It’s a place where buses give way to horse drawn carts, where birds, fish, crocodiles and manatees swim, fly and crawl, a place where hibiscus and bougainvillea beautify the humblest shacks. Here, children run free on the beach and at night, the only glow in the sky is from the moon and stars.
It’s Cieniga Zapata, the largest protected wetlands in the Caribbean. Composed of the Zapata Swamp Natural Reserve, Las Salinas Wildlife Sanctuary and Cieniga de Zapata Biosphere, this boot shaped area roughly twice the size of Florida’s Everglades hosted 800 thousand visitors last year.
Anglers, birders and nature photographers are attracted to the swamp which includes the smallest bird in the world, the Bee Hummingbird and the largest fish, the Whale Shark.
Located just off the direct route between Cuba’s capitol and bay side Cienfuegos and historic Trinidad de Cuba, Playa Larga and Playa Giron are stopovers, still off the beaten path.
But, with Cuba now fully open to tourism, Zapata is under siege. Pressure on the swamp is at its highest level since Fidel Castro’s once ambitious plan was to turn this vast natural wonder into one giant rice paddy.
Fortunately, the swamp has many friends and supporters. Scientist, biologist, botanist and friends of the environment including the EDF, The Ramsar Convention and the Cuban government are cognizant of the threat and are responding. They’ve joined forces to battle the two largest threats, pollution and poaching.
Pollution, which has been a minor concern is growing with the increase of human traffic and the poaching of fish, crocodiles, deer and manatees within park boundaries has risen.
Since January of 2017 more than thirty boats have been confiscated by park officials for illegal lobster harvesting and netting. With the increasing demand for fresh seafood and exotic fare, these officials armed with scarce resources are poorly armed to defend the park.
Among the eight thousand or so residence of the park is a family of concerned citizens striving to preserve Cuba’s number one biosphere. The family is not of the same bloodline, DNA or even connecting branches of a family tree.
They are bound together by a common love of the park and the people living within it. They strive to create opportunities which will provide the citizens of Zapata with employment while at the same time preserve the environment. They are business owners, fishing guides, resort employees, drivers and entrepreneurs, all dependent on Zapata’s ecosystem.
The heads of this unusual family are a mother and son, owners of the Enridan fishing charter company which has invested in modern vessels and equipment for catch and release angling on the flats, rivers and lagoons of Zapata. They are one of the largest employers in park.
Tatiana and Daniel Hernandez own the fishing rights in Rio Hatiquanico, Las Salinas and The Lagoon of Treasure which includes fresh, brackish and salt water environments. Along with partner Aime Perez, their company, Enridan Charters is a unique family owned operation.
Before Edridan opened in March of 2016, fishing in Zapata was a government controlled operation plagued with poor equipment and shoddy management, who’s employees poached and sold park resources to make ends meet.
Under the management of Endrian, new boats are in service, lodging has been upgraded and the management and staff have been organized into an efficient provider of service on a level expected by today’s anglers. Along with the upgrades in equipment, the staff has been schooled on the vital importance of resource preservation. The fishing guides now serve as front line watchdogs for poachers and polluters.
To understand the difficulties these employees undergo, it must be understood that these informers are many times lifelong friends and even relatives of the violators, living in the same communities, making them reluctant rangers. The education of enforcement has been a long process and continues to progress at a painfully slow pace.
One important factor has been the establishment of trust within the family system. This trust is possible because Tatiana, Daniel and Aime understand the people of Zapata. Unlike most foreign owned operators in Cuba, they themselves are first and foremost Cuban.
Endiran has brought together the best of what makes life in Zapata not only work, but thrive. They support Felipe Alonzo’s ongoing campaign to take his flycasting, flytying and environmental school from the streets of Jaque Grande to a permanent facility where his young students, many from broken homes and disadvantaged families will learn the skills, including English, to become stewards of the park, monitoring water quality and fish and bird populations.
Endarin supports entrepreneur Don Yoyi and his small fly shop Los Morejones where finely crafted Aquatic works of art created by local artisans are displayed alongside Felipe’s students hand tied flies. Many people and many branches make up the unusual family tree of Zapata. At a recent cookout in the tree shaded backyard of Don Yoyi’s unique shop, Tatiana played learning games with Don and his wife Ailin’s beautiful three year old daughter Alejandra while Daniel discussed park preservation with Zapata’s director Pablo Bouza.
It may be this type of interaction over a plate of pork and platinos served on a tablecloth of fresh cut banana leaves and followed by Don’s home grown and processed coffee that will preserve Zapata. Certainly there is need for scientist and biologist to establish baselines and educate, but the family of Zapata will more than likely will remain the best long term solution to the age old problem of how to best use a resource without destroying it.