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Finding Hope for the Isle of Youth

Climate
Students from Florida and Cocodrilo engage in environmental projects during an Ocean Doctor-led exchange.

Columbus' ships were leaking, their provisions spoiling. It was clear that they would have to turn back. Yet, anchored off Cuba's southwestern coast near a large, mountainous pine-covered island during his second voyage, Columbus had seen enough. He was convinced Cuba was part of Asia and that return to Spain by land would be possible from the main Cuban island. He ordered each member of the crew sign an affidavit testifying to this, and their signature bound them to have their tongue cut out should they ever contradict their signed statement.

The next day, June 13, 1494, they landed on the nearby island. Columbus named it Evangelista. Over the centuries since, it bore the names Isla de Cotorras (Isle of Parrots), Isla de Tesoros (Treasure Island), Isla de Pinos (Isle of Pines), and finally, Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth). While Cuba claimed its sovereignty from Spain in 1898, the fate of the Isle of Pines would not be settled until more than 25 years when it officially became part of Cuba, though by then most of it was controlled by U.S. interests.

Waves break along Isle of Youth's southern coast.David Guggenheim

The 80,000 residents of the island often feel invisible, forgotten and disconnected from the rest of Cuba, an "island within an island." Dwarfed by the massive main island of Cuba, the world is barely aware of its very existence, despite the fact that it is the seventh largest island in the Caribbean, larger than St. Lucia, Barbados, Grenada, Bonaire, St. Croix, St. Thomas, St. John, Aruba, St. Barts, Saba, Terre-de-Haut, Isla Mujeres and Key West combined. The island has struggled for decades, with limited economic opportunities for its residents, mostly in agriculture and fishing. It has long since been forgotten as an international tourist destination.

Location of the community of Cocodrilo on the southern tip of Cuba's Isle of Youth.

The Cuban government has repeatedly tried to infuse life into the island. In 1978, Fidel Castro changed the name to Isle of Youth as part of an effort to bring new opportunity and meaning to the island. An initiative was launched to build a world-class international network of schools on the island, attracting students from Africa, Asia and beyond. Thirty years later, in 2008, Hurricane Gustav, with sustained winds of 155 mph, decimated the island, laying to waste the international schools and that chapter of the island's struggle.

In 2015, Ocean Doctor led an expedition of Cuban and American scientists to visit the protected waters of the Isle of Youth; most of the southern half of the island is protected, part of Cuba's massive system of protected areas. Over our 16 years of working in Cuba, we have found the country as a beacon of hope, where many coral reef ecosystems thrive in sharp contrast to the dead and dying corals elsewhere in the Caribbean.

It is estimated that 50 percent of the coral cover in the Caribbean has vanished since 1970. As we dove among the coral reefs in the Punta Frances protected area, we indeed found some of Cuba's treasured coral reefs, gleaming and healthy. But we also found reefs in stress—some bleached white, some covered in slimy green algae, the telltale signs of a reef beginning to die.

Our Cuban colleagues were surprised. This was something new that they hadn't seen just two to three years earlier. We saw no sharks, no groupers and virtually no large, predatory fish, a sure sign of overfishing which contributes to a reef's decline. Although on paper the area is protected—it has the same level of protection as Cuba's better-known Gardens of the Queen—there is virtually no enforcement and the area is fished illegally.

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Farms with just one or a handful of different crops encourage fewer species of pollinating and pest-controlling insects to linger, ultimately winnowing away crop yields, according to a new study.

Up to half of the detrimental impacts of the "landscape simplification" that monocropping entails come as a result of a diminished mix of ecosystem service-providing insects, a team of scientists reported Oct. 16 in the journal Science Advances.

Monocrop palm oil plantation Honduras.

SHARE Foundation / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0​

"Our study shows that biodiversity is essential to ensure the provision of ecosystem services and to maintain a high and stable agricultural production," Matteo Dainese, the study's lead author and a biologist at Eurac Research in Bolzano, Italy, said in a statement.

It stands to reason that, with declines in the sheer numbers of insects that ferry pollen from plant to plant and keep crop-eating pests under control, these services will wane as well. But until now, it hasn't been clear how monocultures affect the number and mix of these species or how crop yields might change as a result.

Aiming to solve these questions, Dainese and his colleagues pulled together data from 89 studies cutting across a variety of landscapes, from the tropics of Asia and Africa to the higher latitudes of northern Europe. They tabulated the number of pollinating and pest-controlling insects at these sites — both the absolute number of individuals and the number of species — along with an assessment of the ecosystem services the insects provided.

In almost all of the studies they looked at, the team found that a more diverse pool of these species translated into more pollination and greater pest control. They also showed that simplified landscapes supported fewer species of service-providing insects, which ultimately led to lower crop yields.

The researchers also looked at a third measure of the makeup of insect populations — what they called "evenness." In natural ecosystems, a handful of dominant species with many more individuals typically live alongside a higher number of rarer species. The team found as landscapes became less diverse, dominant species numbers dwindled and rare species gained ground. This resulting, more equitable mix led to less pollination (though it didn't end up affecting pest control).

"Our study provides strong empirical support for the potential benefits of new pathways to sustainable agriculture that aim to reconcile the protection of biodiversity and the production of food for increasing human populations," Ingolf Steffan-Dewenter, one of the study's authors and an animal ecologist at the University of Würzburg in Germany, said in the statement.

The scientists figure that the richness of pollinator species explains around a third of the harmful impacts of less diverse landscapes, while the richness of pest-controlling species accounts for about half of the same measure. In their view, the results of their research point to the need to protect biodiversity on and around crops in an uncertain future.

"Under future conditions with ongoing global change and more frequent extreme climate events, the value of farmland biodiversity ensuring resilience against environmental disturbances will become even more important," Steffan-Dewenter said.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.

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