During a recent visit to Cuba, we stopped by an agricultural cooperative on the outskirts of Havana. Its farmers and cooperatives across the country are part of what’s widely acknowledged as the world’s largest organic farming experiment. Hundreds of thousands of farmers at the grassroots proudly proclaim themselves part of Cuba’s “environmental movement.”
In 2008 Cuba was devastated by three full force hurricanes that caused some $10 billion in damage, including 400,000 homes destroyed and widespread crop damage. Cubans link the growing destructive power and frequency of the hurricanes with global climate change. Understandably, environmental awareness and the need for radical measures to curb global warming run high.
Remarkably, in 2006 the World Wildlife Federation rated Cuba as the only country that combined high human development standards as defined by high literacy and health indexes with a low ecological footprint including electricity consumed and carbon dioxide emitted per capita.
This got me interested in the path of sustainable socialist development Cuba has chosen and how environmental consciousness developed. How could an underdeveloped country with limited economic resources have an environmental record better than its wealthy neighbor to the north? The story gives one great hope that planet Earth can be saved.
The effort to reverse environmental destruction and follow a path of sustainable development is all the more remarkable considering Cuba’s history, the US blockade and continuous efforts to overthrow its government.
The Revolution charts a new course
When Christopher Columbus first landed on Cuban shores in 1492 he was taken by the beauty of the island, then covered 95% by forests. Soon Spanish and later US colonialists began a slash and burn destruction that transformed Cuba into a sugar colony and wiped out the indigenous population. By the late 1800s the land had been largely stripped of the trees and one-fourth of the world’s sugar was produced there. By the 1950s only 14% of the forests remained.
In Dialectics of Nature, Frederick Engels illustrated how the capitalist drive for profit in Cuba was destroying the island’s ecology. Spanish planters “burned down forests on the slopes of the mountains and obtained from the ashes sufficient fertilizer for one generation of highly profitable coffee trees … what cared they that the heavy tropical rainfall afterwards washed away the unprotected upper stratum of soil, leaving behind only bare rock!”
But there was also a parallel history – those patriots who treasured the land and its beauty, those who formed the growing independence movement. The acknowledged father of the country Jose Marti wrote in the 19th century, “To live on earth is more than duty to make it well.”
When the Cuban Revolution took place in 1959, environmental protection became a priority because leading revolutionaries were already ecologically committed. The first Agrarian Reform in 1959 nationalized the large landed estates and contained a clause on “The Conservation of Forests and Soils,” setting aside large preserves of some of Cuba’s greatest natural treasures including the famed Zapata Swamp and wetlands with the endangered Cuban crocodile.
In subsequent years advanced environmental legislation was adopted and codified in the Constitution, although laws were not always enforced. Scientists and educators were among those leading the environmental movement and headed up the agencies responsible for implementing a new policy.
Many organizations were founded that comprised a grassroots environmental movement including the National Zoological Society, Pro Naturaleza, the Foundation for Man and Nature, the National Association of Small Farmers, the Confederation of Trade Unions and Federation of Women. The Communist Party of Cuba and former president Fidel Castro are leading environmental advocates.
The Cubans have made serious mistakes over the years under the immense pressure of economic development and scarcity. But they have also learned from their mistakes and adjusted policies. Not surprisingly they began constructing socialism by largely copying the Soviet model that stressed industrialization without full regard to environmental impact. They soon realized the resulting damage and also that a model fitting their particular circumstances was needed.
For example, by the 1980s industrial pollution had grown, algae blooms appeared, hotel construction in Varadero had caused beach erosion and large scale industrialized farming using irrigation had caused widespread salinization and degraded the soil. This sparked a debate over the course of agricultural development and Cuban government officials began to consider a new direction.
In 1992 under the impact of the growing global environmental movement, the World Summit at Rio de Janeiro was held. Castro attended and delivered a ringing call to address economic and social underdevelopment and poverty with sustainability. He remarked,
“If we want to save humanity from destroying itself, we have to distribute more equitably the riches and available technologies on this planet. Less luxury and pilfering from a few countries for less poverty and hunger for the rest of the Earth. No more transfer to the Third World of lifestyles and habits of consumerism that ruin the environment.”
While the Cubans had already begun to implement some sustainable practices it was the crisis of world socialism and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 that radically accelerated the process. Eighty-five percent of Cuban imports including oil, farm implements, chemical fertilizers and foods stuffs came from the socialist community. When socialism collapsed Cuba was forced to change overnight.
Change was most dramatic in the agricultural sphere. The Cubans turned to organic farming using oxen, natural means of pest control and by spreading the manure of draft animals on the fields. Farmers emphatically told us when the blockade ends they will continue organic farming because it is better for the environment, the working conditions of the farmers and produces healthier food for the people.
In addition, the Cubans found the highly centralized model of agricultural production inefficient, so they broke up the large state enterprises into smaller cooperatives. This allowed decentralized operation and created the basis for grassroots democratic management and local responsibility.
Over one million bicycles were imported from China and five new bicycle production plants were built. Over 500,000 bikes were put in operation in Havana.
The Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment (like our EPA) was created to oversee environmental policy and its enforcement.
In 1993 the National Energy Sources Development Program was adopted whose first aim was conservation and energy efficiency and to begin to use more renewable energy sources.
As Renewable Energy World Magazine noted, “All rural schools, health clinics, and social centers in the country, not previously connected to the (electric) grid, were electrified with solar energy, and today 2,364 of the solar electric systems on the island are on rural schools. Making lights, computers, and educational television programs accessible to every school child in the country; this program won Cuba the Global 500 award from the United Nations in 2001.”
The Energy Revolution
However these measures proved inadequate. So in 2006 Cuba adopted what was called the Energy Revolution consisting of five aspects: conservation, upgrading the electric grid, greater use of renewable resources, greater exploration of local gas and oil and greater international cooperation.
Conservation was deemed the key element. Castro remarked, “We are not waiting for fuel to fall from the sky, because we have discovered, fortunately, something much more important – energy conservation, which is like finding a great oil deposit.”
The program has proved a great success in part because the whole country has been mobilized to participate through a mass education campaign. An army of young social workers is responsible for going door to door to convey the latest environmental practices.
Cuba became the first country to totally replace incandescent bulbs with energy saving compact florescent bulbs. Inefficient and highly polluting kerosene stoves were replaced by electrified rice cooking pots bought from China.
The national power grid has been modernized and decentralized. Hundreds of micro hydroelectric systems were built; urban farming and the use of hydroponics have been expanded.
Two large wind farms have been constructed on the coast; a 100-kilowatt solar electric power plant and thousands of independent solar powered systems have been built in rural areas. Recycling sugar waste products is producing bio-fuels.
Another important result of the Rio Summit was a call to preserve the world’s biodiversity. Cuba was among the first countries to embrace this challenge. Biodiversity was seen as an integral part of sustainable development and led to environmental protection by law. After a countrywide discussion, it adopted the National Strategy and Plan of Action for Biodiversity in 2000 and identified 42 different ecosystems including 17 that were described as ecologically sensitive.
Reforestation has increased to 21% and is growing. Forests and trees are under strict protection.
Because of the global economic crisis, Cuba is paying more on the world market for food imports. During the recent July 26th celebrations President Raul Castro called for food sovereignty to reduce costs. But this will also lower Cuba’s carbon footprint further by reducing the use of global transport. Local transport is being reduced by the expansion of urban farming.
Because Cuba’s beautiful coastal areas haven’t been stolen by the rich, carved up and sold off for summer homes or profit, but instead remain under public ownership, it’s possible to offer protection of coastal wetlands, mangrove swamps, beaches and the coral reefs which are said to be among the best preserved in the world.
Cuba has established coastal zones out to sea where construction is banned and protection zones of highly limited development inland 60-80 meters beyond the vegetation line.
The true test will come when new facilities are constructed to accommodate the influx of US tourists anticipated when the blockade falls. Can development and environmental protection be meshed with the many joint construction projects?
Cuba’s example shows that a society geared toward socialist development, where working people hold economic and political power, is far superior to capitalism when it comes to dealing with the environmental crisis and actually reversing environmental destruction.
Monopoly corporations who constantly obstruct passage of environmental laws or thumb their nose at enforcement because it conflicts with their drive for maximum profits do not dominate Cuba. There is no bribing legislators and spreading of phony science.
Cuba’s example illustrates how socialism puts people first, how economic development and sustainability can be synonymous, how a country can learn from its mistakes and have the flexibility to deal with problems and crises as they arise. At a moment when the global economic crisis, vast inequality and poverty are inextricably linked to the global environmental crisis – socialism offers the only viable path to ensure humanity’s future.