College of ACES
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ACES Global Academy in Cuba: Exploring academic partnerships

Published May 3, 2017

The College of ACES Global Academy program for 2016/2017 provided some faculty members with their first glimpse of a country that contains immense potential to study environmental, agricultural, and social topics.

With a communist regime and pristine natural beauty, Cuba is an island of mystique for many Americans who are geographically so close (Cuba is only 90 miles from Florida) but unable to travel there due to the U.S. embargo, which bans purely touristic travel.  The political tensions that made cultural exchange difficult also inhibited academic cooperation, but as relations between our countries begin to thaw, opportunities for research and education partnerships may be emerging. To explore linkages between Cuban research institutions and the College of ACES, a Global Academy cohort of 13 people, including two department heads, and one member from the College of Engineering, traveled to Cuba during spring break.

 “The visit allowed us to get a lay of the land in terms of Cuba’s academic landscape and structure of higher education as well as their strengths and the challenges they are facing. Given the complicated circumstances in Cuba, what we were able to accomplish on this trip was significant,” said Suzana Palaska, associate director for the ACES Office of International Programs (OIP) who coordinates the Global Academy program. 

ACES building partnerships in Cuba

A highlight of the Academy’s itinerary was visiting the University of Pinar del Rio, with which the University of Illinois has recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding.

“ACES has great overlap with this particular university, and the scholars enjoyed fostering this connection. They have a strong forestry department that corresponds to our own Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences (NRES) as well as many possibilities for crop scientists and other research areas to engage,” said Palaska.

The itinerary also included visits to the Agrarian University of Havana, the Instituto National de Ciencias Agricolas and the Instituto de Ciencias Animales, as well as the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO) and the Nunez Jimenez Foundation for Nature and Society.

ACES is moving forward to establish official ties with all of these organizations. In the interim we will invite Cuban scholars to visit us on the Urbana-Champaign campus so conversations can continue between researchers,” said Palaska.

Although research collaborations will be complicated – American scholars are not allowed to send funds or equipment to the island– members of the Global Academy returned from the trip positive that they developed connections that can eventually benefit both countries. In the short term, ACES will be exploring potential for faculty led study abroad opportunities that might focus on Cuba’s unique natural environment. 

“From perspectives of teaching and discovery, Cuba presents a remarkable experiment that raises a multitude of questions about society, nature, culture and agriculture.  ACES OIP is eager to help Illinois students and faculty members take advantage of any emerging opportunities to apply themselves in that rapidly changing country,” said Alex Winter-Nelson, director of the ACES Office of International Programs.

Cuba’s ecological value

Due to its lack of industry, Cuba’s pristine habitats are of great interest to Academy Fellow and NRES Professor Mike Ward. The visit allowed Ward to spot several endemic (found only in Cuba) bird species, including the smallest bird in the world. Ward had previously visited Cuba, a key rest stop for migrating birds, as part of his ongoing work on trans-Gulf of Mexico bird migration. (Link to Previous article on Ward studying trans-Gulf migration through Cuba.)

“Cuba is an important ecological area that will soon be developed. We need to help maintain the environmental integrity of the island as that happens,” said Ward.

Another Academy scholar Daniel Miller, assistant professor in NRES, has traveled widely around the world but was visiting Cuba for the first time. Miller said the experience was eye-opening through both environmental and political lenses.

“I study environmental issues but socio-cultural issues also often pique my interest to work in different countries. What stood out to me in Cuba was the people, their creative vitality and the generally high level of education. Also, I have not previously seen a developing country without obvious extreme poverty. There were no beggars. There were people we would think of as poor but not desperately poor. The government has prioritized food security and also education. For me, the relatively low level of inequality was also really striking. I’d really be interested to explore how these socio-cultural characteristics affect environmental management,” Miller said.

100 years of transformation happening in 20 years

Academy Scholar Peter Christensen, assistant professor in agricultural and consumer economics, looks at Cuba as a unique opportunity to study economics.

“Cuba provides an opportunity to observe a developing country undergoing a reform-based economic transition in the 21st century. Environmental economists are watching to see how the government develops regulations to balance the development of the country's private sector alongside the management of sensitive environmental resources. For example, farmers can now develop private enterprises and we expect to see farmers using different inputs and more mechanization. These are huge questions in many developing countries, but what is happening in Cuba is unique in the sense that the transformation is highly managed. It has been occurring within particular sectors, though substantial shifts could occur within a relatively short span of 10-20 years. Cuba has been an early adopter of certain sustainable development strategies and will continue to experiment with how to grow its economy. The country's transition will occur in an era of rich data and data-driven policy. One big question is what the role of data and analysis will be in this transformation. This requires data sharing and a high level of domestic and international openness/collaboration.” Christensen said.

ACES Global Academy cohort

Miller said an unforeseen benefit of the academy trip was the opportunity to spend time with colleagues, specifically visiting Zapata Peninsula (where the famous Bay of Pigs is located) National Park with Ward and NRES Department Head Jeff Brawn. 

“Traveling to the field with colleagues who I usually only see at the office was a great benefit. While at Zapata, Mike Ward and I came up with an idea for a course on eco-tourism as a means to mesh biodiversity conservation with human development goals. The course would culminate in a field trip to this particular area in Cuba. For Americans, this place obviously holds historical interest, but it is also an outstanding place for environmental studies and wildlife,” Miller said.

“One of the main benefits of going with a group like the Global Academy is that it allowed us to engage as an institution rather than as individuals,” Christensen added.

For 10 years, the ACES Global Academy training program has promoted greater internationalization of the College by providing a platform and support to ACES faculty who wish to further their global research. The Academy’s previous capstone immersion experiences have included The Philippines, Taiwan, Ghana, India, Europe, and Mexico.

The cohort for the 2016/2017 Global Academy Cuba trip included:

Jeff Brawn, NRES (Dept. Head)

Hannah Christensen, Civil and Environmental Engineering

Peter Christensen, ACE

Sandy Dall’Erba, ACE

Daniel Miller, NRES

Suzana Palaska, ACES-OIP

Cameron Pittelkow, Crop Sciences

Marcela Raffaelli, HDFS

William Million, Extension

Sharon Nickels-Richardson, FSHN (Dept. Head)

Chance Riggins, Crop Sciences

Mike Ward, NRES

Alex Winter-Nelson, ACES-OIP

 

Read more about the ACES Global Academy here: http://international.aces.illinois.edu/

We will be uploading photos from the Cuba trip to our Facebook page.