Cuba: Lessons for a greener world

June 7, 2008

We all know about climate change, forest destruction and other ecological threats, but in Latin America environmental concern is treated more seriously than perhaps in any other part of the world.

In 2006, I visited Venezuela and met friend from the environment ministry. Although Venezuela is an oil economy and Caracas is a sprawling polluted city, Chavez's government is working hard to promote eco-development. We visited an ecological high school where kids were taught organic agriculture and saw the huge permaculture city farm in Caracas next to the Hilton Hotel.

Venezuela's own energy needs are nearly all from renewables, there is a plan to stop using petrol for cars, new railways have been built and organic agriculture is a big priority.

There are other examples from the region. The Peruvian peasant leader Hugo Blanco is part of a huge continental ecology movement and Bolivian President Evo Morales made an inspirational speech on climate change to the United Nations.

Cuba's eco-action

However, ecological concerns have gone furthest in Cuba, with the Cuban government showing a long-term interest. In 1992 at the UN Conference on Environment and Development, Fidel Castro observed prophetically: "An important biological species is at risk of disappearing due to the rapid and progressive elimination of its natural habitat: man ... consumer societies are fundamentally responsible for the atrocious destruction of the environment."

The Cuban constitution enshrines environmental protection. Cuba has been identified as the one country in the world that has been able to develop in an ecologically sustainable way according to a 2007 report by the Worldwide Fund for Nature.

Cuba has balanced a rising standard of living with practices that are ecologically sustainable. While it is shocking that no other state has achieved this, it shows just how important the example of Cuba is, if we are to meet environmental challenges such as climate change and to deal with global poverty and injustice at the same time.

Cuba is perhaps most famous for its organic agriculture. During the 1990s the collapse of the Soviet Union meant that the country no longer received cheap oil from Russia. The subsequent "Special Period" led to much hardship, but it also meant that Cuba had to go on a crash course of oil reduction.

Most pesticides and chemical fertilisers are a by-product of petroleum. To survive Cuba had to go organic. Cubans were encouraged to produce as much of their own food as possible and to use low-impact ecological methods.

In Havana, highly productive organic allotments can be found between tower blocks and all sorts of land that would be otherwise unused. Cuba has over 7000 urban allotments know as "organopinics" — around 40,000 hectares.

Cuba imported global organic expertise and is celebrated for its use of permaculture. Permaculture uses complementary planting and biological techniques to reduce digging and to make it easier to produce crops. Instead of monoculture, where one uniform homogenous crop is grown, interplanting makes it easier to avoid pests and to maintain soil fertility.

Organic waste such as vegetable peelings is composted and used to restore soil nutrients. Worm bins are particularly important. The worms accelerate the breakdown of compost, turning waste into horticultural gold.


The Special Period forced Cuba to go green, but rising awareness of the global environmental problems, especially climate change, has increasingly motivated Cuba's environmental reforms. Castro has been a pioneer of such concern, identifying the ecological costs of neoliberal globalisation and noting that capitalist economic growth is unsustainable.

While US President George Bush has attempted to derail international action on climate change, Cuba has been a world leader. It was one of the first countries to sign the Convention on Climate Change and its successor the Kyoto Protocol. The country was one of the first to move to low energy light bulbs to cut CO2 emissions.

While Cuba now swaps oil with Venezuela in exchange for health care, it has developed renewable energy on a large scale, including solar and wind generated electricity.

In March, Cuba's deputy minister for industry, Jose Manuel, told the Cuban Society for the Promotion of Renewable Energy Sources and Environmental Respect that Cuba had saved the equivalent of one million tons of oil in 2006 and 2007.

The Cuban government's "energy revolution" has not only promoted renewables but carefully planned ways of conserving energy. The country is also exporting its expertise to other Caribbean and Latin American countries.

Recycling is also highly developed in the country. Virtually all waste is reused both out of environmental concern and ecological necessity. In Britain, by contrast, low levels of recycling mean that many local authorities risk being fined by the European Union and there is a drive to build new incinerators, despite the pollution they produce.

Wildlife conservation is also a priority and the country has recently banned the hunting of all marine turtles to prevent extinction.

Real solutions

Many supposedly green solutions have proved to be both environmentally damaging and socially unjust. Sustainability must be driven by sound scientific research and a commitment to ending poverty and inequality.

One example of a supposed solution, which is neither, is the mass production of biofuels. While it sounds like an obvious solution to use energy crops, instead of burning polluting fossil fuels, there are a number of devastating consequences. In South East Asia, the fastest growing threat to rainforest is from biofuels, with forests being cut down to make way for palm oil plantations.

Castro has been one of most important critics of this policy, pointing out that while biofuels production from waste may make sense, growing crops for fuel will mean environmental damage and lead to starvation as the area used for food production is reduced.

During the 20th Century, socialism seemed largely divorced from green concerns. However in the 19th Century Marx and Engels were already aware of environmental issues, including soil erosion, deforestation and industrial pollution. It is fitting that Cuba more than any other country has come closest to implementing eco-socialist policies that can be traced back to Marx and Engels.

The defence of Cuba is vital task for all serious greens. Capitalism is unsustainable, so an eco-socialist model is necessary. Cuba shows the way and its example is already inspiring other countries, particularly in Latin America, to follow a green path.

[Derek Walls is the principal spokesperson for Green Party of England and Wales. This is abridged from < http://www.cuba-A HREF=\"\">, website of the British Cuba Solidarity Campaign.]

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