Cuba’s clean rivers show the benefits of reducing nutrient pollution

For most of the past 60 years, the United States and Cuba have had very limited diplomatic ties. President Barack Obama started the process of normalizing U.S.-Cuba relations, but the Trump administration reversed this policy, sharply reducing interactions between the two countries.

Scientific cooperation is a bright spot in this difficult history. Since the 19th century, U.S. institutions like the Smithsonian and the National Academy of Sciences have worked with Cuban counterparts to understand topics such as vector-borne disease transmission. Although political friction has often made such partnerships challenging, many scientists on both sides believe their countries stand to gain by tackling health and environmental challenges together.

We are geoscientists who study how landscapes change through processes such as erosion. For the past two and a half years, we and our team of U.S. scientists have been working with Cuban geoscientists to understand the environmental and water quality effects of progressive agricultural policies in Cuba.

In a recently published study, we show that Cuban rivers are cleaner than the mighty Mississippi. Why? Because Cuban farmers practice organic farming and conservation agriculture to reduce soil erosion and nutrient loss. In sum, Cuba is doing a better job than the U.S. at keeping farming from hurting its rivers, and its results offer useful lessons.

A test case in sustainable farming
Cuban rivers run from the mountains to the ocean through cow-filled pastures, fields of sugar cane and rice paddies, forests, wetlands and mangroves. Along the way, groundwater seeps into river channels from below. When heavy thunderstorms strike, water pours off the land.

These flows carry soil and dissolved material into streams, which deliver this load to the coast. Cuba’s coastlines have abundant mangrove thickets, underwater seagrass beds and some of the Caribbean’s best-preserved coral reefs.

We became interested in teaming with Cuban scientists because of their nation’s country-wide experiment in organic agriculture dating back to the late 1980s. When the Soviet Union, Cuba’s former trading partner, broke apart, Cuban farmers lost access to fertilizers, pesticides and heavy equipment, and had to adopt a more ecologically based aproach. Could their experience provide a blueprint for more sustainable approaches to feeding the world?

We used the ResearchGate network to find Cuban collaborators. Supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation and the Centro de Estudios Ambientales de Cienfuegos, the research we are doing in Cuba builds on measurements we have done all over the world.

Cuban scientists Aniel Arruebarenna and Victor Perez filter sediment from river water in western Cuba so that elements dissolved in the water can be analyzed accurately. Paul Bierman
Less fertilizer runoff in Cuba
For this study we analyzed water samples from each of 25 rivers in central Cuba, looking for elements from across the periodic table and for bacteria. Our first results show that Cuba’s sustainable agricultural practices minimize the impact of agriculture on river water quality by reducing the amount of nitrogen fertilizer that washes off from fields into local waters.

Cuban farmers use about half as much fertilizer for each acre of farmland than their U.S. counterparts (3 versus 6 tons per square kilometer per year in 2016). As a result, rivers in central Cuba contain much lower concentrations of dissolved nitrogen than the Mississippi River, which drains more than 1 million square miles of America’s agricultural heartland. On average, the Cuban rivers we analyzed contained 0.76 milligrams of nitrogen per liter of water, compared to 1.3 milligrams per liter in the Mississippi River from 2012-2019.

American crop yields per acre are higher than Cuba’s, thanks partly to fertilizer use, but the trade-off is stark. Nutrients that pour off U.S. farm fields and flow down the Mississippi River create the Gulf of Mexico dead zone, a patch of ocean where oxygen levels are so low that almost no marine life survives. The dead zone forms every summer, fed by spring rainfall, and has covered an average of 6,000 square miles in recent years.

Cuba’s rivers do contain other pollutants. We found high levels of bacteria and sediment in most of the rivers we sampled. DNA analysis suggests that at least some of these bacteria were from the guts of cows. We saw many cows during our field work in central Cuba, and those animals had free access to local streams. Simple solutions, like fencing river banks, could greatly lower bacteria levels in surface waters.

We also found naturally high levels of calcium, sodium and magnesium in Cuban river water. These materials come from rocks that are naturally dissolved by rainwater. None of them are hazardous to humans, although they might leave scale in tea kettles and alter the water’s taste.

Limestone cliffs in the Vinales Valley, western Cuba, dissolve in abundant warm rain and add calcium to river water. Paul Bierman, University of Vermont
Enabling more scientific cooperation
Although we’ve done field work on Greenland’s ice sheet and in rice paddies of southwest China, this work in Cuba has been a uniquely valuable experience for us, both professionally and personally. We found Cuban culture to be warm and welcoming, even to Americans whose leaders for the most part have shunned the Cuban people for decades.

Sharing and teamwork are key parts of Cuban culture. When we brought out American snacks during our first visit to Cuba, our collaborators insisted these gifts must be shared with the entire lab staff. In the tropical January sunshine, scientists, technicians, secretaries and directors gathered outside to eat Vermont maple candies and blueberry jam.

We view this project as science diplomacy in action. But our Cuban partners cannot visit us until the United States agrees to grant visas to Cuban scientists. The Trump administration is going in the opposite direction: It has suspended commercial and public charter flights to Cuba from the U.S. and imposed sanctions that are designed to deny Cuba access to hard currency.

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps around the world, scientific cooperation is more important than ever. To us, it doesn’t make sense to increase sanctions against a country that has more doctors per capita than any country on Earth and has responded more successfully than many nations to COVID-19. We believe that science in the U.S. would gain from reopening communication with Cuba and sharing knowledge that could help heal the global community.


National Science Foundation

Nonprofit donating $2M to Atlanta Police Department to raise morale


Nonprofit donating $2M to Atlanta Police Department to raise morale
By Tamar LapinJune 18, 2020 | 5:21pm
Nonprofit donating $2M to Atlanta Police Department to raise morale
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Every officer with the Atlanta Police Department will get a $500 bonus from a nonprofit foundation looking to boost morale among the force, officials announced Thursday.

The Atlanta Police Foundation’s $2 million donation to the department comes after an unusually high number of officers called out of work on Wednesday evening — the day charges were announced for two officers involved in the killing of Rayshard Brooks.

“In an effort to stem attrition and boost morale, we issued a $500 bonus to each Atlanta Police Department officer today,” the nonprofit said in a statement to WAGA-TV.

The cash influx is meant as a thank you for the long hours cops have been pulling over the last three months, amid the coronavirus crisis and protests against police brutality and racial inequality, the foundation said.

No city funds will be used to pay for the bonuses. And the foundation will also be purchasing 20 police cars to replace those that were destroyed in protests a few weeks ago, according to WSB-TV, which first reported the donation.

Cops are expected to pocket the bonuses on Friday, but one officer told CNN: “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

“This is the first time anything like this has been done and the foundation are good people as well, but it’s for APD only and it’s definitely about morale,” the cop added.

Atlanta Police said on Wednesday evening that it saw “a higher than usual number of call-outs” after Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard announced felony murder charges against ex-officer Garrett Rolfe.

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Rolfe, 27, was fired Saturday after shooting Brooks twice in the back during a scuffle outside a Wendy’s restaurant last week.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms told CNN on Wednesday that the force’s morale “is down tenfold.”

“This has been a very tough few weeks in Atlanta and with the tragedy of Mr. Brooks … there’s a lot happening in our city, and the police officers are receiving the brunt of it quite frankly.”


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Bolton versus Trump

White House national security adviser John Bolton attends a meeting between President Donald Trump and Fabiana Rosales, wife of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, at the White House, March 27, 2019.

John Bolton has written the harshest book about a sitting president by one of his former top advisers that anyone has ever seen — or should hope to see.

Bolton is a longtime friend of this publication and we take his honesty as a given. Any credibility contest between him and Donald Trump is laughably lopsided.

That said, Bolton is facing legitimate questions about the propriety of taking a sensitive, high-level job in an administration and then immediately turning his experience into a best-selling book when back out of office. He’s also getting dinged for having information that he believed would have made the case for impeaching the president more compelling, yet not sharing it while impeachment proceedings were ongoing (although there would have been complications — including disputes over what material was classified or privileged — and nothing he said would have changed minds in the Senate).

The White House has done everything in its power to delay the release of the book, and the Department of Justice has filed an injunction against its scheduled publication early next week on grounds that it contains classified information and violates various non-disclosure agreements.

The government’s motive is clearly pretextual. The president hates Bolton and the book is damaging, so Trump wants it buried. Squashing the publication on this basis would be a flagrant violation of the First Amendment. Besides, the book has already been reviewed by and reported on by major publications, excerpted in the Wall Street Journal, and sent to bookstores. The cat is out of the bag.

The government may be able to embroil Bolton in litigation going forward, but his best defense is that he submitted the book for pre-publication review by the National Security Council and extensively revised it after several rounds of back-and-forth.

None of this, though, is as important as the story that Bolton tells about the president. No one who has been paying attention will be shocked by the picture of a president who is mercurial, poorly informed, prone to flattery, reflexively hostile to our alliances, and bizarrely drawn to foreign strongmen. It is still stunning to see it rendered in detail.

There has been much discussion of Bolton’s excerpt on Trump and China in the Wall Street Journal. Bolton says that Trump openly talked with Xi Jinping about how a Chinese agreement to buy more of our agricultural products would help his reelection bid. Trump isn’t the first president to want a trade deal or foreign-policy achievement to boost his electoral chances, but talking about this desire openly with a foreign adversary is still gross. The more damning charge is that an interpreter in a Trump–Xi meeting said the president blessed the Chinese government building prison camps for the Uighurs. With something so explosive, we would prefer to see the exact words that were spoken, but it’s damning enough that anyone would take Trump to have said such a thing and that it’s impossible to reject out of hand that he did indeed say it.

There have been plenty of depressing episodes during the Trump presidency — this is among the most dispiriting.


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Non-state sector plays key role in Cuba’s economic recovery


Havana, Jun 18 (Prensa Latina) The Cuban Minister of Economy and Planning, Alejandro Gil, acknowledged this Thursday that the contribution of the non-state sector is also decisive for the economic recovery of the country.

Through Twitter, Gil said that since the first phase of return to normalcy after Covid-19, it is very important that this sector gradually restart its activities.

All Cuban provinces, except Havana and Matanzas, entered the first phase of recovery on Thursday, although measures such as the obligatory use of masks and physical distancing remain in place.

In this regard, Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel assured that the 13 provinces and the special municipality of Isla de la Juventud are in a position to move on to the new stage and called for maintaining discipline and responsibility so as not to lose what has been achieved so far in those territories.

For his part, Gil reported last week that the plan for a gradual return to normality includes from the outset the gradual reestablishment of the productive and service sectors, both state and non-state


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