EXCLUSIVE: Reports From Cuba By Soraya Diase Coffelt: Today A Visit To A 103-Square-Mile Biosphere
Soraya Diase Coffelt, JS, MJS
By SORAYA DIASE COFFELT/SPECIAL TO THE V.I. FREE PRESS
On day five of my Cuban adventure, we traveled west out of Havana to the beautiful countryside. Our excursion led us through the Sierra del Rosario mountain range. It was a scenic drive through many different rural communities.
Our destination was the biosphere reserve of Las Terrazas (“the terraces.”) We spent most of the day here with our guide. It is a lush 57,000-acre national park that was the first biosphere reserve in Cuba. A biosphere is an area that seeks to bring harmony between man and nature.
The name of the reserve comes from the terraces that were used for reforestation of the area. Forty-seven years ago, there were no trees whatsoever for a number of reasons. First, the Spanish cut down many trees to raise cattle. Then came the French in the 19th century, who used the area to raise coffee. Next came the Cuban farmers, who continued to cut down trees to make charcoal.
In the 1970s, the reforestation project began. It involved digging and building the terraces by hand and then planting eight million trees, one by one, including 24 native species. A man-made lake was constructed that has many different species of fish, including tilapia. Because of these efforts, 131 bird species now make their home there as well.
Today, a thriving community of 268 families reside on the reserve, many of whom were the original charcoal farmers. There is a day-care center for toddlers, a primary and secondary school, and a senior citizen center all operated by the government. We were able to tour the day-care and senior citizen center and speak with the workers, children, and seniors. Everyone seemed quite happy and content with their community and enjoyed living there.
The reserve is also a growing tourist destination, as 98,000 persons visit the area annually. It even offers six different restaurants, one of which is a widely acclaimed eco restaurant.
Before leaving, we visited the organic vegetable gardens and spoke with one of the community’s farmers. Many efforts are being made to make the community self-sustaining, and the gardens are one of them.
It was wonderful to see this very successful project and I believe that their goals were met in harmonizing man and nature. Cuba now has a total of six biosphere reserves. Tomorrow, we leave Havana and travel to Cienfuegos on the southern shore of Cuba, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Soraya Diase Coffelt is a longtime St. Thomas resident, a retired Superior Court Judge and former V.I. Attorney General for the Mapp Administration who has a JD and MJS in law. She is visiting Cuba as part of a “people to people exchange” in conjunction with her alma mater Cornell University.