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Cuba benefits from extensive natural sanctuary system.

Cuba's national parks, reserves, wildlife refuges and restricted development areas have unexpectedly benefited from the economic crisis of the past 20 years.

As the country's communist regime reluctantly re-oriented Cuba's priorities to attracting foreign tourism in the 1990s--to the detriment of agriculture and industrial development--it began paying more attention to protecting and preserving environmentally valuable areas.

The result is that since 1986, Cuba's protected lands have grown by 43%, from 6,623 sq miles to 9,497 sq miles (including land and water), according to the Oficina Nacional de Estadisticas.

However, Cuban statistics are often confusing. In 1999, ONE reported barely 3 sq miles of protected lands--completely at odds with figures reported by other official sources.

But it's not only the overall area which has changed. It seems the rules are getting tougher. There's also more international recognition and support for some valuable territories.

In the mid-1980s, Cuba had only one biosphere reserve sponsored by the UNESCO's Man and Biosphere program. This was the one at Sierra del Rosario, covering 61,949 acres. Today, there are six such reserves with a combined area of 4.45 million acres.

In addition, the ratio of protected territories of national relevance (and consequently, centralized management) grew from 51% of all protected areas in the mid-1980s to 66% in 2010. The transformation of Cuba's natural environment and ecology over the past 500 years of development and human assimilation has left virtually no corner of the island untouched.

This poses a serious danger to Cuba's ecological systems because tropical lands are particularly vulnerable to extensive, often irreversible damage from changes introduced by human activity.


Cuba's most conspicuous problem has been deforestation. At the time of the first European colonization in the late 15th century, at least 90% of the island was covered by woodlands. Today, that figure is down to only 20%, with preserved forests remaining mostly in less accessible places like mountains, swamps and offshore keys.

Cuba's first efforts to protect its natural heritage date back to 1930, when Sierra de Cristal National Park was established to preserve still-flourishing forests in the northeastern mountains.

That was soon followed by establishment of the National Sanctuary for Hunting and Fishing at Cienaga de Zapata, in 1933, and the National Sanctuary for Flamingos in the northern swamps and keys of Camaguey province (1936).

But in an island that has too often fallen victim to political turmoil, bloody revolutions or desecration of its own past, those designations were not to last very long. Soon, even those early nature reserves were overwhelmed by invasive economic development.

Timber was extracted from Cuba's eastern protected forest and schemes were proposed even to drain the swamp at Zapata National Park and extract its peat deposits for energy.

Currently, Cuba's national system of protected areas (known by its Spanish acronym SNAP) offers different levels of protection. These range from areas that forbid all forms of economic activity and most visitors (except for scientific researchers), to national parks or areas managed for conservation, which are open to limited activity.

The objective is to prevent the extinction or severe destruction of Cuba's last remaining original ecosystems. Yet despite laws already on the books, enforcement is difficult. Poaching, cattle theft and illegal logging are hard to control, and fires are often intentionally set for hunting--in some cases causing widespread destruction.

The Cuban sanctuaries system includes nature reserves and ecological reserves as the highest categories of protection. As a rule, these zones are designed to shelter specific plants or animals species, particular ecosystems or unique landforms.

El Salon ecological reserve, for example, was created to save the last remnant of a mountain rainforest in western Cuba. It's supported by the Man and Biosphere program.


A number of natural reserves along the southeastern coast of the island were created to protect the unique landscape of marine terraces covered by dense xerophytic shrubs and fauna associated with them.

Wildlife sanctuaries target both fauna and flora of interest that must be spared from economic development. They often correspond with the gathering or reproductive aspects of migratory species.

The "national park" and "protected landscape" designations are broader zones commonly including several categories of protection, and a more tolerant form of usage.

Tourists may visit national parks such as Vinales or Cienaga de Zapata, though some are not normally visited, like the Humboldt National Park in eastern Cuba.

Finally the "area managed for conservation" designation is a more tolerant form of protection. Normally these territories allow some economic activity--including wood extraction, agriculture, tourism and hunting--within their borders. They are designed to protect woodlands or wetlands without halting all forms of economic activity.

Such designations are often contradictory. It's possible to find an "area managed for conservation" that has much more restrictive access than many nature reserves.

One such case is the southern plain of the Isle of Youth, a supposedly open zone that in fact is accessible only to handful of residents and workers. This contrasts with some nature reserves--the toughest restriction category--in Pinar del Rio where military activities reportedly have caused irreversible damage.

Protected areas are not totally safe from challenges. They may collide or are very close to mining zones or urban and industrial developments. For example, Humboldt National Park in northeastern Cuba sits partially on top of nickel-rich lateritic deposits.

Future investors in Cuba, from resort developers to industrialists, will have to carefully consider the location and impact their projects will have on the National System of Protected Areas.



Cuba's Cienaga de Zapata shows off its splendor in this false-color satellite photo mosaic taken around 10 years ago by NASA's Extended Thematic Mapper.

Cienaga de Zapata is not just Cuba's largest national park, but also the largest and best-preserved wetland in the Caribbean--and one of the island's most important ecosystems.

Its 1.7 million acres encompasses grassy marshlands (1), shown in dark hues in the center of the picture above, and dense mangrove forests (2), shown in dark green colors near marshy areas. Its swamps are bordered to the north by agricultural lands (3)--predominantly sugarcane plantations, citrus groves, pasturelands and orchards.

In past decades, irrigation and the massive use of fertilizers altered the balance and quality of waters flowing into the swamps. This offense to the environment has likely been reduced considerably, due ironically to Cuba's economic crisis which began after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.


Bright green belts in the center of the image and periphery of the swamps correspond to dense semi-deciduous forests (4) growing on higher rocky grounds. For decades, these forests have been seen as timber storehouses, providing some hardwood for construction and for charcoal production. In fact, they belong to a category known as "protected area of managed resources" and are not included in the national parks protected zone.

Cuba's cash-strapped economy led to a reduction of timber imports, forcing the island to rely heavily on woodlands like these. Hurricanes also have reportedly caused serious forestry losses.

The black color in the image's lower right corner corresponds to the deep waters of the Caribbean Sea (5), with depths in excess of 2,000 feet very close to the shoreline. The light blue, meanwhile, represents the shallow sea water of the shelf (6). Obscure hues surrounding Punta Zapata are likely related to the mix of fresh and sea water around the swamps (7).

The wetlands protected in the national park shelter some unique plants and animals, including a few seriously endangered species found nowhere else in the world. They form a fragile ecosystem which is critical to guaranteeing the productivity of nearby farms as well as a healthy marine environment.


Vinales National park

Cultural and natural landscapes, endemics.

Sierra del Rosario

Mountain rainforest

Guanahacabibes peninsula

Well-preserved forests. Endemics.

Isle of Youth southern plain

Well preserved original coastal forests and swamps. Invasive exotic animals (hogs, cows, deers, alligators) have turned into pests.

Los Canarreos archipelago

Coral reefs, sand islands, original vegetation. Includes Cantiles National Park and several natural sanctuaries

Cienaga de Zapata National Park

The largest wetland in the Caribbean (1.7 million acres). Includes a special protection zone at Playa Giron shoreline, Las Salinas wildlife sanctuary and parts of the ocean shelf.

Jardines de la Reina National Park

Coral reefs, sand islands, wildlife, original vegetation.

Caguanes National Park

Forests, caves, aborigine paintings

Turquino National Park

Rainforests, endemics

Baconao-Gran Piedra

Endemics, forests, landscapes diversity

Humboldt National Park

Mountain rainforests, hundreds of endemics

NOTE: This map has been compiled by CubaNews based on I the information provided by Cuba's official Sistema Nacional de Areas Protegidas. For reasons of space, some minor protected zones and/or names are omitted here. More importantly, the boundaries of some protected zones--as well as their names and even the category in which they belong--may differ greatly from those shown in official sources.

Havana-born Armando H. Portela has been a contributor to CubaNews since its birth in 1993. Portela has a Ph.D. in geography from the Soviet Academy of Sciences and resides in Miami, Fla.

PROTECTED LANDS        9,497 sq. miles
UNPROTECTED LANDS     69,320 sq. miles

Nearly 14% of
1Cuba's total territory
(including water) is
currently protected
by law under one or
more of the eight
existing conservation

Note: Table made from pie chart.
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Author:Portela, Armando H.
Article Type:Country overview
Geographic Code:5CUBA
Date:Oct 1, 2011
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