• President Barack Obama, left, listens to a live band along with Cuba's President Raul Castro during a state dinner at the Palace of the Revolution in Havana. (AP)
A novel idea put forward by two US researchers details a grand marine conservation plan for the infamous Guantanamo Bay site.
By
Georgina Cooke

22 Mar 2016 - 4:16 PM  UPDATED 22 Mar 2016 - 4:16 PM

Rolling green hills, expanses of untouched shorelines, pristine blue waters and temperatures above 20 degrees Celsius year round.

It reads like the write-up for a slice of blue ribbon holiday real estate, certainly not the kind of land a country like, say, the United States might want to relinquish, and certainly not at the behest of a pair of experts in marine biology and international law.

While Guantanamo Bay is renowned for being home to America’s controversial military prison, it is not as widely known that the region is also home to a thriving ecosystem, boasting forests, mangroves, coral reefs and seagrass beds that support a vast array of wildlife and endangered species.

But this natural habitat also represents a way forward for US-Cuba diplomatic relations - so think conservation biologist Joe Roman and Professor of International Law James Kraska.

How? By turning the US-owned prison into an international “peace park”, of course!

As Barack Obama readied himself to become the first US president to visit the country in 88 years over the weekend, Roman and Kraska published an article in the respected journal Science, urging the POTUS to consider turning the detention facility, which has consistently breached human rights law, into a research institution. 

“The United States should deliver on President Obama's recent plan to close the military prison at US Naval Station Guantánamo Bay and repurpose the facilities into a state-of-the-art marine research institution and peace park, a conservation zone to help resolve conflicts between the two countries,” they wrote.

Earlier this year, Obama outlined plans to close the prison however no action has yet been taken, and the move was met with resistance from local US politicians.

Roman and Kraska argue that a carbon-neutral facility could become the cornerstone from which the US and Cuba forge a new international partnership.

“A park that commemorates the history of the area and uses existing infrastructure for a research centre would give global recognition to the country's conservation efforts," they write in the article.

"It would provide financial support, up-to-date facilities for ecological and environmental work, and an opportunity to build capacity and train Cuban scientists and students, especially those from the surrounding eastern provinces."

“This model, designed to attract both sides ... could 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.”

By reducing the area’s carbon footprint and opening up a dialogue on marine science research, Cuba would be able help vulnerable endemic species such as the Cuban iguana and the West Indian manatee, as well as the green turtle and hawksbill turtle which use the area to breed.

In this way, Roman and Kraska state, Cuba could position itself as a future leader in conservation science.

But Professor Corey Bradshaw, of the School of Biological Sciences at The University of Adelaide, thinks that while the idea is a sound one, without a real plan for funding, the proposal may fall flat.

"They're very expensive to run and if they are not budgeted [for] ... they can sort of sit there unoccupied and waste lots of money," he told SBS Science. "Cuba is a fairly difficult place for people to do research in ... there are probably some unique opportunities."

"The most plausible outcome would be investment by a US tertiary institution, they [could] incorporate some kind of undergraduate or post graduate program," says Bradshaw. "I can see that as a peaceful collaboration between US and Cuba."

While US administration officials have said the base is not up for discussion, the president is unlikely to avoid questions over the site on his trip, as deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes acknowledged that returning the site to Cuba would symbolise a crucial act of reparation.

"They are insistent, obviously, that our presence there is not legitimate and that the facility be returned to them,” Rhodes told National Public Radio.

Since the prison was established in 2002, Cuba has viewed the US occupation of the land as illegal, refusing to cash the annual AUD$5390 cheques paid by the US as rent and calling for the site to be returned to them.

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