Cuba Saves Five Internationally Important Wetlands

GLAND, Switzerland, January 6, 2003 (ENS) - Cuba has set aside some of the most important wetlands in the Caribbean for protection from development and climate change. Calling them "extraordinarily valuable," the Secretariat of the Ramsar Convention announced today that the Cuban government has designated five areas for the List of Wetlands of International Importance.

Designation of wetlands under the Ramsar Convention brings increased publicity and prestige for the lands, and the increased possibility of support for conservation and wise use measures. The five Cuban sites include an array of coastal wetland types and provide support for many species of plants and animals, some of them rare or endangered.


Sea turtle in one of the newly designated Cuban wetlands on the Isla de la Juventud (Photo courtesy Jaime Comas Jensen)
The efforts by Cuban authorities to designate these new sites have been assisted by the Living Waters Program of WWF, the conservation group. They are added to the large site that Cuba had previously listed under Ramsar, Cienaga de Zapata, a major wintering site and stopover for North American migratory water birds, also a WWF project.

At 313,500 hectares (1,210 square miles) Buenavista Bay, in Cuba's central region, is already a national park, a protected area, and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. As described by Julio Montes de Oca of the Ramsar Secretariat, who describes all of the five Cuban wetlands, Buenavista Bay includes extensive beaches and dune systems, coastal lagoons, mangroves and karstic mound formations that are unique within the Cuban archipelago.

Currently, there are no human settlements within the Buenavista wetland, but various economic activities take place in the area, among them commercial and sports fishing, forestry, cattle farming and tourism. Conservation efforts are centered on regulating these activities as well as on improving management capacity of the site which contains important plants and animals, as well as areas of high archeological, speleological, and cultural value.

The second newly designated wetland is located in the second largest island of the Cuban archipelago, occupying the southern part of the Isla de la Juventud, including the Ciénaga de Lanier marshland. Its 126,200 hectares (487 square miles) includes semi-deciduous forests, reef lagoons, marine grasslands, mangroves and peatlands.

Within the Caribbean, the site is a truly unique mosaic of ecosystems, says de Oca, amongst them a karstic plain connected to the island's southern coast. This subterranean drainage system yields clear waters that favor the formation of coral reefs. A number of threatened species are present, including green turtles, loggerheads, and American crocodiles.

The main threats to the site include forest fires, the future increase of tourism activities in the area, and the possible effects of climate change.

There are six protected areas within the third newly protected site known as Gran Humedal del Norte de Ciego de Ávila. It occupies the northern part of the Ciego de Ávila province, spanning most of its coast, its immediate maritime zone, and adjacent islets.


West Indian whistling duck (Photo courtesy Neotropical Bird Club)
This wetland includes two unique coastal water reservoirs, Lagunas de la Leche and La Redonda, which feed the area's subterranean basins. There are marsh forests, marsh grasslands, and mangroves. The site is inhabited by large populations of greater flamingos and double-crested cormorants, as well as other more rare species such as darters, and West Indian whistling ducks. The site's rich marine life provides abundant fishing, and its scenic beauty has made it the country's third largest tourism area.

There are two protected areas within the next wetland site. "The largest delta in Cuba and one of the most important in the Caribbean," says de Oca, "the Humedal Delta del Cauto is an intricate system of estuaries, lagoons, marshes and swamps of singular beauty."

Its inaccessibility and difficulty of transit have kept human effects to a minimum here. There are some of the best preserved mangroves in Cuba, and vulnerable and endangered animal species inhabit the site, among them the endemic Cuban parakeet and Cuban tree-duck.

The Humedal Delta del Cauto is also considered a major contributor to the productiveness of the fisheries in the Gulf of Guacanayabo, where the Río Cauto flows out to the sea.


Cuban flamingos (Photo courtesy Voyage Culture Cuba)
Finally, the 22,000 hectare (85 square mile) Humedal Río Máximo-Cagüey is an "extremely fragile marine-coastal ecosystem undergoing salinization," says de Oca. Located at the mouth of the rivers Máximo and Cagüey, with a number of keys in the shallow waters, this area is the largest nesting site for flamingos in all the Caribbean and the Antilles, and it is also a refuge for other migratory birds from across the Americas.

Large populations of American crocodile and Caribbean manatee, both vulnerable species, inhabit the Humedal Río Máximo-Cagüey. There are mangrove forests, swamp evergreen forests, and other, unique evergreen forests.

Adverse factors affecting the site are related to human activities in the catchment area, including upstream deviations of the water supply and pollution from agricultural residual waters.

There are presently 135 countries that are Contracting Parties to the Ramsar Convention, with 1,235 wetland sites, totaling 106.6 million hectares (411,585 square miles), designated for inclusion in the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance.