Zapata Environmental Project
Nearly two million Cuban Americans reside in the United States. But to those who live around Marina Hemingway, the port 10 miles from Havana, there is only one Yuma Cubano, Spanish slang for the American Cuban.
It’s a nickname Ruskin’s Phil Thompson earned by residing near Cuba’s main recreational marina for 24 of the last 36 months as he helped a local fisherman start the Zapata Environmental Project. The program teaches Cuban kids how to preserve nature and earn money through eco-tourism.
It will officially launch this summer at Los Morejones fly fishing shop, on 6 acres of land situated near the main entrance of southern Cuba’s 1.2-million-acre Zapata National Park nature sanctuary.
There, children will gather at no cost to learn fly casting and bait-making techniques, marine biology, business, English and more.
But for this to happen, the 66-year-old Thompson said, “I first had to stop thinking like an American and start thinking like a Cuban.”
He was in Tampa in late April as part of a one-week tour of Florida fly shops to promote fishing-themed, hand-carved wooden Cuban art to be sold to help raise $5,000 for the project. The wares, such as tackle boxes and sculptures of tarpon, are made by the proprietor of Los Morejones.
The art will be available locally by the end of June at Tampa’s Minnows & Monsters Tackle Rod, Thompson said, or through captphilthompson.com.
Importing and selling Cuban art is legal under the Cuban Embargo.
Thompson’s proceeds will be used to provide equipment that students can use to monitor and manage the ecosystem by, for instance, testing water quality and keeping track of the fish population.
Thompson fished in Cuba as far back as 1993 and has long thought that it could be a source of tourist revenue for those residing outside the busy cities most foreigners visit.
So, in 2015, he started his Support the Cuban People Fishing Program to teach anglers how to operate charter businesses.
It was through those classes he met Felipe Alonso, a fishing guide in the Zapata who, from his home, educated kids how to forge careers like his.
Since this was in line with what Thompson was doing, he offered to help Alonso expand the program beyond instructing a few children how to cast and make fly fishing bait.
The plan became to have Cuban and American marine biologists donate time to teach kids about their science and how to apply it to eco-tourism.
So, Thompson recruited Jay Shelton and Kris Irwin, University of Georgia professors with resumes that include establishing a Costa Rican satellite campus focused on environmental sustainability.
“Zapata is a pristine environment with minimal human impact,” Irwin said.
“As we look to the future, is human extraction and exploitation going to increase? I think we all agree it is. They need to make informed decisions about what is the most sustainable way to benefit from this resource.”
The professors signed on nearly two years ago, yet the project stalled.
“It’s because I kept thinking like an American,” Thompson said.
He was initially trying to help fisherman Alonso afford a farm on which to build a campus — an “American way of doing business,” Thompson said.
Buying such a large plot on the island is nearly impossible. Cuban friends finally made him realize that he needed to find a Cuban with land who was willing to share it out of generosity.
Then, last fall, he was introduced to Don YoYi, an artist who runs Los Morejones fly shop on land his family has owned for six generations.
During their first conversation, Thompson said, YoYi agreed to host the project for free, plus provide his wooden art to be sold in Florida.
“We were last in Cuba in June of 2016,” said professor Shelton. “We wanted to go back the day we went home. We have been hopeful and dreaming for Phil and Filepe to succeed. This is exciting.”