Written by: Alexandra Puritz, M.S. Candidate, Marine Ecosystems & Society, University of Miami's Rosentiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science
This past June, I participated on a CubaMar expedition to Cuba’s Isle of Youth. As a graduate student at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, I am collaborating with CubaMar to research marine protected areas (MPAs) in Cuba. Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean, and its shores are comprised of diverse marine ecosystems including coral reefs and seagrass beds. To protect these marine environments, Cuba has developed an extensive national network of MPAs. The main objective of our journey was to learn about and participate in the community-based conservation projects taking place in Cocodrilo. Cocodrilo is a remote fishing town located on the southern coast of the island within a Protected Area for Managed resources and it is the closest community to Punta Frances National Park, which is an MPA located off the southwestern tip of the island.
The Isle of Youth is a very unique island. Isolated from mainland Cuba, the Isle of Youth seems like an almost forgotten place. On the cobblestone streets of Nueva Gerona, the island’s provincial capital, you are more likely to see horse-drawn carriages or motorcycles than cars. The history of the Isle of Youth reads like a historical adventure novel. The island’s past visitors include Christopher Columbus, Spanish colonists, pirates, and American settlers. Most notably, in 1953 Fidel and Raul Castro were imprisoned by then-president Gerardo Machado on the island’s jail, called Presidio Modelo, which is now a museum. Following the Cuban Revolution, Castro renamed the island the Isle of Youth, which had previously been called the Isle of Pines. The new name commemorated his initiative to turn the island into an international destination for young people to learn about the ideals of socialism. Dozens of boarding schools were built across the island for students from all over the world to attend. However, during Cuba’s economic depression known as the ‘Special Period’ following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the schools were shut down. To this day, when driving around the northwestern portion of the island, you can’t help but notice these abandoned and ominous Soviet-looking buildings. For an in-depth read on the island’s history, check out this Washington Post article.
The coastal town of Cocodrilo can be reached by a roughly 2-hour taxi ride or a 4-hour public bus ride from Nueva Gerona. In order to enter through the protected area, we needed to receive special permits from the Cuban Government and had to cross through a military checkpoint. Once through the checkpoint, as the road winds its way through the Lanier Swamp it becomes extremely bumpy and overpopulated with enormous coconut crabs. At the end of our trip when we passed back through this military checkpoint, young soldiers inspected our bags to make sure nobody illegally took turtle shell out of the protected area.
The Cocodrilo community was founded by Cayman turtle fishermen in the early 1900s, and to this day the Cayman influence remains. The houses have a Cayman architectural style and it was a surprise to be greeted in English by a woman whose ancestors were among the original founders of the town. Fishing is still the main livelihood for the majority of the residents, although in 2008 the Cuban Government banned the sea turtle fishery.
During our stay in Cocodrilo, our hosts El Nene and Rey taught us about their marine conservation efforts in the community. According to them, Cocodrilo’s coastal ecosystems can be considered the town’s most valuable assets, and they hope to encourage young people to conserve their marine resources. In particular, they hope to promote non-extractive ways to use these resources, such as through education and ecotourism. One of their current projects is a coral restoration nursery for staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis), which is an endangered coral species. In addition, our group participated in a youth-focused sea turtle festival led by the town’s leaders, which encouraged a sense of pride in conserving Cuba’s sea turtle populations. Children played games that taught them values relating to conservation, such as a paper version of Go Fish where they could only take fish above a certain size limit. Ultimately, projects such as these demonstrate the ways in which communities can be engaged in non-extractive ways of appreciating their marine resources. A longer-term goal for Cocodrilo’s conservationists is for the town to develop a niche in ecotourism, which would benefit both the environment and the community by providing an economic alternative to fishing and incentivizing conservation.
To learn more about Cocodrilo and future volunteer opportunities for supporting their environmental education initiatives, visit: http://www.cubamar.org/volunteer-in-cocodrilo.html.