Monday, January 26, 2015

Cuba, the Caribbean, Capitalism, and Coral Reefs

How many of you caught the program on Cuban coral reefs?  It was on NPR in Science Friday (which airs Friday mornings 9-11 in Hawaii, but presumably on Fridays sometime wherever you are).  You can get it on the NPR website, just check 01/23/15.  I said a few days ago I’d look into it further.  And what I found (within ten minutes of searching) was a lovely story of how even respected scientific institutions can distort the truth when global politics and corporate interests are involved.

The program first.  It’s an interview with David Guggenheim (yes, one of those Guggenheims) who is president of Ocean Doctor, a nonprofit whose purpose is to support marine research.  Recently that research has been extended to Cuba.   What David and his colleagues found was a startling contrast between the situation in Cuba and that in the rest of the Caribbean.  All over the Caribbean coral is dying—95% of staghorn coral for starters.  Everywhere, that is, except Cuba.  There, coral is not just holding its own.  In some areas (far from Havana or any other urban area) it’s flourishing and ever spreading.

Why so?  David told us that in 1993, when Russia stopped subsidizing Cuba, Cuban farmers had to go organic.  They didn’t choose to—they simply could no longer afford to buy pesticides and expensive chemical fertilizers.  So outside urban areas the rates of toxic run-off from agricultural lands steeply decreased.  And for the twenty years since then, the seas around Cuba have been purging themselves.  Also, there was hardly any of the frenetic tourist development that has been radically changing the rest of the Caribbean over several decades.

Sounds logical, you might think.  But wait, that’s not the official story.  The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has issued a report, described on the website of the National Geographic: which attributes the death of Caribbean coral to the following causes:
     1) a massive die-off of sea-urchins in the 1970s
     2) overfishing of grazer species e.g. parrotfish or surgeonfish
     3)  global warming
Nowhere in the report (or at least, nowhere in National Geographic’s reporting of the report) is there any mention of a different situation in Cuba.  Or of pollution due to pesticide and fertilizer run-off. We are merely told that “In the most comprehensive study yet of Caribbean coral reefs, scientists have discovered that the 50 to 60 percent coral cover present in the 1970s has plummeted to less than 10 percent”—end of story.

I’m not disputing that the three causes listed may have been partly responsible for the loss of coral.  But if Cuba has healthy reefs and nowhere else in the Caribbean has healthy reefs, as David Guggenheim claims, they can’t be the only or even the major causes.  Sea-urchins and parrotfish help to preserve coral indirectly; they eat the algae that, if left undisturbed, choke the growth of coral.  But don’t tell me that in import-starved Cuba they haven’t fished every species they could catch.  And unless sea-urchins hate capitalism and love communism, I see no reason why they should thrive in Cuba and die everywhere else.  As for global warming,whether you believe in it or not, you don't suppose it occurs in patches.

But is it just coincidence that the real major cause of coral death, the one that the report fails to discuss, is the only one that can’t be laid off on natural causes (sea-urchins dying) or poor fishermen struggling to make a livelihood (overfishing) or all of us (global warming), but must be laid squarely at the door of burgeoning “development”—corporate capitalism on steroids?  After all, that’s what’s responsible for both mass tourism and monocultures that rely on vast quantities of pesticides and fertilizers.   

Well, let’s take a closer look at the IUCN.

IUCN started creditably enough as the first GONGO, i.e. Governmental and Non-Governmental Organisation.  As this suggests, it was formed with representatives from both kinds of organization under the sponsorship of UNESCO and with famed British biologist Julian Huxley as its first Director General.  But in 1982 the GO began to outweigh the NGO, and the economic policies of the countries involved began to influence IUCN’s actions.  First it set up a Conservation for Development Centre within its secretariat.  The watchword was no longer “Conservation”; it was “Sustainable Development”.  Then a new century dawned, and in the words of  IUCN’s Wikipedia article, “The increased attention on sustainable development as a means to protect nature [my italics] brought IUCN closer to the corporate sector.”  Soon IUCN partnered with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and adopted a Global Business and Biodiversity Program.   In 2007 IUCN began a partnership with its first multi-national: the energy company Shell International.  In 2008 NGO members of IUCN, worried about the direction it was heading, tried to terminate the partnership.  They failed.  By 2013 IUCN was collaborating with at least nine more multi-nationals, including Nokia, the Rio Tinto Group, Shell Nigeria and Marriott International.

What are the chances that a commission appointed by IUCN would turn in a report that blamed development for the death of coral reefs?  I’d say close to zero.  What would you say?

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