Cuba's environment – how will a thaw in relations with the U.S. affect it?

The endangered Cuban crocodile.

Communism has provided at least one unexpected benefit to Cuba, points out the Nature Conservancy: The island's environment is the most biodiverse in the Caribbean, partly because of lack of development under Castro and the 47-year US embargo.

But the thaw in the two countries' relations may have consequences for the island nation's environment, particularly its wildlife. How might its 350 species of birds and 35 species of mammals fare in the future?

David Cleary (who's director of conservation strategies in South America for the Nature Conservancy, has a Ph.D. in anthropology from Oxford, and has taught at the University of Edinburgh, Cambridge University, and Harvard University) doesn't seem overly optimistic. Writing in Cool Green Science, the conservancy's conservation blog, he envisions hordes of American tourists descending on Cuba -- as they have elsewhere in the Caribbean -- with resorts being built and infrastructure going up, all to the detriment of wildlife on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

These include the Cuban crocodile and the Cuban Amazon (also known as the Cuban parrot).

There's no doubt that tourist-related development will come to Cuba -- followed by US tourists who want to experience something different from what Cleary calls the Cancunization of the Caribbean.

Still, there is hope that conservation might not necessarily be overlooked in the rush for American dollars. Actually, he sees the normalizing of relations between the two nations as presenting a "unique conservation opportunity" for US conservation programs to reach out to their counterparts in Cuba and help prevent the destruction of critical habitats and make sure that threatened species are protected.

This isn't just a pipe dream. A year and a half ago, The New York Times reported in an article, Conserving Cuba, After the Embargo: "Conservationists, environmental lawyers and other experts, from Cuba and elsewhere, met last month in Cancún, Mexico, to discuss the island’s resources and how to continue to protect them."

At that time, groups such as the Wildlife Conservation Society, Tulane and Georgetown universities, the American Museum of Natural History, and the New York Botanical Garden were already studying a number of ecological conservation issues in Cuba, including land-use patterns.

So maybe there is hope for the Cuban crocodile.

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