According to geological evidence, the area of majestic peaks which makes up the Nipe-Sagua-Baracoa Massif in the north-east of the island, has barley been affected by climate changes which occurred during the Quaternary ice age, transforming the area into a refuge for the island’s animal and plant life and currently home to the greatest biodiversity in the region.
The area’s uneven topography, its complex land formations, and agreeable climate established the conditions for the creation, subsistence and diversity of animal and plant species over millions of years, and contributed to the high rate of endemic species living within its landscapes.
Add to this dense forests – which currently cover 80% of the territory – and impenetrable tropical jungles, which acted as a protective shield during the Common Era, and reinforced areas which would later suffer deforestation, hence the existence of un-touched areas and the fact that it is a refuge for a species of animal whose origins date back to the Jurassic period: the solenodon cubanus (almiquí).
Humankind’s terrifying and predatory actions are one of the main reasons why the world is currently facing worrying environmental crises, such as global warming, melting icecaps, droughts, earthquakes and hurricanes, which threaten the economic sustainability and very life of the planet itself.
Climactic events are becoming increasingly violent, a recent example of which was the devastating impact of the category four Hurricane Matthew, the most powerful to hit the Caribbean in the last decade and which, among other areas in the Western hemisphere, devastated Cuba’s eastern region, along with many of its rich natural landscapes.
Luckily, no one was killed by the storm on the island, thanks to preventative measures as well as diverse, decisive action by the Cuban government and people, while thousands of stories of human greatness and solidarity are being woven here today, during the recovery stage, as economic and material losses – including environmental damage - are being calculated.
In order to assess the impact of the hurricane on the environment, a multi-disciplinary team of ecologists visited important areas within the Nipe-Sagua-Baracoa area, above all, those located in the Cuchillas del Toa Biosphere Reserve, such as the Alejandro de Humboldt National Park, declared a World Heritage Site and home to the greatest biodiversity and range of endemic species in the area.
Experts from the Cuban Environmental Agency and National System of Protected Areas, guided by those from Guantanamo’s Environmental Services Unit (UPSA), carried out a preliminary evaluation of damage in Baracoa and La Melba, two of the four Conservation Departments within this Pantheon of Cuban nature.
A general assessment to calculate the numerical value of damage caused in the 70,000 hectare park, located in the provinces of Guantánamo and Holguín, is only just beginning. Later recovery measures will be organized and implemented, followed by a process to monitor the progress of such efforts.
Biologist Gerardo Begué, deputy director of the UPSA, noted that experts are aware of considerable damage to vegetation and loss of animal habitats caused by strong winds, storm surges, and river swells in the over 60 category one and two tributaries located within the area.
According to initial reports, zones most severely affected included those of evergreen mesophilic and low-altitude tropical forests; plantations of young pine trees in vulnerable areas; as well as cultural or agroecosystemic (coffee, fruit, coconut, cacao plantations), and softwood areas, less resistant to the effects of strong winds.
Speaking to ACN, forestry specialist and engineer, Rolando Villaverde mentioned that in regards to disasters, some of the zone’s strengths include the density of its forests, which acts as a kind of protective armor, and the importance of the site for environmentalists and the local scientific community in general, who constantly monitor it.
He also highlighted the importance of the power of resilience in the wake of such events, and the prior use of biological corridors delineated within the massif, which link habitats and act as escape and defense routes for fauna, which instinctively seek refuge in safer areas.
Guantánamo’s UPSA team, composed of technicians and forest rangers also draw on the experience of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, although it was a lower category storm which did not directly impact the area, unlike Matthew, which devastated communities in Baracoa and Holguín’s easternmost region.
Nonetheless, four years ago, Sandy which also struck in October, caused severe damage, primarily to broadleaf and semi-deciduous forests, softwood areas, and a certain level of harm to tropical forests – also known as rainforests – and sites bordering mangroves.
Intense medium and long term recovery actions will now be undertaken in the wake of Hurricane Matthew to return the forest to its original brilliance.
But let’s hope that nature, more wise than cruel, has preserved – as during the quaternary and colonial periods – the region’s most valuable flora and fauna, which eminent Cuban scientist, Antonio Núñez Jiménez described as “natural wonders.”