Can Ocean Conservation and Development Coexist in Cuba?

Ninety miles south of the Florida Keys, where the Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico meet, Cuba's waters are still teeming with marine species that are now seldom seen in other parts of the Caribbean. The Nature Conservancy's partnership with Cuban conservation agencies is long-lasting: for more than 20 years, we have trained together for protected-area management and planning, coral-reef monitoring, climate adaptation, and sustainable tourism. Now, with loosening restrictions on U.S.-based organizations working in Cuba and growing pressures on Cuba's historically preserved marine environment, it's time to craft a bolder vision and take bigger actions.

An Urgent Opportunity

The Caribbean Sea has experienced large-scale environmental degradation since as early as the 1600s, when the overharvesting and loss of nesting habitats of sea turtles drove them nearly to extinction. Coral reefs have had a tough time, too, particularly in more recent decades with increased pollution, overfishing and poorly planned coastal development that, exacerbated by climate change, have resulted in massive coral bleaching and severe reef deterioration in many places.

However, Cuban coral reefs do not appear to exhibit the more widespread disease and mortality occurring in other sites of the region. Why is this? Cuba's reefs -- accounting for nearly a third of the coral reefs in the Caribbean -- are healthy primarily as a result of limited coastal development and more sustainable agricultural practices that limit sediments and toxic runoff into the sea. Given the shifting U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relationship, the potential for increased economic activities could fuel detrimental changes to the country's marine environment, particularly in land-use in sectors such as tourism, agriculture and energy. A clear and comprehensive plan that promotes smart development can help protect Cuba's unique and spectacular reefs and marine life.

Introducing the Cuba Conservation and Development Blueprint

The Nature Conservancy and our Cuban partners are defining a long-term vision called the Cuba Conservation and Development Blueprint. Our ambition is to create plausible land-use scenarios that will help various sectors implement holistic solutions to sustainable development for the country that will continue to protect Cuba's reefs. Our theory of change is that evidence based on an ecological/economic tradeoff analysis will encourage the smart use of natural capital, so that both people and nature can thrive on the island. With different sectors in Cuba already doing proactive-development planning, it is possible to get out in front of potential degradation challenges while preserving Cuba's flourishing marine -- and terrestrial -- habitats.

Cuba has a unique opportunity as a developing country to make informed decisions about its future and bypass the historic cycle of massive environmental loss that has often accompanied the economic progress of nations. This can benefit the Cuban people without sacrificing the country's precious natural environment.

Dr. Luis A. Solórzano is the Executive Director of The Nature Conservancy's Caribbean Program, where he oversees efforts to protect and restore marine and island habitats in this fragile and iconic region. He holds a B.S. in biology from the National University of Colombia, an M.A. in Evolutionary Biology from Princeton University and a Ph.D. in Ecology, also from Princeton.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in partnership with Ocean Unite, an initiative to unite and activate powerful voices for ocean-conservation action. The series is being produced to coincide with World Oceans Day (June 8), as part of HuffPost's "What's Working" initiative, putting a spotlight on initiatives around the world that are solutions oriented. To read all the posts in the series, read here.