Castro the Conservationist? By Default or Design, Cuba Largely Pristine

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
August 4, 2006

Will Cuban President Fidel Castro be remembered primarily as a man of the people, an authoritarian tyrant—or a conservationist?

Castro handed power to his brother last week to undergo emergency intestinal surgery. His health remains uncertain, fueling rampant speculation about his legacy.

(See a photo gallery of life inside Castro's Cuba.)

Some experts say his environmental policies may be among his greatest achievements.

Though Cuba is economically destitute, it has the richest biodiversity in the Caribbean. Resorts blanket many of its neighbors, but Cuba remains largely undeveloped, with large tracts of untouched rain forest and unspoiled reefs (map of Cuba).

The country has signed numerous international conservation treaties and set aside vast areas of land for government protection.

But others say Cuba's economic underdevelopment has played just as large a role.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union—its main financial benefactor—Cuba has had to rely mostly on its own limited resources. It has embraced organic farming and low-energy agriculture because it can't afford to do anything else.

And once Castro is gone, the experts say, a boom in tourism and foreign investment could destroy Cuba's pristine landscapes.


"I think the Cuban government can take a substantial amount of credit for landscape, flora, and fauna preservation," said Jennifer Gebelein, a professor at Florida International University in Miami who studies environmental issues in Cuba.

More than 20 percent of Cuba's land is under some form of government protection. The island's wetlands have been largely shielded from pesticide runoff that has destroyed similar areas in other countries.

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