VINALES, Cuba -- Cuban and American scientists have joined forces in an effort to protect baby sea turtles and endangered sharks. Theyre studying Caribbean weather patterns that fuel the hurricanes that have devastated the Southeastern United States.
In the process, theyre chipping away at a half-century of government feuding, helping to bring the nations together for talks on vital matters, such as what to do in case of an oil spill.
The two countries are so geographically close, and the environmental concerns so similar, that scientists say its crucial to combine forces.
If were going to have any hope of protecting our environment in the future, from climate change to our shared resources in the Gulf of Mexico, we have to collaborate, said Dan Whittle, the Cuba program director at the Environmental Defense Fund.
Under the Obama administration, cooperation between scientific organizations has increased, scientists say. Visas are being granted more regularly to Cuban scientists and its easier for Americans to get the U.S. government licenses needed to do research on the island.
Peter Agre, a Nobel laureate in chemistry and the head of the Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute, led 18 U.S. scientists associated with the American Association for the Advancement of Science on a trip to Cuba in December to meet with counterparts about potential cooperation in marine and atmospheric sciences, and sustainable fisheries.
For some American scientists, going to Cuba is like tasting a piece of forbidden fruit. The scientific landscape has been largely untouched for decades.
The U.S. trade embargo, which has been in place for 50 years, has in many ways been a gift to Cubas forests, fish populations and coral reefs. It helped insulate Cubas ecosystem from the type of tourist development thats wracked other nations.
Sea turtles that feed in Florida journey back each year to nest in Cuba. Many grunts and snapper fish that live off the North Carolina coast also spawn in Cuba. The oceanic whitetip shark has almost disappeared from U.S. waters, but preliminary studies show the predators in abundance around the island.
Cuban scientists see the collaboration with Americans as an honest exchange of work, as opposed to a plea for funding or resources.
They complain that they dont get enough credit for their science, and they boast that Cuba represents 2 percent of the Latin American population but has 11 percent of the scientists in the region. There are thousands of Cuban doctors and health professionals on medical missions abroad.
The country includes more than 84 protected areas, making up almost 14 percent of the island. In Western Cuba at the 37,500-acre Vinales National Park, environmentalists study ways to protect the vast mountains that are home to an array of native plants and animals, including the renown painted snails. Legend has it that the sun painted their vibrant orange and yellow swirled shells.
Of maximum importance is the need to protect and conserve the environment, said Yamira Valdez, a Cuban environmental specialist at the park. Our countries can share experiences, criteria. They can see what works here. And we can apply their experience to the work we do.
Scientists and scholars have helped break through political barriers before. An environmental agreement reached with the Soviet Union in the 1970s is often credited with easing Cold War tensions.