Biosphere Reserve Opens to Eco-Tourism
By Dalia Acosta
A small community living in the biosphere reserve of Sierra del Rosario, in Cuba, is attempting to prove that "green" tourism is indeed possible.
HAVANA, (Tierramérica).- The community of Las Terrazas, in the northern reserve of Sierra del Rosario, opened its doors to tourism in order to survive after decades of being hidden from travelers and unknown by most of their fellow Cubans.
Just 54 km from Havana, Las Terrazas covers 5,000 hectares of rivers, valleys, mountains and forests, and forms part of the Sierra del Rosario, which UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) declared a biosphere reserve in 1985.
The road that leads to the town of nearly 1,000 inhabitants and its natural attractions are kept under watch and its caretakers reserve the right to determine who enters the area.
"Not everyone has the level of education needed to enter a place like this," Jorge Luis Zamora, who designed the tourism plan, explained to Tierramérica.
More than 500 plant species are found in the tropical forest of the reserve, as well as 78 bird species, seven lizard types and a great variety of amphibians.
Tourism could lead to the contamination of the reserve's water sources, the illegal capture of animals and even sound pollution resulting from vehicles, warn specialized studies.
The Sierra del Rosario Integral Development Plan, approved back in 1968, attempted to group together the dispersed human population, foment forestry activity and protect the soil from erosion.
After centuries of deforestation resulting from the spread of coffee and tobacco plantations and ranching, "the area was being stripped bald," recalls Fidel Ramos, director of a national program for development of mountainous areas.
In 10 years, more than sic million trees were planted throughout 1,500 km of open terraces by the mountains' residents, from the valleys to the peaks.
The community was founded in 1971 and "subsidized by the state because the idea was to live from the forest, which would take 30 years to grow," Zamora explained.
But in the early 1990s, when Cuba began to suffer the profound economic crisis that continues to this day, it became impossible for the Fidel Castro government to keep the environmental reserve closed off. Tourism became the only option.
In 1994, Las Terrazas Tourism Complex Inc. was created, establishing that income from tourism would be divided among the firm, the community and the state.
"We are talking about a unique experience, from the development programs applied throughout decades to the way in which tourism activity is managed," stated Zamora.
The opening of La Moka Hotel and recreation centers along the San Juan River and at the restored coffee farm Buena Vista created more than 200 jobs.
Tourism provides more than a million dollars in income each year and allowed the residents of the area to expand the variety of basic goods they can purchase at subsidized prices.
"One of the most sensitive problems -- housing -- is beginning to be resolved with the maintenance of some of the older houses and the possibility of building new homes," said the environmental tourism expert.
The challenge is how to manage the growing influx of European tourists without surpassing the limits of environmental impacts. Cubans are prohibited from moving to Las Terrazas. In the past, leaving the town for the big city was a mode of survival, but with the reserve's income level, it is no longer really necessary.
"I'll go to Havana for two or three days, but I have to come back. I can't stand the noise, the traffic and the anxiety of the people," said Luis Manuel Acosta, 24, who grew up in Las Terrazas.
Although he makes his living from tourism, Acosta recognizes that success lies in the restriction on access to the area. "The number of people who can visit the river, the lake or any part of the complex is limited, and that is as it should be," he said.
* Dalia Acosta is an IPS correspondent.