University of Vermont

University Communications

On Course for Cuba

students in cuban street
UVM students touring Havana. (Photo courtesy Joe Roman)

Aidan Wahl’s grandfather, Julio, grew up in Cuba, working on a farm. In 1947, at age 14, he moved with his family to the United States — and he’s never been back. “He loves Cuba,” says Wahl, a UVM senior majoring in environmental studies.

So when she told him she was going to Cuba over her spring break as part of a course studying the farms and ecosystems of this island nation, “he was thrilled,” she says. “I could tell he was almost crying.”

For Wahl, who had never been to Cuba, there was a strange sense of return when she arrived in Havana. “My grandfather told me many stories. He said I had to eat mamey fruit, and to see where his father had a woodshop,” she says, “and he said to go to Sloppy Joes.” Walking up to the famed bar and restaurant, “I felt connected to my Zayda. It was like he was there, and I was following in his footsteps.”

Old photo of Aiden's grandparents with photo of Aiden at Sloppy Joe's Aidan Wahl '16 (right) visited Sloppy Joe’s in Havana, Cuba — the same bar and restaurant her great-grandparents (left) frequented in in the 1940s. (Photo courtesy Aidan Wahl)

And connections and returns are the underlying theme of the course Wahl was taking, Natural Resources 395, From Ridges to Reefs: An Experiential Learning Trip to Cuba.

Traveling out from the capital city, the students — seven UVM graduate students, two Cuban graduate students, and Wahl, the only undergraduate — were there to study how the limestone-dominated landscapes of Cuba connect to each other. Ancient-coral highlands flow down to iron-red farmland, coastal plains, tropical forests, mangrove swamps — and out to some of the most pristine coral reefs in the Atlantic Ocean. “I’d never been snorkeling before,” Wahl says, but after a lecture on tropical fish conservation by one of the Cuban students, “seeing the explosion of life on the reef was amazing.”

“Agroecology and marine conservation are the two main subjects of this course,” explains Joe Roman a marine biologist in UVM’s Gund Institute and Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, who co-led the course with Margarita Fernandez G'15, director of the Vermont Caribbean Institute, and Patricia Gonzalez Diaz, director of the Center for Marine Studies at the University of Havana in Cuba. “The students are looking for connections between the two systems,” Roman says, “and between the two countries.”

Joe Roman snorkeling in Cuba Conservation biologist Joe Roman snorkeling off the coast of Cuba. (Photo: Charlie Nicholson)

In the weeks building up to their study-travel trip, Aidan Wahl was studying Cuba’s fisheries; it’s part of her academic focus on food systems. But being in Cuba — seeing the way pollution flows downhill and how coastal conservation affects marine life — brought home the lesson: “sustainable fisheries begin on land,” she says. “After this course I took a more holistic view of food systems, which includes marine reefs and fish.”

At another level, the new course capitalized on the recent thaw in diplomatic connections between Cuba and the U.S. For decades, in the wake of the Cuban Revolution and U.S. embargo of Cuba, the island was deeply isolated. When Cuba lost its connection to Russia — and its oil — after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cubans had to reinvent their farming systems. People were getting hungry, and necessity led to a remarkable flourishing of organic, low-input farming with few machines — and much hand labor. Today, Cuba’s urban farms — organopónicos — are renowned around the world.

Students touring farm in CubaInnovative farmer Fernando Funes Monzote shows UVM students water-conserving terraced rows of lettuce. (Photo courtesy Samantha Alger)

To see this first-hand, Wahl and the other students visited the Alamar Farm in a public housing project on the outskirts of Havana. The next day they toured the famed 20-acre farm, Finca Marta, that supplies high-end produce to some of Havana’s emerging network of private restaurants. Curving beds of gorgeous lettuce, fruit trees, and beehives formed a backdrop for one the many exchanges between the U.S. and Cuban scholars and farmers.

“I’m interested in bee diseases, and I wanted to see the state of Cuba’s honeybees,” says Samantha Alger, a UVM doctoral student in the Biology Department who also serves as the Vermont coordinator for the U.S. national honeybee survey. On the trip, she got to interview several Cuban beekeepers and look in their hives. “I made some really good connections,” she says, and became deeply interested in a Cuban bee mystery: “They have a lot of the bee diseases that we have here in the U.S., like chalkbrood and varroa mites,” she says, “but they don’t lose nearly as many hives.” Alger wonders if there’s something about the genetics of the Cuban bees or the way Cuban beekeepers manage their hives that could be helpful for U.S. beekeepers. “Part of the puzzle is that they're not using pesticides and agricultural chemicals to the extent that we use here,” she says.

Students studying beehive Samantha Alger, at a Cuban farm, shows a frame of honeycomb to her fellow students. (Photo courtesy Samantha Alger)

But with renewed relations with the U.S., and a rising influx of tourist and investment dollars, the potential for large-scale commercial development and the assertion of industrial agriculture grows. “The big question at the heart of this course is: what can happen in Cuba now?” Margarita Fernandez says. The country has become a leader in sustainable farming, healthcare and marine conservation, “to a certain extent because Cuba has been shut off through the embargo to global trade and intense development,” she says. “But we don’t know what the next chapter will bring.”

The students on the trip each developed an independent research project aimed at improving farming practices and marine protections in Cuba — and shared their findings with experts at the University of Havana and government officials. And “education is a two-way street,” says UVM’s Joe Roman, whose recent publication in Science magazine—calling for repurposing the U.S. naval station at Guantanamo as a conservation research center — has been making international headlines. “We’re examining innovative approaches to agroecology and coastal restoration in Cuba,” he notes, “to bring back to the United States.” (More on new relationships between UVM scholars and Cuba can be heard in this podcast.)

For her part, after she graduates, Aidan Wahl would like to take her training back home to California, “perhaps to work in gardens in elementary schools,” she muses. “Now I have a better sense of how the whole system is connected.” And she’d love to bring her grandfather along with her the next time she travels to Cuba.