Declaration of Cuba’s Guanahacabibes National Park- Maria La Gorda Hope Spot Ignited by Community Conservation Efforts
December 4, 2018
GUANAHACABIBES NATIONAL PARK, CUBA, (December 5, 2018) – Throughout the last 25 years, the western tip of Cuba known as the Guanahacabibes National Park has seen a tremendous community effort between residents, marine biologists and the Cuban government to preserve its coral reefs and green sea turtle population. What was considered to be a dire situation stemming from overfishing and green sea turtle consumption in the 1990’s transformed into a phenomenal story of success. International non-profit Mission Blue has declared the Guanahacabibes National Park, encompassing the Maria La Gorda area, a Hope Spot to shine a spotlight on the exquisite health of the area, to educate the next generation of locals and international visitors on how to symbiotically care for its ecology, and to highlight the incredible change that can be accomplished with international collaboration.
“We are honored to declare Guanahacabibes National Park – Maria La Gorda a Hope Spot in recognition of the conservation wins and ongoing efforts to protect this vibrant marine ecosystem,” said Dr. Sylvia Earle, founder of Mission Blue. “Now, as never before, is the time for us to take action to protect the living systems that keep the planet working in our favor.”
Beginning in the 1990’s when the marine and terrestrial resources of this area were being depleted, Cuban Marine Biologist, Dr. Elena Maria Ibarra Martin, a contemporary of Dr. Sylvia Earle, initiated a conservation vision under a political framework and economic tragedy most would consider impossible.
In 2015, Dr. Dorka Corbian Rojas and The Florida Aquarium in Tampa Bay established a coral nursery in the Guanahacabibes National Park. From there, the international collaboration between the United States and Cuba was born. The declaration of this Hope Spot shows that regardless of international differences and political views, friendships can be forged to support humanitarian and environmental projects.
“We are very happy to receive this prestigious recognition from Mission Blue for the ongoing conservation work in Guanahacabibes National Park, specifically in Maria la Gorda,” said Dr. Dorka, head marine biologist of Guanahacabibes programs. “We have seen the marine environment recover with our team’s efforts invested in partnership with the local community, diving instructors and staff of Villa Maria la Gorda as well as national legislation and state support. We are very grateful to the visitors who give support to our community and environmental projects. Specifically, our community has experienced diplomacy, support and love from Cuba SCUBA groups led by our friend, Amy. We hope very much for continued relations toward healing of the oceans together.”
Today in 2018, the area continues to be a story of hope in action. With a size of approximately 400 sq km created in 1987 by UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), the marine environment here is an ecological preserve free of pesticides and supported by the local scientific and rural communities and villages. This area is home to a rich variety of habitats including coral reefs, beaches, mangroves, scrublands and an evergreen forest. It also boasts more than 170 species of birds and dozens of reptile species, mammal species and many fish, including the Nassau grouper. Home to threatened species including black coral, the Queen conch, and a great diversity of reef fish, the area’s beaches support the second largest breeding population of green turtles in Cuba with an average of more than 300 nests per season served by an active local turtle research and conservation effort.
“We feel such a sense of pride and honor to care for this precious area”, said Asiel Dayan, head of the diving instructor team in Maria la Gorda. “Several members of our team have been working here for decades with more than ten thousands of dives experience each. Our team operates more like a family here. It comes from the heart and we love sharing this environmental treasure with all who visit. We divers are united globally with a passion to protect the ocean and this hope makes us fast friends.”
Amy Warren, Hope Spot Champion and President of Cuba SCUBA describes, “This area on the western tip of Cuba serves to inspire the world to believe what was nearly lost can be found yet again — even under the most dire obstacles. Guanahacabibes’ story of recovery with little resources — save the perseverance of the human spirit— has transformed it from a place of destruction to restoration. Today in 2018, it continues to be a story of hope in action!”
Since 1998, Amy Warren and her father, William Houghton, have conducted research immersions all over Cuba and published a book about it in 2003. Amy, a PADI Divemaster, is now working on the 2nd book that also incorporates feedback from participants and their experiences with Cuba’s ecology and how it relates to its culture and community.
In 2012, The Guanahacabibes National Park was included in the list of areas within the protocol concerning Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife (SPAW) of the wider Caribbean Region. The SPAW convention held in Cartagenas focused on protecting the marine environment and recognized the unique natural values of Guanahacabibes National Park. There are several studies currently being conducted of marine flora and fauna in the Guanahacabibes Peninsula, including to identify endemic species and to monitor other species in danger or requiring special protection, several of which currently stand on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.
These days, volunteers can assist the biologist team with several conservation programs including, maintenance of the coral nursery, invasive lionfish removal, sea turtle nesting conservation, plastics and debris cleanups on marine sites and the beaches, and a new coastal educational experience in the works with local villagers and Cuba Scuba. But, conservations are only as strong as the community that embraces them.
The sense of community is incredibly strong in Cuba, and is perhaps one of the greatest influences in the success of its ecological recovery. The partnership between the engaged community, active ecotourism industry and dedicated scientists are to thank for the continued heath of Cuba’s marine ecosystems.
“Local marine biologists have partnered with 5 villages (the largest being 20 houses) and they’ve been working with these kids for 15 years, some of whom have grown up and have been hired on staff”, Warren explains. “Now they’re working with the second generation. There was a famine in the 90’s and the average Cuban lost 20 pounds. They ate the turtles because they had nothing to eat. Now they’re working with them to help conserve. To learn how to count the eggs, guard the nests and protect them from predators. This isn’t just an outreach campaign. They really love each other. We are inspired to be a part of their story. One of Cuba SCUBA’s goals is to help the local community with startup strategies and resources to improve their incomes in direct support of the civil society – and the biologists can partner even deeper to launch a coastal educational experience for our participants to learn firsthand about the organic mangroves and indigenous animals who thrive in this habitat. It’s all connected to these healthy reefs!”
Cuba’s wholistic approach to preserving their environment dovetails with local organic farms implementing zero use of pesticides. As a result, there is very little chemical runoff around into coastal waters. The top award-winning tobacco farmers in the world are located in this same region as Guanahacabibes peninsula in the Pinar del Rio province. They see the connection and entirely support the mission of Cuba SCUBA. They felt the vision so much, local artists in the tobacco region created a song in honor of the two countries working together with Cuba Scuba participants who give heartfelt support to their region.
Cuba, especially its capital Havana, is known worldwide for its rich history, culture, art and music. Cuba SCUBA groups are working with local artists and community organizations to thread the message of environmental conservation is through the residents’ art and music. Given what has been observed to date, it appears Cubans are excited to take the value of conservation and weave it through their art and music to communicate the message to the public and rest of the world. Havana’s artist community are already holding art classes and look forward to the opportunity to better know and highlight marine conservation into it while dedicating art as a medium to educate the next generations to care for the future of Cuba’s ecosystems. Cuba SCUBA aims to help expose and immerse these local artists to their own reefs in to further this mission!
Dr. Sylvia Earle has said, “The ocean will heal its self when we stop taking so much out of it and putting so much into it.” The Guanahacabibes National Marine Park’s miraculous story of continuous recovery is proof that it can be done. Given the severe economic scarcity in Cuba, it serves to inform us that if a vision of restoration and conservation can be accomplished here, it can be done anywhere. It takes individuals who believe in the principle of hope for the future and are willing to answer the call to use all means at their disposal for the future ecology of a region.
About Mission Blue
Led by legendary oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle, Mission Blue is uniting a global coalition to inspire an upwelling of public awareness, access and support for a worldwide network of marine protected areas – Hope Spots. Under Dr. Earle’s leadership, the Mission Blue team implements communications campaigns that elevate Hope Spots to the world stage through documentaries, social media, traditional media and innovative tools like Google Earth. Mission Blue embarks on regular oceanic expeditions that shed light on these vital ecosystems and build support for their protection. Mission Blue also supports the work of conservation NGOs around the world that share the mission of building public support for ocean protection. The Mission Blue alliance includes more than 200 respected ocean conservation groups and like-minded organizations.
About Cuba SCUBA
Our mission is to help you experience the best of Cuba, share and document what you’ve learned, while blessing as many Cuban citizens as possible. Our goal is to produce quality marine and cultural analysis for our 2nd book, Cuba Ecology. We exist to support the Cuban people of civil society– encouraging life-changing friendships amongst our two countries. Come with us to participate in our exciting humanitarian – environmental project. In 2003, our 236 – page comprehensive book about Cuba’s marine environment was published. Research included partnering with the Center for Marine Research of the University of Havana to conduct immersions from the Felipe Poey research vessel overseen by Dr. Maria Elena Ibarra Martin, Director of the Center who often stayed with us when visiting Mote Marine Laboratories in Florida. In 2013, we founded AW Futures, LLC a research media organization with the mission to build relationships and strengthen the Cuban people through marine discovery and innovation by American citizens with a passion for the aquatic environment, conservation and Cuban culture. In 2015, our family obtained a Treasury license (CT-2015-316062-1) to begin the explicit research for writing and publishing our 2nd ecological book. In 2016, in June, we began the lengthy process of working towards an official agreement with Cuba to pursue humanitarian-environmental projects by American citizens that engage and empower the Cuban people with the purpose to produce meaningful research toward the 2nd book and in support of scientific organizations. Our marine environmental monitoring & humanitarian support comes along side organizations including: Havana’s Center for Marine Research, the Havana National Aquarium and the Evangelical Christian League of Cuba (LEC). In 2017, the official partnership agreement with Cuba was reached allowing the ability to support humanitarian – environmental projects and related travel transactions in conjunction with citizen science opportunities to help with discoveries for our 2nd book. On June 16, 2017 we sought due diligence and interpretive guidance due to Trump’s change in policy. We filed an amended application with the Office Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) of the United States Treasury Department for approval under the new Trump policy toward Cuba. On July 25, 2017 our organization received an approved amended application from OFAC for general licensed travel (reference case #CT-2017-345990-1) under the Trump Administration and new policy toward Cuba! Come join us on our exciting humanitarian – environmental project as we explore the island.