Twenty UNT students to study sustainability in university's study abroad class to Cuba

Tuesday, May 20, 2014 - 19:06

DENTON (UNT), Texas -- As a geography student at the University of North Texas, Michael Watkins has stopped, and has convinced his family to stop buying bottled water, to protect the environment from waste.

But when he signed up for "Cuba and the Complexities of Sustainability" -- UNT's first study abroad class to Cuba in more than 10 years and believed to be the first college or university course in Cuba focusing on sustainability -- he learned about the island's lack of infrastructure for clean drinking water. He was urged to use only bottled water for drinking and brushing teeth.

"There's a significant concern about cholera in Havana, but it's ironic because bottled water generates an enormous amount of waste, and we will be studying Cuba's environmentally friendly practices," said Watkins, who plans to bring a cup with a water filtration system to Cuba and avoid buying bottled water.

Four UNT faculty members initiated "Cuba and the Complexities of Sustainability," which will be held May 28-June11 to provide students from different academic areas a look at the Cuban government's efforts to protect the island's environment. During the 1990s, these efforts resulted in a transition from an industrial-agricultural system of large farms treated with fossil fuel-based pesticides, insecticides and fertilizers to smaller, local and organic farms and urban gardens. The island's national parks protect about 20 percent of the native ecosystems.

The UNT faculty -- James Kennedy, Regents Professor of biological sciences; Bruce Hunter, director of UNT's Center for Spatial Analysis and Mapping in the Department of Geography; Melinda Levin, professor of radio, television and film; and David Taylor, senior lecturer in the Department of English --will accompany 20 students to Cuba, after recruiting them from their academic areas.

Taylor said other U.S. colleges and universities have offered study abroad to Cuba focusing on political science. But he noted that now is the perfect time to study sustainability in Cuba, which is facing pressure to increase tourism.

"Cubans understand that more tourists will lead to increased stress on environmentally restricted areas," Taylor said. "As governments around the world have found, laws and incentives may do a lot to encourage changes in daily choices toward sustainability, and long-term change must use existing arts to make sustainability part of culture."

The UNT students will attend seminars at the University of Havana, taught by the university's faculty, on topics ranging from Cuba's population, the country's physical geography, its use of hydrology resources, and how its artists, musicians and others have used culture and the arts as part of sustainability efforts. After the lectures, the UNT faculty will lead group discussions with the students.

The UNT and UH faculty will also lead field trips to Plaza de Armas, where Havana was founded in 1519, and other sites in Old Havana, and to Havana's National History Museum.

The students will also travel outside of Havana to Pinar del Rio, a city in southwest Cuba that is the center for the cigar industry and also an ecotourism area, and to CiƩnaga de Zapata National Park on the southeastern side of the island near the Bay of Pigs.

The UNT students will all create journals during their two weeks in Cuba, writing in them daily to respond to questions and prompts given to them by the UNT faculty members. Each student must also complete a paper or other project related to his or her academic discipline.

The geography students will examine public transportation, watershed and water quality issues in Cuba and the use of irrigation, soil management, agrochemicals and other factors in the sugar cane and tobacco production, with an emphasis on human impacts on Cuba's environment. Meanwhile, six students from UNT's master of fine arts program in documentary film production and one doctoral student from UNT's College of Visual Arts and Design will create short documentary films and photo essays of Cuban urban and rural life.

"To a filmmaker, Cuba is truly interesting because it's been off limits to many Americans. I'm looking forward to going to a place that used to be an enemy of the U.S. and bringing back images to show everyone that the people in Cuba don't think of us as their enemies," said Travis Barnes, a master's student in documentary film.

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