U.S.-Cuba Ecotourism Cooperation:
A Fundraising Initiative for the Zapata Environmental Project
The Zapata Environmental Project, located on Cuba’s southern coast is the opportunity to work with resourceful Cuban entrepreneurs who are shaping their country’s future – from the arts and sciences to business and tourism. One such visionary is Felipe Rodriguez Alonso. Recognized as one of Cuba’s premier fly-fishing guides, Felipe has created a training program for Cuban youth to learn the basics of ecotourism and the need for sustainability of natural resources.
In the 1970s, Felipe served with the Cuban military in Angola. Today, two hours south of Havana, he battles to preserve the pristine mangrove flats, rivers, lakes and lagoons of the Zapata nature preserve (Parque Nacional Ciénaga de Zapata). The Zapata Swamp conservation area is the largest preserve in the Caribbean, roughly twice the size of the Florida Everglades. The Zapata region is often compared to the Florida swamp in the scope and majesty of its flora and fauna. But while the Everglades has suffered from decades of misguided development, strict environmental regulation has allowed the Zapata nature preserve to retain its natural vitality – until now. Facing a marked increase in recreational use from international and U.S. visitors, its fragile resources are at potential risk.
Using a few donated supplies and his own modest resources, Felipe began teaching Cuban teenagers in the town of Jagüey Grande, located on the outskirts of the Zapata preserve. For more than a decade, Felipe has taught the basics of fly fishing to more than 40 Cuban youths, many from broken homes. Along with the instructions, Felipe also imparts the importance of catch-and-release practices and prohibitions on fish and lobster poaching, all to underscore the urgency of sound environmental protections.
In January 2017, Ocean Passages introduced Felipe to a group of American students from the University of Southern Maine, as well as crew members of the schooner Harvey Gamage, in the main plaza of Jagüey Grande to discuss what he calls The Zapata Environmental Project. Felipe explained that his students come from communities without much hope, and how the bonding experience of learning fly-fishing techniques builds self-confidence – and creates economic opportunity. The training offers fishing, language and entrepreneurial skills critical for future employment in the recreational fishing and tourism industry, which will continue to grow in the years ahead. Already, four of Felipe’s former students are working as ecotourism guides along Cuba’s southern coast – and Felipe himself guides the world-class Orvis fishing equipment company for Orvis fly fishing tours to Cuba.
The encounter between U.S. and Cuban students in Jagüey Grande made a deep and meaningful impression. One of our Ocean Passages students was so taken with the commitment of Felipe and his students that she wrote a business case study of the Escuela de Manglar for her tourism and economic development course at the University of Southern Maine. Since then, project director Dr. Jeffrey Boutwell, has met with Felipe in both the U.S. and in Cuba to further discuss a long-term partnership.
Over the next several years, Felipe hopes to put his training program on a more permanent footing in the Zapata region for use as an educational and ecotourism center. Located at the head of the Bay of Pigs (Bahia de Los Cochinos), the Zapata Envirnomental Project would be perfectly sited to train a new generation of Cuban guides for U.S. and international visitors to the Zapata Peninsula region. Felipe and his colleague Don Yoyi, owner of a fly fishing shop on the Playa Larga road near the Bay of Pigs, would develop the curriculum and infrastructure of the program with the assistance of the Zapata National Park and the Cuban Ministry of Culture.
These efforts would build upon the relationships that Felipe and Don have established with the National Enterprise for the Conservation of Flora and Fauna in Cuba. Once the program is established, the Cuban students could broaden their education through coursework and by performing environmental base-line studies of the Zapata nature preserve, measuring water quality, flora assessment, and fish and bird populations. Another member of our team, fishing captain Phil Thompson of Tampa and Havana, has developed relationships with Prof. Jay Shelton (Fisheries and Aquatic Ecology) and Prof. Kris Irwin (Environmental Education) of the University of Georgia that might directly contribute to Felipe’s program. Other supporters of the overall effort include Dr. Jorge Angulo (currently at the University of Florida, and former director, Center for Marine Studies, University of Havana); Aaron Adams and Will Benson of the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust; Marty Arostegui, former board member of the International Game Fish Association; and Dan Whittle of the Environmental Defense Fund.
A dedicated fund will provide the resources and equipment needed to put the Zapata Environment Program on a solid footing. The fundraising goal of $20,000 for Year One would cover personnel costs, computer and educational supplies, fishing equipment, and transportation costs so that Felipe’s students can spend as much time “in the field” as possible, practicing their skills in the Zapata nature preserve.
In Years Two to Four, a fundraising goal of an additional $80,000 would make possible a “leasing a modest farm and property somewhere along the Jagüey Grande to Playa Larga road, in the general vicinity of Don Yoyi’s fly fishing shop. Several sites of between 5 and 20 acres have been identified aside the Playa Larga road, some 10 kilometers north of the Bay of Pigs and on the outskirts of the entrance to the Zapata nature preserve, thus providing easy access to the recreational, sports fishing birding, and other environmental resources of the region. Felipe Rodriguez and Don Yoyi would secure the initial lease of the property, with resources from the Zapata Environmental Project fund also helping to support the operations, maintenance, and educational outreach of the project as it grows over time.
It is also hoped, once political conditions permit, that longer term fundraising will facilitate exchanges of U.S. and Cuban students in the areas of recreational tourism and economic development. For example, it may become possible to provide short-term internships in Maine for some of Felipe’s students, who could then spend several weeks during the summer with local recreational fishing organizations and companies. Likewise, the fund could provide resources for Maine students to travel to Cuba for internships with The Zapata Environmental Project and similar Cuban enterprises.
By contributing to Felipe Rodriguez and his work with Cuban young people, The Zapata Environmental Project Fund will also support the mission of facilitating direct engagement between Cubans and Americans that promotes sustainable tourism and economic development in both countries. Especially in rural areas such as the Zapata Peninsula and the Bay of Pigs, the promotion of local Cuban resources to better serve international recreational tourists can have a dramatic effect on the incomes and livelihoods of the Cuban people. As we’ve seen over the past several years, there has been a significant number of Cuban entrepreneurs opening their own casas particulares (B&B’s), paladares (home restaurants), and other businesses catering to foreign visitors. Training a new generation of Cubans to serve the recreational and ecotourism industries can both help provide needed jobs and preserve Cuba’s natural resources.
The photo below shows Felipe (white cap) sitting with acclaimed Cuban-American fly-fisherman Marty Arostegui (blue cap) and Jose Ramon Cruz, President of the Cuban Recreational Fishing Association (blue shirt), with Felipe’s students at the sport fishing center on the Rio Hatiguanico in the Zapata Peninsula nature preserve. The young people you see in this photo are Cuba’s future, dedicated to preserving the magnificent natural resources of the Zapata nature preserve and throughout Cuba. With our help, they can build a bright future for themselves, their country, and for those of us who will enjoy the sport fishing, ecotourism, and recreational treasures of Cuba for years to come.
Find out how to receive one of these beautiful, one of a kind, hand carved. Cuban creations by Cuban artist Don YoYi while contributing to preserving the environment and developing leaders for tomorrow.
“We cut a tree, we plant a tree.” Don Yoyi