Cuba goes green

February 18, 1991

Law No. 33/81 of the Cuban National Assembly of People's Power states: "... State agencies, businesses and their affiliates, farm cooperatives, political, social and mass organisations, and citizens themselves must develop a culture concerning the natural environment, and should take measures to protect the environment and guarantee the rational use of natural resources ..." KAREN WALD, in Havana, describes how Cuba is confronting environmental issues.

Cuba is witnessing an increase of interest in everything green — from greening of the cities to national reforestation, green (herbal) medicine to green (organic, home-grown foods) kitchens.

Economic interests are coinciding with ecological ones to send people scurrying away from cars, buses and other carbon monoxide-producing transportation back to bicycles, oxen and horse-drawn carts.

And everything from solar power to windmills — encouraged since at least the mid-'70s — is now being vaunted to replace fossil fuel as completely as possible.

The results — whatever their causes may have been — are an ecologist's dream. If the Cubans weren't holding on to their belief that nuclear energy might resolve some of their problems, the scenario could well be one any of the world's green parties could adopt as their platform.

A surprising conglomeration of people and agencies called for and attended Cuba's first event to discuss the problems and plans concerning "green areas", held from November 8 through 10.

The sponsors included the Group for the Comprehensive Development of the Capital (GCDC), made up primarily of architects and engineers, although its advisory board is much broader, the Communal Areas agency, the city government ("Poder Popular", green areas section), the Ministry of Construction and the Union of Architects and Engineers.

Cuba's "anti-greens", if such could be said to exist, the representatives of the electric and telephone companies (the major choppers-down of trees, in the absence of any lumber industry) were invited guests, but they were mostly noteworthy by their absence.

More than 250 people — counting school children — showed up, speaking out on a variety of issues.

The greening of Havana

One of the earliest proposals of the new revolutionary government in the 1960s was to create a "green belt" around the capital city. Although this has often been scoffed at as a failed attempt to make the city self-sufficient in agricultural products, the green belt was really much more than that.

In addition to the planting of coffee, fruit trees and vegetables on the thousand caballerias [about 40,000 ha] of land, volunteers from Havana spent weekends planting trees, flowers and ornamental shrubs, building dams and developing parks, including the Botanical Garden, the Metropolitan Zoo and the Solidarity Forest.

Today's ecologists regard the demise of much of this Green Belt plan as one of the saddest mistakes of the ensuing years.

Given that two of the top organisers of the event, the GCDC's Gina Rey and Mario Coyula, have been key figures in promoting urban planning and architectural projects that take environmental concerns into account, it is not surprising that foremost among the achievements cited at the event was the construction of Las Arboledas (The Groves), located in the outskirts of Havana, although still within city limits.

Las Arboledas is an ambitious plan for a community in which houses and public buildings would be built around — not over — existing trees, taking advantage of their shade as well as their beauty. The low-rise buildings use all local materials and are designed to make effective use of wind currents for ventilation.

Garden areas around each three-storey building will be used by residents for vegetable and herb gardens as well as flowers and shrubs. Automobile traffic would be limited to outlying areas, cutting down on air pollution.

Sewer water is to be drained off into remote ponds, where it will be converted into fertiliser, and the clean water pumped back to provide duck ponds in community parks.

Las Arboledas has become the showcase for Cuban architects who insist that future construction can be done without harming the environment, leading to more human interrelationships among inhabitants as well.

But the architects didn't stop there. Other participants in the three-day event showed computer-drawn graphic designs for converting densely populated areas of central Havana into walking streets and "park streets". Their new designs would limit but not prohibit vehicular traffic and add trees and play areas by reorganising the existing space.

Green medicine

Herbal medicine — known as "green medicine" in Cuba — was around long before the revolution. But it was only with the revolution that anyone began a serious scientific study to determine which plants had medicinal properties and how to use them.

Now, family doctors are as likely to prescribe the common, white-flowered vicaria plant as they are to suggest antibiotic lotion for haemorrhagic conjunctivitis; a slew of plants indigenous to Cuba have been found to be helpful in clearing up everything from asthma to acne.

Medical specialists treating people with AIDS and those who are HIV positive have been offering their patients experimental doses of teas made from combinations of plants with known anti-viral characteristics.

Students who explore the possibilities of "green medicine" in after-school clubs brought their suggestions to the conference: not only are plants good as ic drugs, they pointed out, but they could be used for cosmetic purposes, shampoos and hair dyes too.

Fausto, a recently graduated agronomy specialist, proposed extending the idea of green medicine to the family doctor units that are being built in each community. When community volunteers team up with construction brigades to build the clinics and housing for the doctors and nurses, why not add a garden space for green medicine?

In fact, he went on, why not encourage everyone to start growing herbal gardens? Some could even be used for export in Cuba's fast-growing pharmaceutical industry.

Green medicine was the least controversial topic at this three-day conference.

Where are they going?

While they are proud to show off some of their achievements, Cuba's "greens" are not at all slow to talk about what's missing. Those who participated in the conference spoke clearly about their principles, problems and the policies they want to see enacted.

Trees are good. Green areas are good. Air befouled by carbon monoxide and other chemical contaminants and waters polluted by industrial and human wastes are bad.

People walking or riding bikes, horse carts or animal-powered tractors are good. Tree-lined boulevards in the cities are good because they are not only pretty, thus inducing people to want to walk more, but they are also cooling and air-cleansing.

The problems have been spelled out too. In addition to lack of education, about the importance of trees and other ecological issues, there are too few gardeners and other trained professionals — in part because the only school that trained them has been closed; also because gardeners and other professionals are paid too little.

Those urban planners and plant specialists who do have the proper consciousness often lack the resources, materials or public support they need to carry out more ecologically minded plans.

There are not enough trees in urban areas, and those that exist are often underappreciated, abused, chopped down or mutilated through over-exuberant, improper pruning (especially by the telephone and electric companies).

Rivers are polluted through public ignorance, insufficient sewerage processing plants and, apparently, insufficient pressure on the industrial polluters.

The old-style housing projects whose design was imported from the Eastern European countries when Cuba was working at breakneck speed, but with few resources, to replace the prerevolutionary slums and shantytowns with something better are not only ugly, but they fail to make efficient use of design, location, air flows, trees and ground cover. The solutions are inherent in the problems:

l Those responsible for planning, administering and caring for the green spaces need to be educated, upgraded, paid more and given greater respect in society.

l The polytechnic institute which once trained gardeners and other horticultural specialists needs to be reopened (the government promises it will be, perhaps before the end of this school year).

l No-one should be authorised to prune a tree except those who love trees and have been trained to do it correctly.

l More nurseries need to be established with a greater variety of plants, so that all new buildings and housing projects can include landscaping, parks can be built or replenished and neighbours can get together to beautify their homes and communities.

l New housing and urban design should follow the guidelines set out in the development of Las Arboledas.

l The long-promised Metropolitan Park, which will make some of Havana's central river basin areas available as park space to the local population, should be finished "full speed ahead".

l More resources must be provided and a coordinating body appointed to take responsibility for seeing that all efforts are carried out in an organised and successful way.

The "greens" represent a broad enough cross-section of Cuba that they may well make it come true.

It doesn't hurt that they receive encouragement from the top. The Group for the Comprehensive Development of the Capital was formed at the suggestion of President Fidel Castro. The holding of this first major conference on the topic was proposed by Havana City government chief Pedro Chavez, who also gave the closing address. Organisers such as Mario Coyula and Gina Rey see nothing unusual about Cuba's socialist society taking environmental issues seriously and putting them into practice. "After all", Coyula quipped, "red and green are complementary colors". — PEACENET/PEGASUS

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