From corn to charcoal to cannabis, crops and economies are shaped by the surrounding ecology. Nations were built on tobacco, communities defined by migrating salmon, and wars fought in the name of spices.
Political and economic decisions can also change the ecology of a region. Post-Colombian maritime trade initiated the accidental and intentional redistribution of plants, animals, bacteria and viruses, which continues to this day. Policy-driven ecological changes can also be positive; for example, wildlife thrives in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North Korea and South Korea.
The Cuban Revolution and the subsequent economic blockade by the United States are preeminent global geopolitical events that define the modern socio-economic character of Cuba. Has Cuba’s distinctive economy also had an impact on its modern ecology?
Cuba is one of the largest and most biodiverse islands in the world. Islands are hotbeds of diversity and endemism, but they are also hotbeds of non-native species, far from their evolutionary home. One in three plant species on the islands is typically non-native, and larger islands with a range of habitats and a diversity of native plants favor most non-natives.
Our team of American and Cuban scientists, however, documented that Cuba harbors far fewer non-native plants than expected. There is a lack of 177 non-native plant species found on other Caribbean islands, despite the unrivaled and well-documented range of tropical habitats contained in the Cuban archipelago, which comprises more than a third of the area and more than half of the Caribbean islands.
Only one in eight plant species found in Cuba originates elsewhere, less than half of the world average for the islands. It is home to roughly the same number of non-native species as much smaller, less habitat-rich islands like Puerto Rico – a tenth of its size. Cuba also has fewer species of non-native reptiles and amphibians than neighboring islands.
Cuba’s economic self-sufficiency may have been the unintended mechanism that has limited the introduction of non-native species. The global spread of these species is largely a by-product of the trade in goods and services, which accelerated globally after the 1960s, even as the Cuban economy grew increasingly more closed. Although the establishment of non-native species has increased over the past two centuries, invasion rates are highest in the past quarter century. In recent decades, Cuba has imported less than 20% of its gross domestic product (GDP), half the expectations of an island nation of its size. Cuba is the least dependent on imports in the Caribbean; the only island without a dominant US-based import market; and the least connected to inter-Caribbean trade.
Many island economies in the Caribbean are fueled by tourism. Tens of millions of visitors, and the goods that support them, travel to and among the islands every year. Here, too, Cuba is an outlier in the Caribbean. Proportionately fewer visitors arrive in Cuba today than in the 1950s, and Cuba is excluded from the predominant US-based market, including Caribbean cruises which carry almost as many tourists as airplanes. Although international trade is more commonly implicated as a vector for the introduction of non-native species, tourism is a critical factor in understanding patterns of non-native species.
Of the dozens of Caribbean islands we studied, including Cuba, tourism combined with island area accounted for 90 percent of the pattern of occurrence of non-native plants. The larger islands with more tourists per unit area had the most non-native species. Trade was negligible – surprisingly – to explain the invasion patterns. Tourists can carry plants and seeds directly in their luggage and shoes. Food and other goods for tourists can also encourage non-native species and hitchhiking pests. Non-native species are regularly planted for landscaping in hotels and other tourism infrastructure, and a recent study found that half of the invasive plants in the Caribbean were intentionally introduced for for ornamental purposes.
Despite its past, Cuba is susceptible to future invasions. To the extent that its economic isolation provides an unintentional defense against non-native species, expanding tourism and trade can renew the pathways of arrival and development of species. Cuba’s recent investment in the tourism sector has already increased the number of visitors, and political directives and port expansions will bring more trade. Cuba’s native geography and ecology predict the island’s ability to support many more non-native plants. The eminent spread and deleterious impacts of non-native species threaten the immense biodiversity of Cuba and the Caribbean, which is the very foundation of the region’s ecological stability and an attraction for tourists.
As Cuban political leadership shifts to a new generation and with prospects for US-Cuban relations thawed, the time has come to consider common policies among countries to limit future trade in non-native species. As botanist and explorer Joseph Banks wrote during the Napoleonic Wars, “The science of two nations can be at peace while their politics are at war.“ To this end, scientists and natural resource managers can identify the species most at risk to establish themselves in Cuba and also move from Cuba to the Americas and Puerto Rico. When the US conflicts with China and Vietnam were resolved, more pests were intercepted in shipments arriving from those countries at the US borders, which is both a warning and support for the importance of security measures. biosecurity. As economic policies normalize, best practices that intentionally stem invasions, such as those used by New Zealand, South Africa and Hawaii, will be important.
Islands are shaped by the oceans that isolate them, as economies and cultures are defined by their surrounding ecology. These forces collide in the Caribbean, where the islands have long been influenced by peripheral economies including European colonization and slave-supported agriculture for non-native tobacco and sugar cane. Contemporary tourism and commerce maintain the reciprocal link between an island’s environment and the culture, economy and politics of its people. Non-native plant communities on the Caribbean islands, as elsewhere, are the result of centuries of human influence and natural processes, which collectively demonstrate that forward-thinking policy can help conserve Caribbean ecology as it responds. to changing political, biological and climatic forces.
This is an opinion and analysis article.