Transforming Guantánamo from prison camp to environmental paradise

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Using Prisons to Promote Environmentalism

Can the United States' notorious Guantánamo Bay prison camp for suspected terrorists be transformed into an American-Cuba research center dedicated to protecting the environment?

Joe Roman, a conservation biologist at the University of Vermont, doesn't think the idea is far fetched if Guantánamo closes, given the recent progress in normalizing relations with Cuba and President Barack Obama's historic visit to the Communist country this week

He says Cuba's coastline is the "ecological crown jewel" of the Caribbean, with abundant and healthy coral reefs and marine life. Guantánamo Bay itself is home to rare tropical dry forests, mangroves, coral reefs and sea grass beds, as well as habitat for many species, from grandillo trees to spiny lobsters. The barbed wire and walls at Guantánamo that have kept suspected terrorists imprisoned for more than a decade have also kept development out, preserving a pristine ecosystem that is as much a time capsule as the 1950s Chevrolets that cruise Havana's waterfront.

In a paper published Friday in Science, Roman and James Kraska, a law professor at the U.S. Naval War College, wrote that turning Guantánamo into a green research hub would help protect an untouched stretch of coastline and 45 square miles of beachfront land around the military base that might otherwise succumb to development.

"This no man's land has become a really healthy native ecosystem," said Roman. "Studying it will show us how a healthy system should look like. By protecting these coastal ecosystems, you will also prevent future disruptive economic development in this area in the Cancun style, and hopefully encourage wise, sustainable economic development that Cuba does need."

The idea of a green "Gitmo" took shape when Roman began taking graduate students on research trips to Cuba over the last couple years and saw how the marine ecosystem there remained intact, unlike in other island nations.

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He said if the remaining Guantánamo Bay detainees were relocated, there would be no reason to maintain a prison that costs the taxpayers $150 million a year. "International peace parks encourage people to come together after an international conflict and this would help the environment and wildlife as well," Roman said.

Roman and Kraska consider their proposal to be a better alternative to keeping the prison open indefinitely as some politicians want to do. Cuba, for its part, considers the United States' presence at Guantánamo Bay to be illegal.

Guantánamo wouldn't be the first such collaboration between Cuba and the U.S. After relations were normalized last year, the two countries established sister sanctuary relationships between Guanahacabibes and Banco de San Antonio in Cuba, and the Florida Keys and Flower Garden Banks national marine sanctuaries in the U.S.

If the infamous prison were to close, Roman and Kraska believe that for the next generation, Guantánamo Bay could come to represent environmental preservation rather than torture.

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