Could Fidel Be Cuba’s Teddy Roosevelt?

Flamingos populate the Parque Nacional Cienega de Zapata (Photo by Alex Sun).



By Roblyn Vereen

The most widely held views of  Fidel Castro are of an iron-fisted Communist dictator with little compassion for those he ruled in Cuba  or as a brilliant socialist leader who stood up to the United States for 60 years while greatly improving education and health care in Cuba. His pioneering in environmental conservation has drawn less attention.

When it comes to natural habitats and their preservation, Castro was, in some ways, like Teddy Roosevelt, who created the National Park System in the United States (and helped Cuba gain independence from Spain in 1898). His environmental interests ranged from searching out plants with unique nutritional properties to creating a vast network of national parks and botanical gardens.

In the early 1800s, 90 percent of Cuba’s land was covered by forests. As Cuba’s economy became reliant on sugar and nickel production, trees were uprooted and soil eroded.  By 1959, at the time of the Cuban revolution led by Castro, only 14 percent of Cuba was covered by forests.

After the revolution, the government embarked on an ambitious reforestation program, and today 30 percent of Cuba is covered by forests, with a program in place to help that number grow, according “Environmental Outlook: Cuba 2015,” a report by Cuba’s National Office of Statistics and Information.

Cuba significantly expanded its national park system, adding nine new parks.  In addition, the Castro regime created a nationwide network of botanical gardens.  Today the Cuban National System of Protected Areas covers about 12 percent of the country—though only about 1-2 percent is “strictly protected.”

“Castro and governmental agencies embraced environmental issues and put measures in place to protect the island’s remarkable biodiversity,” said Dan Whittle, the Environmental Defense Fund’s program director. “None of that could have taken place without Fidel Castro’s approval.”

“Before 1992,” Whittle said, “Cuba did not have a particularly strong environmental record,” but that changed with amendments to Cuba’s Constitution and the creation of a cabinet-level environmental agency.

Castro, in a speech, said “consumer societies are chiefly responsible for this appalling environmental destruction.”

To be sure, Castro’s revolutionary policies also did plenty of damage.  During the early years of the regime, land-clearing projects aimed at creating large government-run farms were conducted by “mechanized military brigades,” also known as “Che Guevara columns,” Sergio Diaz-Briquets wrote in his book, Forestry Policies of Cuba’s Socialist Government: An Appraisal. Nickel mining continues to pollute Cuba’s environment.

With Cuba’s tourism boom increasing pressure on the environment, reforestation and a network of botanical gardens try to protect both endangered species and Cuba’s natural diversity.

Swampland covers much of the Parque Nacional Cienega de Zapata (Photo by Yulia Rock).

Parque Nacional Cienega de Zapata, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, is on the tentative list for World Heritage status because of its natural habitats and biological diversity. The land, a long narrow peninsula with wetlands on each side, was once owned by a private salt production company until the area was nationalized by the Cuban government.  “The government realized the salt had high levels of sulfur in it, they had to process it a lot for it to be edible,” said Silverio Machado, a tour guide and a local parks expert who was born in the area.  “They also realized they were getting a lot of migratory birds to the area and that’s when they declared it a protected area.”

Today, the Zapata Park is a biosphere reserve, an ecosystem with unusual plants and animals of more than 1,600 square miles of land and wetlands. It serves as a refuge to 175 species of birds, 900 species of flora, reptiles and wild boar. Birdwatchers are drawn to the park hoping to get a glimpse of the bee hummingbird and other species of birds that can only be found at Zapata.

Similarly, the National Botanic Garden of Cuba, outside of Havana, was declared a protected area in 1964. Opened to the public in 1984, it is part of the network of more than a dozen botanical gardens created by the Castro regime. The National Botanical Garden – one of the largest in the world – sprawls over nearly 1,500 acres and boasts 7,500 varieties of plants and flowers, serpentine thickets and a tropical dry forest with woody cacti.  More than 100 acres are dedicated to 162 species of palm trees, including 25 endangered species of the palm.

Royal palm trees dot the landscape at the National Botanic Garden of Cuba, near Havana (Photo by Yulia Rock).

Jardines de la Reina, a marine park, contains vibrant neon and jewel-toned coral reefs, grouper weighing more than 100 pounds, whale sharks, conch, cubera snappers and other marine life. Restrictions on tourism and a ban on fishing protect the area.

Castro is personally credited with bringing the moringa plant from India, and having it planted throughout Cuba. Castro thought it to be one of the best plants to be cultivated for medicinal purposes because of its abundant amino acids, as he often said in interviews.

Two of Castro’s comrades—Che Guevara and Antonio Nuñez Jimenez—also helped shape Cuba’s approach to the environment and rural areas. Guevara introduced a policy that requires high school students to spend 15 days each year on farms learning to cultivate crops, providing unpaid labor; he also encouraged the use of heavy mechanized equipment that damaged the environment. Jimenez, an agricultural reformer, ecologist and geographer, searched for ways to protect the environment and initiate educational programs.

At age 71, he created the Nature and Man Foundation, which today bears his name, a nonprofit, nongovernmental institution dedicated to research and promotion of programs and projects for the protection of the environment.