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Op-Ed: Scientists say turn Guantanamo Bay into a marine research park

But rather than shut it down, one opinion piece appearing in the journal Science suggests instead that Guantanamo could be transformed into a modern ecological research station that focuses on ecosystem preservation, marine research, and mitigating climate change, IFLScience reports. This would put an end to a rather ugly part of U.S. history and allow science to flower.

The scientists note that Cuba has some 5,000 kilometers (around 3,100 miles) of coastline with pristine mangrove wetlands, coral reefs, seagrass beds, and tropical wet forests that are largely undeveloped and rich in biodiversity. To maintain this, the scientists propose turning the prison into a carbon-neutral environmental research center, with the idea of protecting this wild beauty.

Cuba is home to numerous unique species, and some, like Cuban iguanas and sea turtles, are vulnerable. And the base contains tropical dry forests that are quite rare. The authors of the opinion piece, Joe Roman, of the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont, and James Kraska, a law professor at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, note that when the U.S. footprint at Guantanamo is reduced, much of the land and sea could then be returned to native wildlife. Not only that, but if the U.S. and Cuba decide to cooperate on this, cutting-edge facilities could be dedicated to researching man-made climate change and ocean conservation.

But this may be a big “if.”

Cuban President Raúl Castro has made it clear that this island nation in the Caribbean wants its’ land back, HuffPost Science reports.

“In order to move forward towards normalization, it will also be necessary to return the territory illegally occupied by Guantanamo Naval Base,” Castro told reporters in a Monday press conference with Obama, Time magazine reports, per HuffPost.

But the U.S. isn’t ready to give up its prize just yet. Which is why this proposal by Roman and Kraska is important. Because it may work to smooth frayed diplomatic ties between the two countries.

Converting the 45-square-mile section of Cuba’s coast into a protected area would give scientists the chance to conduct crucial studies, protect some of the country’s well-preserved ecosystems and improve diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

“We could confront one of the biggest issues of 21st century — climate change and biodiversity loss,” Roman said.

Guantanamo Bay has been under U.S. control since 1903. Technically, the land has been leased from the Cuban government by the U.S. Navy, for around $4,000 per year. However, Cuba has refused to cash the rent checks since the 1960s and maintains that the U.S. occupation is illegitimate.

Currently, the facility houses 91 detainees, and 35 have been cleared for transfer. The State Department plans to repatriate those detainees cleared for transfer by this summer, the Guardian reports.

If the prison is closed, some organizations, like the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, are calling for the land to be given back to Cuba, ClimateProgress reports.

However, since the U.S. has already said it isn’t returning the land to Cuba, Roman and Kraska say the countries should pursue this third option together. A marine research facility, operated jointly by the U.S. and Cuba would help Cuban scientists by providing financial support while allowing the U.S. a chance to retain its presence in the area, Roman and Kraska said.

The research facility would “unite Cuba and the United States in joint management, rather than serve as a wedge between them, while helping meet the challenges of climate change, mass extinction, and declining coral reefs,” they wrote in Science.

A West Indian Manatee  a member of Order Sirenia in Florida waters.

A West Indian Manatee, a member of Order Sirenia in Florida waters.
U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey

While this area provides crucial habitat for the Cuban iguana and the West Indian manatee, the area also provides critical nesting areas for the endangered green sea turtle and the hawksbill turtle, which is critically endangered, Roman and Kraska noted.

Cuban iguana.

Cuban iguana.
Wikimedia Commons Karelj

Cuba itself has taken a tough stance on conservation and climate change, and this, Roman and Kraska say has “put it at the center of Caribbean conservation efforts.”

“For the next generation, the name Guantanamo could become associated with redemption and efforts to preserve and repair international relations and the planet,” they wrote.

Unfortunately, it’s highly unlikely that Guantanamo Bay will be closed, and the idea of converting the center into a research facility will almost certainly face a skeptical, Republican-led Congress, ClimateProgress reports.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) was asked his thoughts about turning the detention center into a research facility.

“That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard,” he said. “Why would we talk about a marine lab when we’re trying to save American lives?” But this is a man who famously threw a snowball in Congress because it was cold where he lived last year, so that must mean it’s the same way for everyone else in the world. He didn’t think there was any climate change, so it must not be happening to anybody, anywhere.

Roman and Kraskas have suggested something that would give scientists the chance to effect positive change, both in terms of understanding climate change and helping protect the world’s biodiversity. Brilliant scientists ranging from Copernicus and Galileo all the way up to Alan Turing have been scuppered by religious and political ignorance and intolerance, and with Republicans like Inhofe in Congress, it’s just going to be more of the same, all over again.

Ted Cruz and Donald Trump are both ardent climate change deniers. It would be nice if the planet could shrug these people off like a bad case of fleas.

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