Sustainable agriculture cleans up rivers in Cuba

New scientific findings reveal that Cuba’s rivers are in better health than the Mississippi River. The research was a joint effort between Cuba and the United States, marking the two countries’ first collaboration in more than 60 years. The work was part of a study on Cuba’s hydrology, focusing on the water quality of the island’s rivers. Despite centuries of cattle and sugarcane farming, research results reveal there hasn’t been much damage to Cuba’s rivers thanks to the country’s other sustainable agriculture methods.

Compared to the Mississippi River, Cuba’s 25 rivers surveyed showed lower nutrient concentration of phosphorus and nitrogen pollution. This is likely attributed to Cuba’s shift toward sustainable agriculture, particularly the country’s shunning of imported synthetic chemicals.

Related: Dutch company collects plastic pollution from rivers to make parks and products

“A lot of stories about the value of Cuba’s shift to conservation agriculture have been based on fuzzy, feel-good evidence,” explained geologist and researcher Paul Bierman. “This study provides hard data that a crucial part of this story is true.”

By contrast, the U.S. has more widespread dependence on chemical fertilizers. Hence, dead zones occur where the Mississippi River mouth opens into the Gulf of Mexico, adversely affecting the region’s marine ecosystems with dangerous bacterial and algal blooms caused by elevated nitrogen levels.

Another interesting finding is that even though more than 80% of the Cuban river samples had E. coli bacteria, the source was found to be from fecal material by cattle and horses grazing along the riverbanks. The research team believes that this is partly attributed to “Cuba’s intensive use of horses and other draft animals for transportation and farm work.”

The researchers concluded that the island country has been committed to promoting more sustainable agriculture to improve both its soil and water. The efforts have led to promising results.

The American team was comprised of University of Vermont geologist Paul Bierman and Oberlin College geoscientist Amanda Schmidt. The Cuban team was led by Rita Hernández, representing the Cienfuegos Center for Environmental Studies, an ecological research group. Their joint research, supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation, was recently published in the GSA Today journal of the Geological Society of America.

“This research can help the people of Cuba,” Hernández said, “and may give a good example to other people in the Caribbean and all over the world.”


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