THE BLOG
12/22/2014 08:22 pm ET Updated Feb 21, 2015

Endangered Cuba

What does the Spiderman movie's theme have to do with the anticipated relaxation in American-Cuban relations?

Spiderman is advised that "with great power comes great responsibility." That maxim is something to keep in mind if -- as is most likely -- American industry and tourists eventually descend upon Cuba in potentially overwhelming numbers. We don't want to be blamed for unleashing economic activity that environmentally desecrates the most biologically diverse island in the Caribbean. Roughly the size of Pennsylvania, Cuba is host to numerous endangered animal and plant species, 300 natural beaches, more than 4000 islets and keys and 100 marine protected areas sheltering abundant coral reef formations.

Hence, there is a strong case to be made for us to enter into a collaborative agreement with the Cubans to save the island's remaining natural resources. Moreover, such an agreement would not just be primarily to preserve our international reputation and the Cuban landscape. Because of proximity and ocean currents, much of the marine environment off the Florida coast and in the Gulf of Mexico falls within the purview of both countries. A large percentage of our fisheries spawn in Cuba's coral reef-rich coastal waters, which have already experienced some early threats from fledgling development. Some of Cuba's endangered species (birds and fish) migrate between its territory and ours, and merit protection as part of a global heritage, not merely a regional one.

We can assume the Cuban government, whatever its political persuasion, would be receptive to some bilateral collaborative arrangement, if for no other reason than to benefit the island's lucrative tourist trade. A bilateral relationship is not totally unprecedented, since we have had a cooperative agreement with Cuba to clean up oil spills in shared waters, even during Fidel Castro's cold war days. Furthermore, the Cubans have already demonstrated preservationist interest by allowing American environmental groups to establish pilot wildlife conservation programs over the past decade. Cuba has also been motivated by ecologists' estimate that it possesses more different animal and plant species per square acre than does the United States or Canada.

Despite Cuba's considerable natural wealth, the news is not all good. The island has experienced significant environmental degradation from agricultural and mining pollution since Castro took power. A conspicuous misstep was a causeway built to connect numerous offshore islets to the mainland for the sake of the embryonic tourist industry. The project ended up blocking water flow between neighboring marine ecosystems, causing a die-off of mangrove forests and fish.

Still, Cuba's economic stagnation, especially in the last two decades has spared much of the Caribbean island's biodiversity and natural beauty from being destroyed by runaway development. It gives Cuba a second chance to steer new economic growth in an environmentally sustainable direction with the aid of the United States, should both governments be amenable.

Let us hope a bilateral cooperative environmental pact will come to fruition at the appropriate time, because expanded offshore oil drilling and other intense developmental pressures are looming on Cuba's horizon.