Recovering ecosystems in Cuba to adapt to climate change: a good idea?

Not exempt of vulnerabilities, Cuba is advancing in the implementation of adaptation based on ecosystems and the protection of natural heritage in the new conditions of the global climate. Its human capital, its scientific potential and the boost to citizens’ participation are part of its greatest strengths.

Foto: Archivo IPS_Cuba

Cuba’s response to climate change would seem like a Quixote battle: its condition of a developing island country very near to the Tropic of Cancer multiplies the vulnerability to possible negative impacts of this phenomenon. Neither is there a lack of inventiveness and nobility in the strategies to face it, which include the coordinated intervention of actors at all levels of environmental management and provincial administrations; the boost given to citizens’ participation; and the use of the scientific potential for deciding on the future scenarios and the establishment of measures.

International cooperation and Cuban civil society have played a leading role in this great debt to nature and urgent challenge to save the planet.


This article contains notes on that leading role and it debates on the adaptation based on ecosystems, a key weapon that will allow for the restoration and recovery of ecosystemic services of importance while increasing the resilience of Cubans.


Adaptation based on ecosystems


The report “Impact of Climate Change and Adaptation Measures in Cuba” (2013) establishes that the wetlands, mangroves, beaches, coral reefs and mountains could principally become unbalanced due to the combined action of human activity and the increase in the air temperature, the more systematic lashes of extreme meteorological phenomena, the rising of the mean sea level, the decrease of precipitation, the action of invasive exotic species and the retreat of the coast line. Many of the ecosystems are already showing an important level of degradation due to pressures, mainly anthropic, and their recovery would guarantee the sustainability of important services like fertile land, water and food; in addition to the fact that, because of natural functioning, they sequester carbon, purify water, create barriers in the face of floods and weaken phenomena like waves, which is why they reduce social vulnerabilities in the face of climate change.


Thus, the adaptation based on ecosystems offers adaptation measures based on the use of biological diversity and ecosystemic services; and it transcends the works of restoration to attempt to have an influence on the way in which persons perceive and use the environment in order to promote the perspectives of integrated and sustainable management of resources. This is an experience that is making headway in several countries, where an alternative to engineering solutions is not considered but rather a dimension of the global strategy of adaptation. Cuba includes it in national strategies like the National Environment Strategy, the national and sectorial scientific and technical programmes to face climate change and the strategy for disaster risk reduction; with results in the strengthening of protected areas, the programmes for the monitoring of degraded ecosystems and the promotion of ways to decrease the pressures of socioeconomic activity on the environment.


These results are influenced by innovative projects being implemented in the country, which have achieved, among other benefits, strengthening capacities in rural environments to implement measures for the sustainable management of lands, water and forestry resources; to initiate activities for the restoration of mangroves and others sites of interest; to assess the impacts of climate change in natural resources and propose general methodologies of adaptation; in addition to strengthening the local spaces and their ability to outline their own strategies according to the most recent focus of Adaptation Based on the Community. To this is added the synergic functioning of all the environmental management instruments, about which the news is that a national regulating mechanism will be announced soon to guarantee coastal integrated management (a possible Law on Coasts).


Behind the boost


Many faithful Sancho Panzas are accompanying the feat; the steps being taken in the implementation of measures for the adaptation based on ecosystems have considerably increased with the collaboration ofnational institutions and non-government actors within and outside the country. These ties have enabled an infrastructural framework for the execution of the activities and, at the same time, allow for the socialisation of successful practices with similar experiences in other parts of the world. They provide methodological advice for the formulation and implementation of projects and place at the country’s disposal the accumulated knowledge.


Heraldo Muñoz, regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), highlighted in an article for the Cuban magazine Temas (2013) that the cooperation between Cuba and the UNDP regarding adaptation based on ecosystems is centred on protecting the country’s persons and resources, which guarantees the sustainable production of goods and services that sustain development.


The UNDP has boosted significant experiences, like the Sabana-Camagüey project, together with the World Environment Fund, with results in the conservation and sustainable use of the biodiversity in the archipelago by the same name. The contributions to the adaptation based on ecosystems, in this case, are related to the promotion of a coastal integrated management model and are expressed in the regulatory spheres, environmental planning and the strengthening of local capacities. In the first case, the institutionalisation of programmes of zones under management regimen especially stands out. They regulate the socioeconomic activity in significant ecosystems, as well as the contributions to legislations like Decree Law 212 “Management of Coastal Zone” and Decree Law 201 “On the National System of Protected Areas.” In relation to the reorganisation, contributions were made for the creation of eight protected areas and they were accompanied by the corresponding management plans. To this is added the instrumentation of mechanisms for methodological advice and exchange of successful practices, as well as training and raising awareness.


Another initiative in which both institutions collaborate with Cuba is the project “A Landscape Focus to Conserve Threatened Mountain Ecosystems,” which seeks to minimise the risks faced by biodiversity in four mountain systems considered in our country as Special Sustainable Development Regions: the Guaniguanico, Guamuaya, Bamburanao and Nipe-Sagua-Baracoa mountains. Their principal characteristic is the proposal of a change of paradigm in the conservation of the biodiversity and the management of the protected areas, which goes from the specific site focus to the landscape focus, which integrates the protected areas and their areas of influence. In addition, it attempts to promote and conserve the connectivity that facilitates the movement of species between the functional habitat refuges, an element that won it the name of “Connecting Landscapes.”


The project “Reduction of Vulnerability to Coastal Floods through Adaptation based on Ecosystems to the South of Artemisa and Mayabeque” was started in 2014 on the southern coast, together with the UNDP and the Adaptation Fund. “Live Mangrove,” as it is also known, aims to increase the resilience of the population in the zone through the restoration of the mangrove ecosystem along 84 kilometres of coast between both of these provinces. For this, it acts in three directions: restoration, boosting the local participation and works for the strengthening of institutional capacities. This experience is particularly very focused on the rescue of local cultural practices like the planting of stilt and pencil root mangroves (techniques that emerged from the forestry brigades); and the boost given to the forming of groups of volunteers in the involved communities. In addition to this, the integrated and sustainable management is guaranteed based on the participatory search for economic alternatives for the indiscriminate and illegal use of mangroves.


Equally important is the work of the Antonio Núñez Jiménez Nature and Man Foundation. This entity implements the project “Assessment of potential impacts of climate change on biodiversity and development of adaptation strategies in two fragile ecosystem regions in Cuba,” which is being executed in the Jardines de la Reina and Ciénaga de Zapata national parks together with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). The initiative, also known as “CCambio” (CChange), combines economic and social mechanisms to protect vulnerable species, like corals, four types of sea turtles and the Cuban crocodile, in addition to designing adaptation strategies for the mentioned sites.


Following this path of correct actions, it’s worth mentioning the agroecological movement in the country as part of the National Association of Small Farmers, and the work of international entities like Oxfam (Oxford Committee for Famine Relief). All the experiences are signs of the important role played by civil society in the promotion of adaptation based on ecosystems through the effective collaboration with the Science, Technology and Environment Ministry, which acts as the principal implementing entity. Other characteristics to take into account in this work are:


  • Orientation toward national development objectives and priorities in facing climate change. The agendas are not imposed, but rather they are based on what has been established in the Cuban regulations and strategies, according to the international instruments the country signs, like the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. There is also a high level of participation by non-government entities in deciding these priorities, since they are a key piece in many consultative processes.
  • Tackling of multidisciplinary and multisectorial actions. This implies the identification and creation of working groups with all the actors that, with their own social object, can support the implementation of the experience. This multidiscipline has enabled the synergy with knowledge of social sciences to tackle the symbolic dimension of these problems.
  • Emphasis on management of knowledge,which guarantees the sustainability of the transformations initiated by the projects and their reproduction in similar conditions. This element consists in the systematisation of what is learned and good practices generated in the framework of the implementation of the project for its subsequent socialisation through different products. The challenge lies in incorporating more strategic thinking that increases the use of the generated product, based on the characteristics of the persons they are destined for (for example, there is no purpose in generating a digital repository if the persons for whom it is directed do not have access to computers or the Internet).
  • Emphasis on the development of capacities. The conditions of sustainability and reproduction also depend that the entities that intervene in the implementation are in a condition to continue the work; thus the initiatives are concerned with equipping them with the knowledge, methodological instruments and necessary equipment. In this sense, training is offered, methodologies are drawn up and the possibilities of the incorporation of the subjects of adaptation based on ecosystems are assessed in regulations, development strategies and study plans.
  • Emphasis on the localthrough the Administration Councils, local delegations of the involved entities, leaders of representation organisations (CDR, FMC, UJC, ANAP) and non-informal leaders. This has enabled the consideration of the characteristics of the territory in the activities carried out as key for boosting local participation. The educational work being carried out, mainly through the work in schools and the promotion of contests, is worth mentioning.
  • Communication work. This activity places emphasis on the production of contents (documentaries, radio and TV programmes and printed materials), the visibility of the projects and the work of the media (which guarantees the coverage of the activities carried out), in support of all the work’s dimensions. The challenge lies in speaking of the scientific and popular knowledge so that the population appropriates the contributions of science while the work methodologies are adapted and the procedures based on the local culture are considered.


The non-governmental activity is combined with the strengths of our institutional framework: a well-established provincial organisation and highly skilled human resources. These elements, together with a strong political commitment, also contribute to the advances of adaptation based on the country’s ecosystems.


Green light?


Taking up again the national view, the path has not been exempt of obstacles. Above all, this is because the adaptation plans and strategies have been historically based on structural and performance measures (engineering measures, like contention walls, breakwaters, aqueduct networks, etc.; and behavioural, like evacuations and relocations of permanently damaged communities). Thus the focus has only been promoted by timely experiences like the ones mentioned or by institutions and environment managing instruments on a country level. The effective advance of the implementation of the adaptation based on ecosystems in our context has not meant abandoning this type of action but rather growing in the capacity to decide when it is most efficacious and less costly to opt for the ecosystemic focus to protect the population; in addition to having in-depth knowledge of the potentials of our ecosystems, mainly on a local administrative level. Thus a scenario of challenges is presented:


  • Including the ecosystemic focus and the adaptation based on ecosystems in the local public policies: beyond specific projects, this focus must be promoted based on production plans and strategies (all the productive activities with an environmental impact, mainly agriculture and fisheries), as well as those of reorganisation, risk reduction and response in disaster situations, the work as well as the development priorities of the provinces. Some elements to take into account are: considering the adaptation based on ecosystems as part of a broader adaptation strategy that combines other types of measures; implementing an intersectorial focus, in the adoption as well as the implementation of policies, as a guarantee of a process of integral management; education and raising the awareness of the persons living in the communities and who benefit from the ecosystems, increasing their perception of the risk and promoting their participation in the designed policies; in addition to implementing other measures to reduce the anthropic pressures, like strengthening the regulatory framework.
  • Considering the economic assessment of the environmental services provided by the ecosystems in the design of public policies and adaptation strategies: the economic assessment is an instrument of environmental management that assigns monetary value to the goods and services obtained through the interaction with the ecosystem; what rational data together with the qualitative assessments offer for decision-making in terms of investment and plans. This element should be integrated into the economic accounting system and includes the environmental inventory (identification of the components of the environment that meet social needs, understood as natural assets, paying special attention to those that are endangered), the assessment of the environmental impact (determination of the effects on the environment of a certain socioeconomic activity) and the cost-benefit, cost-efficiency, risk-benefits, multicriteria and decision analysis. The implementation of adaptation measures based on ecosystems must be supported by a prior analysis of the costs and benefits it can generate so that there is a foundation to decide between this and another type of measure; it also allows for deciding or compensating between social policies and adaptation measures.
  • Assessing and promoting economic incentives of the application of the adaptation based on ecosystems: the adaptation and implementation plans and strategies of the ecosystemic focus must take into account the social benefits of this model (non-explored ecosystemic services that do not endanger their sustainability). This allows for proposing alternative economic activities to those persons whose means of support depend on a form of exploitation that affects the environment, in addition to drawing up a policy of incentives (economic, moral) that serve as motivation to apply these measures, while it compensates for the expenditures in the short term. In addition, it will serve as a mechanism to mobilise the local participation.
  • Implementing information and knowledge management mechanisms about adaptation based on ecosystems in Cuba, which benefit the local institutions: together with the shortage of resources, which prevents the effective application of the ecosystemic focus for the adaptation, the provincial entities frequently do not have access to relevant information for the planning and implementation of the adaptation based on ecosystems (legislations, procedures, successful experiences, economic assessment studies in the territory, analysis of the population dynamics), because it is not available or because it is in places where access is difficult, like the web. To this is added the inexistence of mechanisms of exchange of social information referring to the impacts of climate change and the local strategies of adaptation, an important space for citizen participation, which requires a creative and dynamic treatment of information. Information management guarantees knowledge management (according to the uses contributed to them), and has to be a planned process based on the characteristics and technological capacities of those it is designed for.
  • Raising awareness and training of the decision-making actors on a local level: the productive routines of the decision-makers on a local level are generally characterised by implementing measures in the face of problems with manifestations in the short term (not understanding that many of these phenomena are closely related in the short term to the patterns of global warming and the implications of their accumulative tendencies). Thus the environmental subjects can be relegated in the face of what can be more pressing, according to its perception. Together with this, the value of the ecosystems for economic purposes and for adaptation to climate change is not understood. The challenge lies in changing that mentality based on these actors’ commitment to integral territorial development, in addition to equipping them with the necessary knowledge and capacities to implement the adaptation based on ecosystems paying attention to the elements mentioned here. An efficacious way can be to make visible the possible results achieved in the localities involved.
  • Continuing to raise the population’s awareness: The aim of this task of raising awareness must be that the people know of the benefits of the ecosystemic focus as an adaptation measure, that they be able to recognise the dangers of the disasters that lie in wait for them and that they self-diagnose their vulnerabilities, identify the potentials the ecosystems have in their locality to face climate change and actively participate in the implementation of the adaptation based on ecosystems. Communication is key in this and must be implemented based on a strategic focus that eliminates randomness and empiricism, and that integrates the search for dialogue spaces in the community and the effective use of the local and mass media. Moreover, the aim must be to make known the results of the investigations related to the impacts of climate change, the adaptation measures the country implements and the adaptation based on ecosystems, in addition to the successful experiences that have taken place, placing emphasis on their social benefits.


Final considerations


The advances in the implementation of the adaptation based on ecosystems in Cuba are a sign of a country determined to increase its resilience in the face of the new conditions of the global climate. There has not been a lack of crazy things in this battle, deserving of a Cervantes character, but the island has the powerful weapon of a very well-trained human capital, of reference in the Latin American and Caribbean region, which pays attention to international experiences on the subject and seeks the most optimum procedures for its context. It is a battle where sadly no one wins and, if the advance of climate change continues, the levels of degradation will not be able to be combatted through the adaptation based on ecosystems. One of the steps to stop it is to protect our natural heritage at all costs. (2016)




  • Arellano, M Compilation, (2013). “ProyectoSabana-Camagüey: Unaexperiencia de manejoIntegradoCosteroparaCompartir.” Environment Agency, Science, Technology and Environment Ministry, Havana, Cuba.
  • Castellanos, M, (2002). “Introducción a la problemática de la valoracióneconómicoambiental.”Academia publishers, 2007. Havana, Cuba.
  • Muñoz, H, (2013). “Unasuperpotencia de biodiversidad: retos de adaptaciónparaAmérica Latina y el Caribe”. In magazine “Temas” No. 74, 2013, Cuba.
  • Planos, E; Vega, R y A, Guevara Publishers, (2013). “ImpactodelCambioClimático y Medidas de Adaptación en Cuba.” Institute of Meteorology,Environment Agency, Science, Technology and Environment Ministry, Havana, Cuba.


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