Cuba: Eco-materials, hurricanes and solidarity

November 29, 2008

Dr Fernando Martirena from the Centre of Investigation in Structures and Materials (CIDEM) research institute at the University of Santa Clara, Cuba, recently visited Australia to speak to a number of meetings organised by the Australian Green Development Forum.

In 2007, Martirena's team won the World Habitat Award from the Building and Social Housing Foundation (BSHF), an independent research organisation that promotes sustainable development and innovation in housing.

Green Left Weekly caught up with Dr Martirena to find out how the CIDEM is helping to build houses in Cuba using sustainable building materials.

Martirena explained that the US economic embargo on Cuba had forced the island to rely almost entirely on the Soviet Union for trade. With the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba lost half its oil imports and much of its food imports.

The economic crisis also had a major impact on housing and construction, as 86% of Cuba's raw materials came from the USSR as well as 80% of its machinery. Construction was based on the large scale mechanised production of prefabricated building materials that were driven long distances.

Before the Soviet Union's collapse, "we had energy and access to credit", Martirena said. "Now we don't have energy and have run out of money, so we had to look for solutions."

"Our solution was to make local development in a local context without dependence on external resources", Martirena explained.

Martinera's research institute, previously focused on things like satellite technology, was redirected towards solving the immediate problems thrown up by the "Special Period" following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Through the CIDEM's work it was able to develop a number of "eco-materials" for use in small-scale localised production of housing.

Eco-materials developed included a cement using a binder made from the ashes of sugar cane straw, called "lime pozzalana cement", which contributes approximately half the amount of CO2 emissions of normal cement production.

Also developed were light, but strong micro-concrete roofing tiles; low-energy fired clay bricks using bio-waste products as fuel; and laminated bamboo sheeting.

Martirena pointed out that "transportation plays a major role especially in Cuba. We might produce tiles in Santiago de Cuba and send them via road to far away, travelling something like 1000km.

"So what we are doing is firstly to keep transport to a minimum, by working locally in a decentralised manner.

"We are encouraging recycled waste in different ways, so we try to recycle waste by using pozzaline and soda, and in this way try to preserve the environment.

"Basically, our approach is bottom up", he explained. "We went into communities 15 years ago that needed building materials and had no other choices. We used the communities as a playground to experiment with technology — but at same time we were building houses and contributing to the community.

"We train the people and they organise the production. It's a partnership with local governments because they don't have money to pay us but they have access to resources. We set up a workshop in the area and the local government provides all the materials we need to produce.

"It is all organised in a very decentralised way. Each family has a contract with the municipalities. Because they don't have the money they have to get loans, so we work with banks and we teach them how to apply for a loan.

"But the loans have only a very low interest rate, only 2-3% per year. So we give them the materials, they get a loan, they get credit, with this credit they can build their houses.

"We started in four municipalities and now we are in 26 municipalities, but only after the hurricanes we jumped to something like 40 municipalities. Now we have orders for another 20 more municipalities.

"In Cuba we have 168 municipalities, so now we have half the municipalities looking to use our approach."

Martirena also explained how the expansion of organic urban agriculture in Cuba has also played an important role.

"Rather than housing, when I am at the municipal level I like to talk about development. And development integrates everything. When you give someone a house, you have to give them a job, otherwise they will move. You also have to secure food for them.

"You have to think about alternatives, so organic agriculture is important. It's the same for health, education, food, everything is integrated.

"So in Cuba, we don't really separate housing from a local development strategy. We have a holistic approach. This is why the municipalities are the core of our approach."

More recently, Martirena's research team has had to respond to the crisis caused by the three tropical cyclones that hit Cuba this year — hurricanes Gustav, Ike, and Paloma.

Thanks to Cuba's world renowned hurricane response system, only seven people died. However Cuba suffered US$10 billion in damages, with more than 500,000 homes totally or partially destroyed.

Asked how the government has responded to the crisis, Martinera said that they have helped the best they can, but lack the resources needed to properly rebuild.

"It's really complicated because on the one side, they have to make decisions that bring quick results. However the quick answers to the problem aren't necessarily the best.

"What they have done now is to distribute 2 million square metres of corrigated roof — the same type of roofs that were blown away during the hurricane. They are giving them again to the population, which means that you are solving the problem now, but in one year with the next hurricane, the same thing will occur.

"So in Cuba we have to build houses which are hurricane safe, but again this is very complicated. You have to have a very heavy roof that won't be blown away by a hurricane. The only way to have a heavy roof is to have a flat slab, and a complete slab requires portland cement, steel, all very expensive.

"You need three times the production capacity of Cuba to build these houses and we have no way to assume the cost.

"Also in the aftermath of disaster, you need urgent action. There is a lot of chaos, people don't know what to do. They are afraid, their houses collapsed, the whole system has collapsed, nothing works, there is no electricity, phones, nothing.

"In the eight most effected municipalities, we have set up our workshops, in cooperatives. This has been a record in our history, in less than three weeks to have eight workshops in full operation."

Martirena described how the 1959 revolution paved the way for the cooperation and solidarity that has enabled Cuba's sustainable community orientated approach.

"The goal and the dream of the Cuban Revolution was to create the 'new man'. This is what Che Guevara argued for. We failed to create this new man, but we have been able to create a man with high levels of solidarity — and this is really an achievement.

"I have been moving through these disaster zones and you see people that have lost everything helping others.

"This is a result of a situation where you try not to see others as your enemy, but as your friend. It's very beautiful.

"We failed to create a new man, but we have succeeded in creating a man that has far more solidarity than any other country in the world."

[A longer version of this interview can be found at]

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