, not by isolation.
Ms Hartill: With regard to the sustainable development of hotels and resorts, big industry leaders are taking initiative. Melia for instance has won several awards for sustainability recently. I think that’s the trend in hotels because consumers will look for that kind of respect for the environment.
That’s a really important point because it underscores the importance of partnerships. And when we were talking earlier, about the issues in the U.S., what was the game changer was that fishermen started partnering with conservation groups and business groups. EDF’s approach has always been finding the ways that work, often through unconventional partnerships. We partnered with McDonald’s back in the early nineties to get rid of their styrofoam clamshell boxes; if there’s a willingness to join forces with people or entities that have traditionally been your opponents, then there’s real opportunity to change.
And that includes cruise ships, but, with hotels, especially because Melia and others have done a good job in responding to consumer demand for a more sustainable product. And so, they have to be part of the solution. They have to drive that same thing with U.S. agriculture, huge opportunity for agribusiness and other agricultural interests in the U.S., but in my opinion, they only succeed if they wave the flag of sustainability.
Ms Hartill: Thank you, Dan for taking the time to do this interview for Cuba Business Report.
Well, thank you for everything you guys are doing! I’m glad you’re still spreading the word about Cuba.
Elise Hartill has a B.Sc. in Marine Biology with a minor in Fisheries, and a M.Sc. in Marine Biology, both from the School of Marine Science at the University of Maine. She studied tropical coral ecosystems in Bonaire and the Dominican Republic with Dr. Robert Steneck during her undergraduate career. Her undergraduate thesis describes the reproductive biology of an Antarctic deep-sea coral, and her Master’s thesis describes the ecology of cold-water corals in Alaskan fjords with Dr. Rhian Waller. She is a National Geographic Explorer, having received an “Early Career Grant” in 2019 to develop and expand place-based science programming for students in rural Alaska. The project is set to take place in 2021 with the collaboration of educators from Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve.