Issue of July, 26, 2010
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Fishers return to Cocodrilo, Cuba, with the catch of the day.
Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS
Report
Cuban Village with English Past, Ecological Present
By Patricia Grogg

An environmental protection regimen is changing the fate of a community founded in Cuba by English-speakers from the Cayman Islands.

COCODRILO, Isla de la Juventud, Cuba, Jul 26 (Tierramérica).- Only hurricanes disrupt the tranquility of Cocodrilo, a Cuban coastal village founded by immigrants from the Cayman Islands in the early 20th century.

The village's 320 residents make their livelihood from farming, fishing or the forest, the last of which they learn to care for in school. But that wasn't always the case.

On the southwest coast, Cocodrilo is about 100 kilometers from Nueva Gerona, which sits on the north coast and is capital of Isla de la Juventud, the second largest Cuban island. "Life was very difficult here; there was no highway like there is today, or electricity. The life of the fishers was hard," Jenny Rivers, 78, tells Tierramérica.

Nights in Cocodrilo used to be "as dark as a wolf's mouth." Finally, with the new century, came 24-hour electricity, generated by a diesel energy plant.

In the morning, Rivers settles in front of her window to watch the sea that has fed several generations of her family. "My parents came from Cayman, and my husband was the son of William Jackson, founder of Cocodrilo, which used to be named Jacksonville," she says. English was the common language.

Some of her Caymanian (or "caimaneros" as they are known here) nieces and nephews have come to visit. "They say this looks a lot like the Cayman Islands, because of the houses, the landscape," she says.

What does Rivers do when there is a hurricane? "Ah, I go to Nueva Gerona with one of my daughters. They take all of us to safe places," Rivers responds nonchalantly.

Two of her great-grandchildren study at the Cocodrilo primary school. The boy says he wants to be a doctor. The girl hasn't decided what she wants to be when she grows up. Like everyone born here, they learn how to swim at an early age, and their teachers instill in them the importance of caring for the environment.

"This town is in a protected area. We have to take care of the trees, clean up garbage and prevent fires," Yenia Amador, nine, said to Tierramérica. "We also shouldn't throw toxic waste into the sea, because it makes the fish sick," added Isaura Soto, also nine.

Among the birds of Isla de la Juventud's lush landscape, Jenny Ruiz, eight, prefers the "tocororo," the Cuban trogon (Priotelus temnurus). "It's blue, white and red, which are the colors of the Cuban flag. One shouldn't throw stones at the tocororo or any other bird," she said.

As of this year, Cocodrilo has a forest biomass gasification plant to generate electricity. It is part of an international project for production and distribution of renewable energy throughout Isla de la Juventud. The town will be able to save 75 percent on fossil fuel for electricity and produce less greenhouse gas emissions.

"This experience will allow us to evaluate the technology and forest management, and if it is positive, it can be expanded to other communities with similar characteristics. Also, what is being done in environmental education can be disseminated to other places," José Izquierdo, an expert in protected areas, told Tierramérica.

For the fishers there is also a "before" and "after" in the town's history. A ban on hunting sea turtles reoriented the work of Cocodrilo's seafarers, who for generations had made a living from the turtles. "But now we live better," said Gertrudes Figueredo, 56, with 27 years of marine experience.

With support from the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), Figueredo and her colleagues improved their fishing equipment. Also, for catching the mutton snapper (Lutjanus analis) and other appetizing fish species, they receive 20 percent of their income in cash.

Cocodrilo is the only human settlement on the south side of the island, which is "a wetland of international importance" under the Ramsar Convention. Among the area's fauna are endemic birds like the "zunzuncito," or bee hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae), and the Cuban pygmy owl (Glaucidium siju vittstum).

Some 126,200 hectares of the Lanier Marsh and the South of Isla de Juventud were included in November 2002 in the 1971 Ramsar Convention (named for the Iranian city where it was signed) to preserve the wetland ecosystems and plan for their sustainable use.

The animal inventory so far includes 35 bird species, 11 reptiles (five endemic), six mammals (four were introduced), seven hymenopterous insects (wasps, ants), and five land crustaceans.

An ecological station for managing the protected area is run by experts in conservation of autochthonous species, particularly the turtles.

The sea turtles are monitored from April to September along the extension of the beach, the station's principal scientist Bárbara Martínez explained. Monitoring includes counting nests, and eggs per nest, among other measurements, for comparison with previous years.

"The turtles tend to deposit their eggs very near the tide line. The researchers move them farther inland so they are not damaged by the sea and prevent the eggs from spoiling. This is part of the species management," said Martínez.

The iguana is another species that is vulnerable due to destruction of habitat and hunting -- and is also getting attention from Martínez and her team. Data gathered here is sent to the National Center for Protected Areas, in Havana, where the behavior of the species across Cuba is studied.

* IPS correspondent.

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