The Zapata Environmental Project…Support The Cuban People!

Help us teach the young people of Zapata to preserve their habitat so all can continue to enjoy one of the most pristine eco-systems in the world.

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Zapata Environmental Project



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

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.”


Fish Cuba Now! Support the Cuban People – Zapata Enviromental School


img_4637Ruskin fisherman works to preserve Cuba’s environment
Paul Guzzo, Times Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 15, 2016 6:00am

Ruskin’s Phil Thompson is helping to start a program in Cuba focused on teaching skills needed to protect nature and earn a living through eco-tourism to children living around the island’s Zapata Swamp National Park
TAMPA — Phil Thompson has cast enough fishing line in Cuba that it has become a second home for the Ruskin native and resident.

“Oh man, I love Cuba,” said Thompson, 64, who has been participating in fishing tournaments there since 1993. “I love its people. I love its culture. I love its beautiful nature.”
So Thompson feels a responsibility to help protect the island’s pristine nature reserves, some of which are being threatened by an onslaught of tourist anglers.
Thompson has spent the past year recruiting a collection of Americans — including the grandson of Ernest Hemingway — to help teach kids living around the island’s Zapata Swamp National Park how to protect the ecosystems and earn a living via ecotourism.
“Zapata is one of Cuba’s most beautiful sanctuaries,” Thompson said. “The kids there are its future stewards.”
Titled “The Guiding Youth Project,” the after-school and weekend program is still in its planning phase. But sponsors hope it eventually will include classroom facilities and will recruit Cuban citizens to teach the children about all aspects of environmental sustainability.
Under U.S. law, Americans still can’t visit Cuba for tourism reasons. A trip must fall under one of 12 categories, including education, humanitarian, scientific research and athletic competition. Fishing tournaments in Cuba fall under the last category.
But recreational fishing there is considered a tourist activity.
It now seems doubtful that the United States’ Cuba tourism ban will be lifted under President-elect Donald Trump’s administration. Trump has promised to reverse President Barack Obama’s executive orders that move toward normalizing relations with the island nation.
Still, even without Americans, the Cuban tourism industry is surging and Thompson said these visitors are beginning to realize that the island’s nature reserves are as beautiful as its popular beaches.
He is concerned that overfishing and new waterside hotels to house tourists could damage the nation’s ecosystem. But Thompson also believes there can be a balance between business and environmental protection.
Rather than building giant resorts, he said, small bed-and-breakfasts and inns that cater to ecotourists can have a positive impact on the economy without hurting the environment.
Last year, he started his own “Support the Cuban People Fishing Program” that teaches Cuban anglers proper catch-and-release techniques and how to run small charter boat operations that focus on quality outings instead of the quantity of fish reeled in.
It was while holding such classes that Thompson met Felipe Alonso, a fishing guide in the Zapata Park on Cuba’s southern coast.
Alonso instructs at-risk children how to work in his field. As adults, he hopes, they will feel compelled to protect Cuban nature sanctuaries against overdevelopment, even if tourism dollars prove a big temptation.
Thompson agreed to help the Cuban fishing guide expand his program, enlisting Patrick Hemingway — grandson of the American author beloved in Cuba — and Jeffrey Boutwell, board member with the Latin America Working Group Education Fund in Washington, D.C.
“It’s not that anyone wants to keep Zapata restrictive or for the privileged,” Boutwell said, “But it has to be managed in an environmentally sound way and in a way that allows only a certain amount of traffic. That takes knowledge.”
Thompson also recruited Jay Shelton and Kris Irwin, professors from the University of Georgia who are already involved with their institution’s satellite campus in Costa Rica, where university students learn about environmental sustainability on a 155-acre campus that doubles as a nature preserve.
Shelton and Irwin are applying for grants to purchase computers, scientific equipment and classroom supplies for the Cuban program. And schools and community centers in that area have expressed interest in hosting the program until land can be acquired on which to build facilities.
“We will make this happen,” Thompson said. “I guarantee it.”