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Years ago it was inconceivable that the people living in the Zapata Swamp, a UNESCO-recognised biosphere reserve in western Cuba, would one day stop using the forest here to make charcoal, extract precious wood, or hunt crocodile and deer.

Just 9,300 people live in the 4,322-sq-km Zapata Swamp, the most sparsely populated municipality in this country of 11.2 million people. The area’s wealth lies in its vast forests, swamps that cover 1,670 sq km, and more than 165 migratory and autochthonous species, like the Cuban crocodile (Crocodylus rhombifer).

In 2000, UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation – declared the wetlands, which occupy the entire Zapata peninsula and surrounding areas, a biosphere reserve. A year later, the Ramsar Convention included it on its list of wetlands of international importance. The Zapata Swamp, in the province of Matanzas,  it is the best-preserved wetlands system in the Caribbean islands.

To strengthen the protection of the wetlands, the Cuban government made a submission to UNESCO in 2003 for the Zapata Swamp to be declared a World Heritage Site.