Capacity building in Cuba

Protecting the land and sea through Integrated Coastal Zone Management

- February 9, 2012

Dr. Aldo Chircop is the project director for the Local Integrated Coastal Management Capacity Building in Southeast Cuba. (Bruce Bottomley photo)
Dr. Aldo Chircop is the project director for the Local Integrated Coastal Management Capacity Building in Southeast Cuba. (Bruce Bottomley photo)

The meeting of land and sea – known as the coastal zone – is where human and marine life intersects. It’s crucial to a large part of the world’s population, key to the global economy, and home to fragile and vulnerable ecosystems like coral reefs. Today it faces a triple threat – human intervention, natural hazards and climate change.

The management of this area, known as Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM) is one of the most important global challenges we face today, especially in developing nations where there are often limited resources and capacity.

“[ICZM] is a holistic approach to dealing with the relationships between land and sea,” says Aldo Chircop, project director for the Local Integrated Coastal Management Capacity Building in Southeast Cuba. “Human transformation of the global coastal zones has been done in ways that raise questions of sustainability that are going to or already have caused major problems in terms of safety of inhabitants, the ecosystems, and economic viability.”

It was a Dalhousie professor, Elizabeth Mann Borgese, working abroad in Malta in the 1970s, who introduced a young Dr. Chircop to the law of the sea. Like the late Dalhousie legend, and founder of the International Ocean Institute (IOI), Dr. Chircop, marine and environmental law professor in the Schulich School of Law, educates beyond Dalhousie’s walls, bringing his assistance and support to developing nations.

In Cuba, Dr. Chircop, along with Drs. Ronald Pelot (Department of Industrial Engineering) and Lucia Fanning (Director, Marine Affairs Program) are collaborating with partners at the University of Havana, the University of Oriente in Santiago de Cuba and the University of Guantanamo. They’re working to build capacity for training and infrastructure in local communities to manage coastal zones. The project is funded in part by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).

“Mismanagement that might affect the ability of the coastal zone to adapt to change can significantly affect the well-being of coastal zone populations,” explains Dr. Chircop. “[ICZM] tends to be an inclusive, government-led process that enables local decision making to undertake sustainable activities and ensure coastal communities are sustainable.”

The partner institutions, led by the universities of Guantanamo and Oriente, work on educating local communities and their governments in coastal management. They focus on solving local community issues in their specific context, rather than importing solutions.

“It’s critical that this engages everyone in the community, from women to government and so on... It is so essential to put faith in people. Government departments and corporations are just legal fictions - it's ultimately the capacity of people and their ability to provide leadership that really matters,” says Dr. Chircop, who says he and his Dalhousie colleagues have developed familial like relationships with their Cuban counterparts, something that has made their work more successful and fulfilling.

The project is a sequel to an initiative he was involved in that ended in 2004. That project, also CIDA funded, developed the first national program for ICZM education at the graduate level – delivered at the universities of Havana, Oriente and Cienfuegos. It enabled the human resource capacity to start and continue ICZM.

“In a sense, this new project provides an opportunity to do more, to move to the local community outreach level,” says Dr. Chircop. “We’ve gone a step forward, focusing on Eastern Cuba (the most disadvantaged region). We have designed specialized training courses which are aimed at providing quick knowledge to government officials to deal with immediate problems they face in the coastal zone.”

This type of education is critical to decision-making in Cuba, where coastal tourism and agriculture are essential to the economy. Low-lying levels in the north like Holguin and Cayo Coco, have sensitive coral reef systems that support important resorts while Eastern Cuba has an important agricultural economy.

“It is important that Cubans undertake development that respects the integrity of the area they are building hotels in,” explains Dr. Chircop. He says that thanks to a research centre near Cayo Coco that provides advice and guidance on how to undertake development, the ecological footprint has been minimized. In fact, much of the natural aspects are integrated into the tourism and development.

Dr. Chircop says ICZM is important all over the world, but needs to be done in a local context, as this project is promoting in Cuba.

“How do you implement [ICZM] at the national and local levels within each country, especially in developing nations with limited resource capacity?” he asks. “This is where our project comes in, trying to explore the way implementation takes place and ultimately to better facilitate better oceans and coastal zone management.”

A native of Malta, Dr. Chircop is a former director of the IOI (Malta) and has previously served as coordinator of the Marine Affairs Program at Dalhousie. He is currently director of Dalhousie’s Marine and Environmental Law Institute.


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