Cuba's green revolution

June 29, 2009

The ecological achievements of Cuba in the last two decades have been well documented. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s was the trigger for ending the unsustainable, industrial agriculture that Cuba had practised for decades.

Due to the illegal economic blockade imposed by the US, vital necessities became extremely scarce. Petrochemical products such as fuel, fertilisers and pesticides, as well farm machinery and spare parts, were no longer available. The Cuban economy, and its agricultural system, was thrown into crisis.

A huge, coordinated shift to urban agriculture was an inventive solution. Cuba's high levels of health, education, and grassroots democracy made this amazing transition possible.

Localised production lowered transport costs and fuel use. Small-scale farming greatly reduced the need for machinery.

Toxic petrochemical fertilisers and pesticides were replaced with organic farming techniques. In Havana today, more than 35,000 hectares of land is used for growing food.

This has had many positive social and economic effects. It has provided a new source of employment across the country, has led to greater community control over food-production and has also sparked new research into herbal and natural medicines.

Cuban diets have vastly improved. Previously, the diet of most Cubans revolved around pork and chicken with minimal vegetable intake.

The urban environment has benefited from the greening of the cities with permaculture gardens and urban reforestation.

But the Cubans are not simply providing an example of how to live with minimal fossil fuels or how to do organic agriculture.

Cubans are developing what they call "agro-ecology". That is, applying the principles of ecology to agriculture.

This project fits well with the important, but little known, ecological concept of the "metabolic rift" developed by Karl Marx.

Marx viewed the relationship between humans and the environment as dynamic and interrelated. Both humankind and the natural world acted upon one another constantly. He referred to this relationship as a kind of metabolism.

In the human body, metabolism refers to the constant chemical processes essential for life. Marx extended this concept to explain the complex relationship with nature necessary for human life in general.

The metabolic rift refers to how capitalist production for profit has caused a sharp break in this relationship.

Marx's study mainly focused on capitalist agriculture and its degrading affect on the soil, which was one of the most obvious environmental problems of the time.

He noted that the natural cycling of nutrients was disrupted when industrial scale farming was introduced and peasants were driven from the land into the cities.

Input-intensive agriculture and urbanisation meant nutrients were no longer returned to the soil. Instead, they accumulated as waste products and pollution in distant population centres.

The capitalist solution was the importation of fertilisers and then the production of synthetic fertilisers — further degrading soil quality.

The rift between human production and the ecosystem has reached a far greater scale than Marx could have imagined in the late 1800s. The climate crisis is an example of this.

The Cuban experience offers real examples of how the rift can be repaired. This does not simply mean the introduction of new farming techniques, but a transformation of the way people think about food production and the way society is organised.

Under the Cuban system, the natural cycle of nutrients is being reestablished. Human labour in the countryside is linked with productive labour in the cities.

It focuses on working with nature rather than against it, and allows biodiversity to act as a resource for food production, such as providing habitats for beneficial insects.

Participatory decision-making about cultivation, harvesting, and consumption is encouraged through new models of ownership and distribution.

Labour relationships have been redefined. Local farmers and trained agronomists work together to best fit a crop to the natural environment, climate, and geography.

Ongoing experiments with different combinations of plant and animal species are aimed at developing the best results in terms of productivity and ecological sustainability.

Coupled with Cuba's Energy Revolution program, this is why Cuba is still the only country judged by the World Wildlife Fund to have achieved "sustainable development".

Although limited by a lack of resources, Cuba's experience offers an alternative way of relating to the environment — one necessary if human civilisation is to survive.

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