Humans arrived in the Caribbean about 4,000 years ago. However, it is only in the last 500 years that significant environmental degradation has occurred, beginning with the arrival of the first Europeans on Hispaniola in 1492. The initial wave of forest clearing began in the early 1500s, for sugar cane plantations. Sugar cane, which has led to widespread deforestation throughout the region, is still the Caribbean's most important crop.
Another major impact of the arrival of human settlers has been the introduction of alien species, which is the biggest threat to biodiversity in this hotspot. Even before the arrival of Europeans, people in the Caribbean were transporting species that they used for food from one island to another. Early examples include the agouti, a land tortoise, and even the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). The small Asian mongoose (Herpestes javanicus), which was first introduced in 1872 to control rodents and poisonous snakes, has devastated native populations of reptiles and amphibians and led to the extinction of dozens of species. Rats, cats, dogs, goats, donkeys, monkeys, tilapia, and even trout also pose a serious threat to native fauna.
Natural resources and ecosystems have been devastated on some islands. For example, no less than 92 percent of amphibian species found on Haiti are threatened with extinction (in fact, the top five countries in the world with the highest percentage of threatened amphibians are all Caribbean: Haiti, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico). Agriculture remains a serious threat in parts of the hotspot, with cacao, coffee, and tobacco plantations threatening remaining large tracts of pristine forest. Mining for bauxite, sand, and gravel, as well as the production of charcoal from natural vegetation to meet energy needs also pose threats to the hotspot's native flora and fauna.
Tourism development has put pressure on natural ecosystems on some islands, particularly in the alteration of local landscapes with non-native vegetation, golf courses, roads, and tourist infrastructure and facilities. However, responsible tourism has been a positive force for conservation. A meeting held in April 2003, " Making Biodiversity Work for your Travel Business: Increasing Profitability while Protecting the Environment", brought together approximately 100 leaders from Caribbean tourism businesses, academia, government and civil society organizations to share experiences and commit to further actions that will not only protect biodiversity but also maintain the Caribbean's competitive edge as a premier tourism destination.
Today, no more than 23,000 km², 10 percent of the original vegetation, remains in a pristine state in the Caribbean Islands Hotspot. While less than 15 percent of Cuba's forests remain intact, they are the largest remaining tracts of forest in the Caribbean.