Environment

Scientists Want To Turn Guantanamo Bay Into A Climate Change Research Facility

March 18, 2016 | by Robin Andrews

Photo credit: An aerial view of Gitmo's Naval Station on Cuba. Everett Historical/Shutterstock

President Obama has been trying to close the prison facility at Guantanamo Bay (or “Gitmo”) since 2009, but many in the now-Republican-dominated Congress are strongly opposed, believing that the camp sends out a strong message to those worldwide that would seek to do harm to the United States. 

Instead of shutting it down, however, an opinion piece in the journal Science suggests that it could be repurposed into a state-of-the-art ecological research station, focusing on ecosystem preservation, marine research, and climate change mitigation. Far from just closing a dark chapter in America’s recent history, this plan would serve to open the door to a more scientifically prosperous, peaceful, and enlightened one.

As they point out, Cuba has around 5,000 kilometers (about 3,100 miles) of coastline rich in mangrove wetlands, coral reefs, seagrass beds and tropical wet forests, most of which remain undeveloped and have retained incredible levels of biodiversity. In order to help maintain this, they propose turning the prison facility into a carbon-neutral environmental research center whose primary goal is to protect Cuba’s incredible natural wonders.

The area is home to several unique species, including vulnerable iguanas and turtles, and the tropical dry forests currently on the base are relatively rare. The authors note that “with a reduced U.S. footprint at Guantanamo, most of the land and sea could be returned to native wildlife.” Going further, they suggest that with cooperation between Cuba and the U.S., cutting-edge facilities dedicated to researching man-made climate change and ocean conservation could also be added.

The ultimate aim would be to create a truly international research hub that experts from all walks of life could use. “With genetics laboratories, geographic information systems laboratories, videoconference rooms – even art, music, and design studios – scientists, scholars, and artists from Cuba, the United States, and around the world could gather and study,” they write.

This new proposal aims to completely change the purpose of Gitmo, whose prevailing images include this one of detainees arriving at Camp X-Ray in 2002. Shane T. McCoy/Wikimedia Commons; Public Domain

The U.S. military’s naval base and military detention facility on the southeastern end of Cuba has been associated with controversy for decades, particularly during the recent “War on Terror” initiated by the Bush administration. Its use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” – effectively torture methods – on suspected extremists have led to it being called the “gulag of our times” by Amnesty International.

Although the Obama administration has outlawed torture at the facility and has significantly scaled down the War on Terror practices used by the Bush administration, 91 prisoners are still held there, and many have questioned their treatment. Opposition to its closure remains strong.

But perhaps thanks to recent efforts, a pioneering scientific research center at Guantanamo could be more than just a pipe-dream. Such international cooperation would have seemed impossible before the governments of Cuba and the U.S. agreed to “normalize” diplomatic relations between the two combative nations in the summer of last year.

“When we first discussed the idea, it seemed farfetched,” Joe Roman, a conservation biologist from the University of Vermont, and a co-author of the piece, told IFLScience. “But since last year, the U.S. and Cuba have begun cooperating on marine-protected areas and shark conservation. I think the U.S. government could do it and should do it, for the benefit of the U.S., Cuba, and the many species on the base and beyond.”

Could Guantanamo ultimately become another truly wonderful example of how science knows no political boundaries? “For the next generation, the name Guantanamo could become associated with redemption and efforts to preserve and repair international relations and the planet,” the authors conclude.

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