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Ariel Ruiz Urquiola Imprisoned for His Dedication to Science

Dr. Ariel Ruiz Urquiola has served a month in prison for allegedly calling a park ranger a guardia rural. What is the truth in all this?

La Habana
Ariel Ruiz Urquiola.
Ariel Ruiz Urquiola. Facebook

Dr. Ariel Ruiz Urquiola, a 43-year-old scientist engaged in a biodiversity conservation project in the Viñales Valley, finds himself behind bars on contempt charges. If he remains incarcerated, in six months he will lose the right to lease out the land dedicated to his research. 

At an international convention on sea turtles held in Mexico, Ruiz Urquiola revealed the devastation of these creatures by Cuban state fisheries, officials of the Communist Party (PCC), and the administration of the Marine Research Institute (IIM) ordered his immediate expulsion from the University of Havana (UH).

A review demanded by the rector yielded a decision to give him "the benefit of the doubt", and to give him his job back, though barring him from participating in projects involving marine resources at the IIM, where he boasted 10 years of work experience.

Ruiz Urquiola recovered from that blow quickly, as he was already working on another terrestrial biology project. Issued an ultimatum giving him just three days to prepare for his thesis defense, on pain of not receiving the degree, he did so successfully.

Universities in the Netherlands and Alabama (USA), respectively, awarded him scholarships to pursue his project, plus an invitation to a series of lectures on the genetics of Cuban species, but the trips were canceled by UH officials, who stated "that he could not represent Cuba."

He appealed to the UH's Vice-rectorate's Office for Research, demanding the right to propose studies. After a meeting was held, they agreed to "make a clean slate of his case".

Dr. Thomas von Rintelen's invitation

Ruiz Urquiola, ever since childhood, has had a special vocation for Biology. His uncle was the late Dr. Armando Urquiola, an internationally recognized botanist, with whom he toured the Cordillera de los Órganos mountain range, studying geographic features and botanical specimens of great interest.

Since he began his pre-university studies at the Vocacional Lenin, he devoted himself to the study of mollusks in said range, focusing on the genetic and evolutionary variations of the species known as the Diana Rellena, the oldest snail in Cuba, and probably on any Caribbean island.

Taking as a paradigm Darwin's trip to the Galapagos, which revealed zoological-scale differences a thousand km from the mainland (Ecuador), the young man found analogous differences between adjacent mogotes in the island's westernmost set of mountains.

After sending his evolutionary pattern project to Dr. Thomas von Rintelen at the Natural History Museum of Berlin, who oversees work in the world's most biologically diverse area, in Southeast Asia, Ruiz Urquiola's project caught the attention of the German scientist because it featured phenomena similar to that in his research area, across barely a hundred linear km in the Sierra de los Órganos.

Von Rintelen granted him a three-month grant in Germany to verify his training, emerging satisfied and impressed by the Cuban's performance, ability and professionalism, but astonished by the fact that he was not familiar with financial transactions using credit cards, and that his monthly salary in Cuba was some 30 dollars.

From ecological station to “biofarm”

The project by the universities of Humboldt and Havana investigated the evolutionary processes that occurred in the settlement areas of the Sierra de los Órganos, the oldest on a Caribbean island.

Ruiz Urquiola and his colleagues intuited that the speciation center of this mountain range is found in the mountain ranges known as Derrumbada, Infierno and Viñales.

They also came to the conclusion that the Viñales National Park had geographical limits, but not functional limits with regards to its biodiversity, leaving unprotected the rest of the mogotes from Paso Real de Guane to Las Catalinas, located on the border with the Sierra del Rosario (the oldest geomorphological structure in the Caribbean).

The results obtained in Dr. Van Rintelen's laboratories confirmed divisions in the genetic continuity of the populations at the mogotes in the area studied, inspiring Ruiz Urquiola to establish an ecological station through the purchase, with his own savings, of a house in the area of ​​the Sierra del Infierno, where legal requirements called for a buffer zone of up to 320 square meters. The farm could only be sold to the State, because the property title was issued in accordance with the Agrarian Reform Law.

To avoid land division, the creation of villages, and the continued raising of free-range pigs, the scientist persuaded the owner, by means of a financial incentive, to sell thevegato the State. Then he bought the house, in compliance with the law.

After the sale Viñales forest service engineers convinced him to lease the farm in usufruct, thereby giving rise to the biofarm.

Ruiz Urquiola, labeled "uncomfortable"

To preserve biodiversity it was necessary to repopulate the mogote’s slope with native species in danger of extinction, in addition to other genetically certified specimens, to repopulate the Sierra de los Órganos, an effort that required the creation of nurseries and other facilities.

The excessive raising of free-range pigs undermines the project, as these voracious animals devour seeds, snails, grasses and offspring. And, surprisingly, these animals are not the sole property of individuals, but also state institutions, such as the Ministry of Education (MINED).

Cuban regulations only govern pig breeding in urban areas, while the laws in other Latin American countries, such as Costa Rica, "require, in rural areas, the use of closed pens 300 meters from boundaries, with residual treatments and other health measures to prevent the spread of diseases."

In response to Ruiz Urquiola's accusations, the authorities demanded the capture of "the infringing pigs" to present them "as evidence". These instructions were followed, but the violations continue, in spite of the "official warnings issued to pig raisers". 

But the pigs are not the only problem. There are also poachers, and on the property Ruiz Urquiola has disabled dozens of traps laid to catch hutias and songbirds in danger of extinction. And illegal incursions on his land by neighbors also do damage to the state Empresa Forestal (Forestry Company) La Palma.

As a result of complicity by the Guardia Forestal and the Delegación de Agricultura in the town of Viñales, the Hoyo del Aire, a moist forest of great interest to the scientific community, whose inventory of specimens was published in an important scientific research journal, has been deforested and torched twice by a peasant in the area, with total impunity.

Offenders and corrupt officials labeled Ruiz Urquiola "uncomfortable", who survives in a community where laws are just words and pork money prevails. His family has suffered raids and threats from local thugs, who are, obviously, either unimpeded or assisted by the authorities.

The sanction of a year in prison for the scientist, for purportedly calling a forest ranger a guardia rural(agent of a repressive body existing before 1959) when he appeared on the aforementioned biofarm to investigate the alleged illegal logging of two lightning-struck palm trees, reflects, undoubtedly, a maneuver by State Security agents, specialists in manufacturing false evidence.

The agency of forest rangers, which "demanded justice for the smear," is hardly as environmentally conscious as it is portrayed. There is evidence that its personnel, armed with marcabuses (reduced-caliber rifles), have carried out repressive actions in mountainous areas, this constituting unauthorized activity not assigned it.

In light of all this, nobody can believe that the late Fidel Castro's famous phrase - "The future of Cuba will be written by men of science" - makes any sense in our country ... when Dr. Ariel Ruiz Urquiola is in prison for his dedication to it.

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