Cuba Environment

01Since my primary subject for photography was people, my visit to Las Terrazas & Soroa was more of a drive by-look-see. Traveling back roads reminded me of the valleys & hills of Western PA’s Allegheny Mountains. Since 1985 when UNESCO declared Sierra del Rosario a Biosphere Reserve, this region has become a model of sustainability as well as a laboratory/classroom for environmental education.

02 I had a life moment with Dr. Figueroa, Director of the Biosphere.  When we walked into his office it was obvious who in my group was not Cuban. He got up out of his chair, walked over extending his hand & said Fidel. I shook his had & since he informally only used his 1st name I did the same replying Jay with a smirky smile. His eyes widened as he chuckled saying…Really! We both laughed understanding in Spanish a close sound to J is Che. This 2 shot may never be as iconic as photos of our historic namesakes. But, it is locked to a memory from my trip that will always bring a smile to my face.


Prior to the ’59 Revolution 11% of Cuba was covered in forest. European settlers cleared trees for cattle grazing & coffee plantations. The assault on the land was ferocious. Photo courtesy Sierra del Rosario Reserva de la Biosfera archive.


Thanks to the work of peasants, who in the process of replanting the forest, also built what some call “Castro’s Eden.” Since the 70’s over 8 million trees have been planted increasing the forested Cuban land to 28%. This is an amazing success of Reforestation in just 4 decades considering the work was done with the most basic tools. In the middle of this is Las Terrazzos. A small community & very is different from the colonial founded cities where I spent the majority of my time. It is a “tab of butter in a sea of grits” as some of the Chapel Hill Boys would say. Eco-tourism directly accounts for over 250 jobs providing a much-improved standard of living.


Dr. Fidel Hernandez Figueroa has worked here since 1983. As a young boy he wanted to live in the mountains. At the University he studied to be a Forest Engineer. He got his Masters as an Ecologist then a PhD in Forest Science. I think it is safe to say that he made his dream come true. After he laughed when I asked him what he enjoys doing when he isn’t working, he told me he always is working but still enjoys studying & tries to learn at least 1 new thing every night before he goes to bed.


His accomplishments & attitude are fueled by passion & hope for the future. Fidel told me even if the pay is low he is spiritually wealthy. He insisted on showing me the portrait done by local artist Lester Campa. Since Fidel & I are close in age, the blending of two iconic personalities from our youth made it a serendipitous connection.

07aIn the forests around Las Terrazass the diversity of birds & plants, many of which are endemic, is an example of how repair can be made to nature. It also demonstrates how quality of life can be improved with a balanced approach to tourism & the environment. If I ever go back to Cuba this is a place I will get to know better. My translation of Sierra del Rosario is… Mountains of Hope.


I’m vastly under-qualified to describe the tropical floral I saw Cuba other than to say it was diversely beautiful. For a much more detailed information please link to a blog by Emily Kalnicky Diretor of Science Education & Jordyn Melino Exhibit Coordinator from Phipps Conservatory.


Sustainability & organic farming in Cuba evolved out of necessity. After the collapse of the USSR the supply of chemical pesticides & fertilizer disappeared. The rationing of food & other hardships impacted the entire population in what Cubans refer to as the “Special Period”. Weeding by hand was added to the list of manual chores needed to survive.


The Vinales Valley on the western end of the mountain range is a UNESCO jewel, & a showcase of how 25 plus years of experience has made Cuba a model for Agricultural Sustainability. The mogotes, described as upside down bowls of ice cream, are unique topographical features that help define this place. They gave me a feeling of being small similar to how Yosemite made me feel. Some of the best tobacco in the world is grown in this fertile province. Even though most other parts of Cuba I drove thru were parched, this valley was lush. Hiking, horseback riding and biking are very common activities for visitors that allow you to get an intimate perspective of the natural environment.


Nationally, clean energy production is on the rise but without the most technologically advanced tools. There are 300 cooperatives focusing on pig production. Some are also processing bio-mass fuel gas. Residual material from the fermenting of pig poop is used for fertilizing. Getting the most out of available resources is part of the Cuban Culture. This region provides an example of the benefits of sustainable environmental practices.

The content of these postings are based upon my observations, conversations with my guide, interviews with people interpreted by my guide & interactions I had with people I met. Any mistakes are entirely mine with no intention to mislead.

Cuban Cigars


The iconic status of Cigars motivated me to visit the tobacco farm of the Cameo family. Sergio was a wonderful host. I was amazed at the young man’s maturity. Generous with his time, he shared his knowledge & a few laughs…but no family secrets. Inside a drying houses the reflected morning sun fueled my attempts to capture some interesting images. This portrait is one of my top 3 favorite shots from my trip.


Respecting & honoring family are subjects I experienced with other Cubans I came in contact with. While Sergio was giving a tour of his home I wasn’t surprised to hear praise for his father but also respect for his grandparents. He proudly told me about his ancestors that had emigrated from Spain in the mid 1800’s. His family has farmed the land the entire time. This father & son portrait has an interesting generational flip-flop. Benito has on the ball cap & his son wears the traditional headgear.


I was struck at the size, strength & vibrant color of the tobacco plants. They are cultivated from a seed the size of a pinhead. I learned the first leaves are cut for cigars. The second sets of leaves are for cigarettes. After tobacco leaves are harvested they begin a lengthy process before being rolled into cigars. Some leaves can be aged for 5 years.


First there is the curing where the leaves turn from green to yellow to orange & finally brown. The next steps are aging & fermentation. I was told different blends of spices, honey & rum are common seasonings. I began to understand the correlation cigars have with wine & craft beer. Recipes, aging & timing all are critical to the final product. Like cuttings from vineyards other farmers value the seeds of tobacco plants. The process is a blend of science, generational expertise & mother natures.


In hindsight, I’d have been smart to  grab the tripod from the trunk. The sunlight coming thru the door bouncing off of the reddish dirt gave a wonderful quality to the light. Mixed with the aroma of drying tobacco the radiance of the room seemed to have a taste to it. The textures on the leaves was both subtle & dramatic. The limited spectrum of colors was a rich blend of earth tones. My eyes saw things I couldn’t capture with the camera. If I go back, I will have my tripod & do low ISO/f 16/long exposures. Speaking of equipment, the most manageable package of gear was the 7D/18-135 & an OTS bag with 28, 40 & 100mm lenses.  The 400mm stayed in my room.   The 2nd camera around my neck was of little value. Twice I wished I had my 10-22mm I left in Pittsburgh.


Part of Sergio’s plans for the future is to continue to learn from his father. He understands the importance of his family’s reputation & recognizes he must gain more experience & work hard. The Camejo name has been respected as farmers in the Valley for over a century & a half. The leaves from their farm are recognized for consistent high quality. Rolled cigars are a significant export in the Cuban economy. The government purchases 90% of the leaves at a price set by the government. Sergio believes the possibility of changing relations with the US means more people will be interested in Cuban Tobacco making the future bright for his family’s farm.


The quality of the final cigar begins with using his fingers to judge the dryness of each leaf. The tools he needed were basic. He had a board across his lap & a machete on his belt, to trim the ends. Once he rolls specific leafs into the layers of the cigar it is wrapped tight using a large unblemished leaf. He then smells the final product, examines the overall rolling before he lights it & tastes it. He also inspects the ash. Four of his 5 senses are used to ensure the high standard his product is recognized for. Consistency & quality go hand in hand in the world of cigars.


Cockfighting is legal in Cuba but betting, like most gambling, was shut down by after the 1959 Revolution. Although Sergio is only 20 years old his confident poise is evident as he proudly displays his champion fighting rooster. Before we took this picture he took the time to groom/massage his champion. He explained the entire training, diet, conditioning & recovery process. It was a bit like the routine of boxers. As I was listening & taking photos I had my only Hemingway Moment while I was in Cuba.


The concept of family extends to all that work alongside each other. Workers on the farm bridge the history of families with the Camejo’s which not only is a sign of loyalty but also respect & honesty. I’ve always had high regard for farmers. Working close to the land is tough, dirty, honest work. I learned a lot about cigars & discovered coffee with rum is Patriota & rum with coffee Carajillo. Details can be important. It was a beautiful morning on the farm.

The content of these postings are based upon my observations, conversations with my guide, interviews with people interpreted by my guide & interactions I had with people I met. Any mistakes are entirely mine with no intention to mislead.