CUBA: Environmental sustainability discussed



Cubans discuss environmental sustainability

What can Australian environmentalists learn from Cuba, a country that still flirts with nuclear power, is besieged by many environmental problems typical of the Third World, and lags behind countries like Denmark and Holland on issues like recycling, green taxes, alternative energy and eco-labelling?

During a recent visit to "the fairest island ever revealed to human eyes" (as Christopher Columbus described Cuba), I searched for the answer. I wanted to understand the impact of the "Special Period in Time of Peace" — the emergency program to save the socialist revolution after the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

After talking to environmental scientists, administrators and activists, and reading recent Cuban writings on ecology, it is clear that there is a lot of debate about how to reverse environmental degradation. It is also obvious that few Third World countries can match the legislative, planning and educational efforts that Cuba is applying in its battle for environmental sustainability.

Moreover, few environmental movements can match Cuba's revolutionaries in government, scientific institutions, education system and emerging non-government organisations in their passion and dedication to the environmental cause.

For centuries, Cuba's natural resources and beauty were sacrificed to Spanish colonial landowners and, later, US corporations. In the early 1800s, the great Prussian geographer Alexander von Humboldt was already lamenting the destruction of Cuba's native forests.

In his book Dialectics of Nature, Frederick Engels — Karl Marx's collaborator — could find no better example of the impact of capitalist greed on the ecosphere than the operations of Cuba's Spanish planters "who burned down forests on the slopes of the mountains and obtained from the ashes sufficient fertiliser 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!"

Through such vandalism, Cuba was transformed into an exporter of sugar, tobacco and coffee. Total forest cover fell from 85% in 1812, 54% in 1900, to 14% by the time of the 1959 revolution. To this crime against nature before the revolution can be added many others, including: rapacious nickel mining (coating a wide expanse of the island in red dust); endemic problems created by monoculture crops; and the gamut of damage that goes with rural poverty.

After the revolution

PictureThe revolution and the later development of Cuba's economy as part of the former Soviet bloc was double-edged.

The revolution eliminated poverty, unemployment, landlessness and illiteracy and built up basic rural infrastructure, thus attacking the degradation of the countryside at the source. Through sweeping land reform, the leaders of the revolution disproved the myth that degradation is due to the pseudo-explanation, still favoured by World Bank functionaries, of "rural overpopulation". For the first time, and despite continuing population growth, deforestation in Cuba began to be reversed. By 1997, the island's forested area stood at 21.5%, a 7.5% increase since 1959.

On the other hand, the model of industrialisation that Cuba adopted in the 1970s generated (when combined with the continuing reliance on sugar exports) a new set of environmental stresses. Oil spills, coastal erosion, rising salinity, algal blooms and high levels of industrial pollution showed Cuba was paying a high environmental price for industrialisation.

Even though environmental protection featured strongly in the country's law books, the impact on factory managers was often minimal. According to Cuban environment teacher and writer Carlos Jesus Delgado Diaz: "A study carried out by the National Assembly of People's Power at the end of the 1980s reflected the fact that, when faced with the choice of fulfilling the production plan or breaking the law, a significant number of administrators plumped for fulfilling the plan no matter what the cost".

The blame for such decisions should not be laid solely at the feet of the managers. The criminal US economic blockade, which forced Cuba's integration into the Soviet bloc's economic system (COMECON), gave the country no choice but to apply Eastern Europe's resource- and energy-squandering technologies.

Cuba's insertion into the COMECON system retarded the growth of environmental consciousness. Miguel Limia David, a senior researcher with Cuba's Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment (CITMA), has stressed "the predominance of an instrumentalist and personally irresponsible attitude to the use, enjoyment and disposal both of natural as well as socially created resources". Why? For years "we basically aimed at producing more wealth and raising consciousness without paying appropriate attention to the costs of producing that wealth".

Special period

However, even before the 1989-91 collapse of the Soviet bloc threw Cuba's model of highly mechanised agriculture into crisis, problems such as growing pesticide resistance and soil erosion had led to the development of alternatives. In the 1980s, some US$12 billion was devoted to training specialists and developing infrastructure in the areas of biotechnology, health sciences, computer hardware and robotics.

This timely move ensured that when imports of fertiliser, machinery and spare parts fell by 80%, the country was able to devote its scientific knowledge and agricultural research infrastructure to the largest-ever conversion from conventional agriculture to organic or semi-organic farming. This proved vital to maintaining food supplies in very hard times.

This came with many severe environmental problems intact, as identified in the 1997 National Environment Strategy:

  • Continuing large-scale soil degradation — erosion, bad drainage, salinity, soil acidity, and compacting;

  • the deterioration of health and environment conditions in cities and towns, due to a fall in spending on housing and urban infrastructure;

  • fresh and salt water pollution that was undermining fishing, agriculture and tourism, as well as natural ecosystems;

  • selective deforestation, which damaged soils, water tables and fragile ecosystems; and

  • loss of biological diversity.

The concessions that Cuba has had to make to survive in the capitalist world — such as a large increase in joint ventures in industries like tourism — brings new stresses. Similarly, the growth in numbers of self-employed people and small farmers also threatens to boost environmental decline.

Can Cubans solve their environmental problems? Cuba has the great advantage of having faced facts: the fundamental enemy of global sustainability is capitalism's production for private profit. Capitalism cannot survive without constantly regenerating an anti-environmental and consumerist ethic, no matter what greenwashing corporations say.

As Delgado Diaz explains: "As a spiritual phenomenon, capitalism has produced ways of viewing life and has equipped modern man and woman with an ethical outlook that is incompatible with the solution of the environmental problem that science has advanced as technically viable."

Energy specialist Hector Eugenio Perez de Alejo Victoria notes that it is vital not to leave the definition of key ecological terms like "eco-efficiency" to promoters of the capitalist market. "The search for a definition is subject to great threats, one of which is the continual propaganda of the international media as to the benefits of consumerism, where a satisfied client is supposedly to be found at the end of every chain. In reality, consumerism is nothing more than an infinite cycle of dissatisfactions; satisfaction for a short period of time and almost immediately more dissatisfaction it is a sort of drug addiction and produces the greater part of the global environmental disaster."

Humanity-nature relationship

Cuban ecological thinking stresses that the global environmental crisis and the world's social and economic crises are interrelated, in particular through way the "North" exploits the countries of the "South". As Garrido Vazquez notes: "It is impossible to conceive of sustainable development without resolving beforehand the problems of extreme poverty, which are nothing but the results of centuries of colonial domination and exploitation, and which have re-emerged in recent times through the application of neoliberal policies."

A point of reference are the writings on the humanity-nature relationship by Cuba's national hero and martyr, Jose Marti. These, in the words of Limia David, "refer to the need to develop a harmonious relationship with the universal conditions of life, with 'first nature', as well as to build an ordered, pure and cultured 'second nature'".

A succinct expression of this outlook came in Fidel Castro's speech to the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, and has since been matched by a rapid increase in environmental laws and projects within Cuba. Between 1992 and 1998, the National Assembly of People's Power amended the Cuban constitution to entrench the concept of sustainable development; the National Environment and Development Program was developed (outlining the path Cuba would take to fulfil its obligations under the Rio summit's Agenda 21); CITMA was established; an overarching environment law passed; and a national environment strategy was launched.

Other major initiatives included a national strategy for environmental education; a national program of environment and development; projects for food production via sustainable methods and biotechnological and sustainable animal food, as well as a national scientific technical program for mountain zones and a national energy sources development program. Each of these program are composed of smaller projects and initiatives, involving local communities, People's Power bodies, universities, schools and mass organisations.


What has been achieved? There have been gains in health, access to water and electricity, education and land reform, which according to orthodox classification methods are not "environmental" but without which no real advances against environmental degradation are thinkable.

Such gains would never be realised if Cuba reverted to capitalism and was obliged, for example, to pay the US$100 billion debt that Washington estimates Cuba owes for private property expropriated by the revolution. As one environmentalist put it: "The foremost environmental problem we have is making sure we don't fall into the hands of the empire."

Cuba's highly educated people, of whom more than half a million are university graduates, are an invaluable resource base for recent advances such as the conversion to organic agriculture, the thorough surveying of its ecosystems and energy and resource base, the completion of a national biodiversity study, improved methods of water and soil management, and the application of new technologies for treating waste.

Two fields in which Cuba is making headway against the odds are renewable energy and alternative housing.

Renewable energy

Two concerns that have focused increased attention on alternative energy are Cuba's high level of dependency on oil imports (around 10 million tonnes annually before 1989) and the fact that its first nuclear reactor has still to come on line, even though work began in the late 1970s.

According to Perez de Alejo Victoria, the Development Program of National Energy Sources is putting maximum effort into developing energy systems based on sugar cane residues (bagasse), wind farms, micro hydroelectricity plants, solar and photovoltaic technologies as well as on Cuba's unexploited oil reserves.

Cuba's energy goals have been made more difficult by the elimination of some potential energy sources: peat reserves are to be left untouched until environmentally benign methods of peat-burning can be developed and in 1998 the National Assembly of People's Power suspended the construction of Toa-Doaba hydroelectric project, which would have flooded an ecosystem as rare and beautiful as that of Tasmania's Franklin River.

So far, the energy program can boast the generalised usage of bicycles, the development of kerosene substitutes for cooking, the conversion of boilers to enable straw to be burnt as fuel and the increased use of biogas.

The most promising potential energy source is bagasse. With existing technology, Cuba's annual production of 4.3 million tonnes of sugar cane biomass could reduce oil dependency by 700,000 tonnes. If Cuba can gain access to new Brazilian technology which can gasify sugar cane biomass, the country could increase electricity output per biomass unit by up to 10 times — a huge step forward in reducing energy dependency.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Cuba met its relentlessly rising housing demand by building Soviet-style concrete blocks of flats as rapidly as possible. The enforced end of this model of housing development brought some benefits which in the medium term promise more human-scale, environmentally benign housing.

The non-government organisation Habitat-Cuba is devoted to producing a sustainable housing model that recognises that the concrete required for Cuba's standard housing stock has come at a high (and unaccounted for) cost in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and that the passive acceptance of the standard model has led to bureaucratic blindness and indifference towards alternative building materials in which the Cuba is rich.

At the same time the collapse of housing investment during the special period had seen a rise in the number of unhealthy suburbs, especially in older urban areas. This is an urgent challenge to build environmentally sustainable, healthy settlements, basing design, techniques and execution on consultation with local communities, sympathetic architects and other professionals as well as with the relevant ministries.

Habitat-Cuba has developed bamboo as a housing construction material, as well as the introduction of mud-brick techniques (in the face of initial scepticism by a local community who thought they were being returned to stone-age life!). Like CubaSolar, an NGO specialising in alternative energy, Habitat-Cuba has built scores of successful projects across the island as well as having provided training in alternative construction techniques.

Towards a lasting solution

Despite such advances Cuba's environmentalists do not underestimate the difficulties their country's environment faces. Delgado Diaz points out that "it is extraordinarily difficult to break the vicious circle of underdevelopment, environmental degradation and poverty. Phenomena of this type impose an individual economic dynamic that is often resolved at the expense of the environment."

What are the prospects? Perez de Alejo Victoria said that "the environmental realities are pretty unflattering, especially as regards renewable energy, which obliges me to be tactically pessimistic, even if from the strategic point of view I view the future with optimism."

Limia David is less hopeful. He thinks environment policy can only work to its full potential if Cuban society overcomes the indifference generated by its paternalistic heritage, conquering "the unsatisfactory degree of involvement of the direct producers in the means of production, that is, the inadequate linkage between everyone's way of life and the final results of the production process."

For David, Cuba's acute environmental problems cannot be solved by political will alone, necessary and important though that is: "They essentially demand not a new attitude on the part of policy generated by the state and the entire political system, but one that arises from the ordinary people, from the local communities and specific labour collectives. It is critical to develop a feeling of responsible ownership when faced with the universal bases of life."

However, Modesto Fernandez Diaz-Silveira, a CITMA specialist in the management of environment policy is more confident: "The sustained economic recovery and institutional changes that are taking place in Cuba provide a solid basis that allow us to advance with optimism in the application of our environmental policy, the norms and methods of application of which will take us to a higher stage in the protection of the environment and the rational use of natural resources."

The main factor behind this confidence is the mass participation and revolutionary commitment of Cuba's people and communities in implementing environment policy, an ingredient that no capitalist society can match. Even while Cuba still lags in making use of many of the tools available to capitalist governments (eco-taxes, environmentally adjusted national accounting), participatory democracy gives Cuba the chance to advance towards sustainability while in the rest of the Third World the environment collapses.

This is especially so when combined with the Cuban political system's capacity to implement integrated plans involving all "players" and its desire to educate its people in humanist and environmental values.

There is a broad debate on the island about how to involve the mass of people in the battle for environmental sustainability. That is far more inspiring and hopeful than an environment policy which consists of Dodgy Brothers flogging us shares in tax-deductable eucalypt plantations.


[Quotations from Cuba Verde (Green Cuba), Jose Marti Publishing House, Havana, 1999. Dick Nichols edited Environment, Capitalism and Socialism (1999), the Democratic Socialist Party's analysis of the environment crisis. To obtain a copy, send $17.95 (includes postage) with your address to New Course Publications, PO Box 515, Broadway 2007.]