Cuba's green revolution: threat of a good example

February 16, 2007

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Global Footprint Network's 2006 report, Living Planet, released last October, painted a grim picture of the calamitous state of the world's environment. It warned that human activities are outstripping the natural world's capacity to regenerate.

While, predictably, the report noted that the worst offenders are also the wealthiest — for example the US, Canada, the European Union, Japan, Australia and New Zealand produce 50% of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions — it also revealed that Cuba was the only country to have achieved sustainable development.

Cuba's rating was based on the fact that it is the only country in the world that has a high level of social development, including good health and education systems, and does not use up more resources than is sustainable. Cuba's achievements are all the more extraordinary because the country, already very poor, has pulled this off in despite the five-decade-long US economic blockade.

Since the 1959 revolution the Cuban government and people have been working towards the protection and regeneration of their natural environment ravaged by centuries of colonialism and imperialism. In 1959, the first reforestation campaign began and, while progress has been slow, continuing efforts have increased forest cover from 14% to 24.3%.

An article in the August 4, 2006 National Geographic magazine acknowledged that Cuba's environment is "largely pristine", due to the large amount of land set aside for protection and the numerous international treaties Cuba has signed and abided by. Cuba's coastal areas and mangroves have earned the title of "crown jewel of Caribbean marine biodiversity" because they are an important refuge for hundreds of species of fish and marine animals many of which have been wiped out elsewhere in the Caribbean.

Chemical free agriculture

Arguably Cuba's most famous environmental achievement has been its agricultural sector which is largely organic and free of toxic pesticides and fertilisers.

Not too long ago Cuba's agricultural system resembled that of many other Third World countries where large-scale machinery, petroleum-based pesticides and fertilisers were deployed in the production of cash crops — in Cuba's case sugar and tobacco — mainly for export markets. While most Third World countries are dependent on Western corporations for production "inputs" and for their markets, Cuba was heavily dependent on the Soviet bloc.

The environmental impact on agriculture was as deleterious in Cuba as anywhere else. However, trade conditions were far more favourable than for any poor country at the mercy of the "free market". Cuba received 5.4 times the average world market prices for its sugar and also received petrol as part payment for its sugar, which it sold to gain its only source of foreign exchange. Cuba relied on the Soviet bloc for 80% of all its trade as well as 57% of its food.

As a result, in the 1980s Cuba had achieved a relatively high level of industrialisation and had the best ranking among Latin American countries for the number of doctors per capita, infant mortality and secondary school enrolment.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, virtually overnight Cuba's economy faced collapse: oil imports dropped by 53%; wheat, rice and other food imports dropped by more than 50% and there was an 80% reduction in the availability of fertilisers and pesticides. Widespread hunger, even starvation, became real threats.

During the early 1990s, Cubans average daily caloric and protein intake was 30% less than the previous decade. Queuing for food rations became a daily reality and the average Cuban lost nine kilos. Blackouts were frequent and transportation was impeded by lack of fuel. Around the same time the US tightened its economic blockade, the aim being to encourage a rebellion against the government.

Sustainable agriculture

In 1991, the Cuban government announced the Special Period in Peacetime which put the country on a "wartime economy" austerity drive. Following a nationwide discussion, involving millions of Cubans, it was decided to convert the high input agriculture to low input, self-reliant farming practices.

While the withdrawal of aid from the Soviet Union was the immediate impetus for this move, Cuba's rapid adaptation to the new conditions was only possible because of its investment in human resources.

With just 2% of the population of Latin America, Cuba has a disproportionate 11% of its scientists. Young scientists in the agricultural ministry and the universities, influenced by the growing ecology movement in the West and the "rectification period" which critically examined the Soviet influence, already had a critique of the inherited agricultural practices. The special period allowed these younger, more radical, scientists to promote alternative farming and land use methods.

Biofertilisers, such as compost, and the use of vermicomposting (worm farms) replaced chemical fertilisers, unique biopesticides and the specialised use of pests to combat crop-attacking pests replaced synthetic pesticides and oxen replaced tractors. The immediate effect of these changes was the shifting away from the huge state farms (which had previously produced 80% of output) where production stagnated, to small-scale farming. Farmers rapidly and efficiently adapted, and boosted their production. They also augmented the new techniques with traditional ones such as inter-cropping <97> growing two crops together that benefit each other by warding off particular pests.

The large state farms had proven inflexible to change, partly because farm workers lacked the knowledge required to master organic farming. In response, the government launched the "linking the people with the land" program in 1993. This program broke up the state farms into cooperatives allowing farmers to sell their remaining produce once the state quotas were fulfilled.

Food shortages and incentives led to a massive increase in small-scale farming. By 1998, in and around Havana alone, there were 8000 urban farms and gardens run by 30,000 people. In 2002, urban gardens produced 3.2 million tonnes of food supplying at least 50% of all vegetables in Havana and between 80-100% of vegetables in smaller cities.

Across the country more than 200,000 people are employed in the agriculture sector. Some 200 biopesticide centres also sell tools, seeds and compost. In 2003, the agriculture ministry was using 50% less diesel fuel, and less than 10% of the chemical fertilisers and synthetic pesticides then it did in 1989.

Energy revolution

The halving of its oil imports during the special period also contributed to a growing awareness of energy conservation, and led to government initiatives in renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Cuba has developed its own photovoltaic solar panel manufacturing. Solar power is being used to provide electricity to off-grid rural areas, including several hundred hospitals and community centres and more than 2000 schools. There are plans to electrify 100,000 rural homes.

During peak sugar harvesting season, energy from bagasse (a sugar byproduct) supplies 30% of Cuba's energy. Transportation was also made more energy-efficient with the government subsidising and encouraging people to use bicycles and public transport.

Last year was declared the year of the "energy revolution". Some 30,000 young people were mobilised in a country-wide campaign to install 9 million energy efficient light bulbs and replace millions of obsolete electrical appliances with low energy appliances. Cuban youth were mobilised to work at petrol stations to stop pilferage and corruption. Major works have been undertaken to ensure energy security by upgrading existing electricity stations and building stand-alone generators. By mid- 2006 the blackout problem had been solved.

Research is also being undertaken on other renewable energy sources such as wind, thermo-oceanic and biomass. In May, Cuba will host the International Conference for Renewable Energy, Energy Saving and Energy Education and the International Wind Energy Workshop.

At a time when the threat of global warming clouds humanity's future, Cuba's example shows what is possible given the political will even in a poor country. Unfortunately Cuba's achievements have been largely ignored by the corporate media and Western politicians. In 2001, Project Censored ran the story of Cuba's sustainable agriculture on irs "Top 25 Censored Stories List". Even the WWF report's findings were barely reported.

This is because Cuba's organic agriculture represents a threat by example to the interests of the multi-billion dollar agro-business complex. Giant corporations, such as Monsanto, perpetuate the myth that poor countries would be unable to feed themselves or maintain export crops without the corporations' products. A deadly cycle of dependence is created as the fertilisers and pesticides that produce short-term high yields also severely deplete the soil and increase pesticide resistance in pests, necessitating ever greater amount of inputs and increasing expenditure.

Genetically modified products, such as "terminator seeds" which do not regenerate, increase this dependence. Meanwhile, the price of farm products on the world market is continually decreasing, mainly due to the huge subsidies the rich countries devote to their farm sectors. Cuba's example shows that poor countries can achieve food sovereignty without corporations' interference.

Socialist Cuba shows what is possible when society's resources are controlled by, and in the service of, society as a whole rather than the profit-hungry corporate elites.

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