Small Island, big results: Natural solutions to sustainability challenges in Cuba

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The Sabana-Camagüey Archipelago extends along the central northern coastline of Cuba for 465 kms, from Punta Hicacos in the west to Nuevitas Bay in the east.

These islands lie at the heart of the broader Sabana-Camagüey Ecosystem, which includes a mosaic of sensitive marine environments (sandy beaches, seagrass beds, coral reefs and cays); mangrove swamps and forested dune systems; inshore lagoons and wetlands, and other coastal habitats of the adjacent Cuban mainland.

This ecosystem is a treasure trove of remarkable biological wealth that is among the richest in Cuba and the wider Caribbean. It is also of global significance, including a UNESCO World Heritage Site – the Bay of Buena Vista Biosphere Reserve – and three wetland systems designated as internationally important under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. The area is rich in both flora and fauna; many of these species occur nowhere else on Earth.

Another vital element of the richness of these land- and sea-scapes is the diverse community of people who call them home and who depend on them for their livelihoods and cultural identity.


Cuba is a small island developing state (SIDS) and the protection of its coastal and marine ecosystems is a strategic issue, as they provide natural infrastructure and ecosystem services that underpin the livelihoods and well-being of the Cuban people.

Over the years, the ecosystems of the Sabana-Camagüey region have come under varying degrees of pressure as a result of unsustainable practices in sectors such as agriculture, livestock, fisheries and tourism – all of which play an important role in the local and national economy. Conflicts between competing land uses emerged, and with the closure of sugar factories in the 1990s, many people were left unemployed.

It was against this backdrop that the Government of Cuba and its partners, with support from UNDP and funding from the Global Environment Facility (GEF), began to turn challenges into opportunities, using nature-based solutions. In 1993, the first of a series of three projects was initiated in the Sabana-Camagüey Ecosystem to conserve valuable ecosystems, prioritize biodiversity in development planning and build sustainable communities.


Early efforts focused on conducting scientific research to understand the biodiversity and ecology of this complex ecosystem and to identify priority areas for protection. Most importantly, the scientific knowledge gained has been leveraged to support sustainable economic development and improve quality of life.

The critical step entailed establishing partnerships among scientists, key economic sectors, conservation authorities, regulatory authorities, local government bodies and communities. This served as a springboard for later projects, including integrating biodiversity concerns into the operations of key economic sectors.

Dr. Daniela de las Mercedes Arellano Acosta led two of the three projects in the Sabana-Camagüey Ecosystem and says she was pleased to see how relationships between the participants progressed over time.

"At first, you could almost read the thoughts of the producers, saying: ‘What is this scientist coming to talk about now?’ With time, they started speaking about sustainable production as if it was something they had always believed in. They started seeing tangible evidence of job creation and the generation of economic, environmental and social benefits."


Working at pilot sites (including two Ramsar wetlands), a wealth of biodiversity-compatible livelihoods was introduced, including: nature-based tourism, agro-forestry, beekeeping, sustainable livestock management and cultivation of mangrove oysters and natural sponges.

In previously degraded wetlands, farmers now adopt sustainable approaches to raising water buffalo for meat and milk, whilst restoring wetland health. In areas previously producing sugarcane, farmers now cultivate a wide variety of crops, nurturing them with organic compost from worm farms and using biogas for their energy needs.

The net effect of these changes has been to restore ecosystem health, with benefits for food security and economic prosperity. Best practices developed in Sabana-Camagüey have now been scaled up and replicated at other sites.

The work that started in the Sabana-Camagüey Archipelago provided the basis from which Cuba, in partnership with UNDP and GEF, has built an entire portfolio of interconnected and complementary projects that address multiple issues across the entire country: improved management of protected areas; sustainable land management; protection of mountain watersheds; management of invasive alien species; and ecosystem based approaches to climate change, mitigation and adaptation.


“The overall impact of our work in the Sabana-Camagüey was that it opened the way to doing things differently – from production on the ground, right up to the policy level. Today, we have a much broader vision of natural resources and the holistic nature of the environment, and how national decisions can be shaped by lessons learnt at the local level. I always knew that this small island could produce big results." -Dr. Daniela de las Mercedes Arellano Acosta

For more stories highlighting 25 years of UNDP and GEF support in environmental innovation for sustainable development, read the full UNDP-GEF publication, Voices of Impact: Speaking for the Global Commons.

This story originally appeared here.