Cuban permaculturalist: How Cuba made a 'green revolution'

April 25, 2008

In the Worldwide Fund for Nature's 2007 report, Cuba was the only country listed as having an ecologically sustainable economy. Cuban permaculturalist Roberto Perez recently completed an Australian tour, speaking to over 5000 people, describing how Cuba carried out a "green revolution" to deal with the dire consequences of the collapse of its main trading partner, the Soviet Union, in the 1990s.

Perez was also a featured guest at Green Left Weekly's Climate Change — Social Change conference over April 11-13. GLW's Neville Spencer spoke to Perez about Cuba's remarkable environmental advances.

Could you describe what was the general state of the environment in Cuba before the revolution?

In 1959 we inherited a totally devastated country. Eight-six percent of the natural ecosystems of the country were wiped out. In 1900 there had been 52% of the natural ecosystems left. In 1959 there was only 14% left.

The land was concentrated in the hands of 10 Cuban families and some US companies. Farmers were constantly pushed toward the agricultural border where they had to use slash and burn agriculture — destroying what was left of the ecosystems.

Havana was terrible, it was consuming most of the resources of the country, such as energy. There were huge brothels and casinos and the [US] marines were there. The environmental situation was not very good.

All the natural reserves of the country were in the hands of US companies, who built two huge plants to extract nickel, but the process was very aggressive. They used a lot of acid even though the processing was only half done and it still had to be finished in the US.

How conscious about environmental issues was the Cuban Revolution prior to the changes forced on it by the collapse of the Soviet Union?

It wasn't very conscious, however when the revolution gained sovereignty over the resources of the country, especially the land and the minerals, this was the base for sustainability. You cannot think about sustainability if your resources are in the hands of a foreign country or in private hands. Even without knowing, we were creating the basis for sustainability.

We'd have to say that the whole world in the '60s, '70s and '80s thought differently. Both existing socialism and capitalism talked about nature as something to be dominated — it was something necessary to produce goods for people, and to transform the landscape in order to feed people. Our aim was to improve the living conditions for Cubans.

The collapse of the Soviet Union had a huge impact on Cuba, especially in terms of depriving it of oil supplies. Can you describe how Cuba coped?

Oil is important, but [the Soviet Union's collapse also affected] our sources of food, markets for exports, sources of credit and primary materials. So all the life-supporting systems in Cuba collapsed after 1991.

The impact on peoples' lives was dramatic, especially because our philosophy is to make things accessible for everyone and not just a few. Most people faced starvation, nutritional problems, big problems getting electricity.

Environmentally speaking, we faced two things. One, the pressure on resources next to communities was increased. People started chopping down trees to make charcoal to cook with. People made destructive use of nature in order to survive.

On the other hand, the levels of pollution were reduced because there was a lot less cars. Many industries stopped. Some agriculture was abandoned and nature took the land back.

It was necessary to find other ways to produce food — with low inputs.

But the idea was to keep sovereignty over our resources. We learned lots about the environment, about how we impact on ecosystems, because we need to measure every drop of our resources and know the consequences of our actions. Facing the worst crisis that any country has faced in terms of energy, markets and economy, the revolutionary government and the people were constantly learning how to do things as sustainably as possible.

We passed a new environmental law in '97, which is very, very progressive. It outlines the importance of the state and the citizens protecting the natural resources of the country.

It has been a very rich experience — hard, but very educational. And the outcome is amazing.

What are some of the measures that Cuba took in that period?

We needed to live as best as possible with less energy and resources. We learned to do a lot of things with almost nothing.

A big thing for Cuba was the huge transformation of food production to a system that is low imput and environmentally friendly — organic farming, urban agriculture, animal traction. So the food we were eating was produced close to the cities, close to the source and it was not produced with a big expense of energy.

Amazing forms of public transportation were put in place. And in Cuba we have government-owned cars, and every single government-owned car has to stop and pick up passengers on the way to do their official business. If they don't do that — because the car is not theirs, it belongs to the people — they will be in trouble at work.

We did simple things like using horse-carts to pick up the garbage. The country changed millions of incandescent bulbs to energy-efficient bulbs [for free]. We totally decentralised the electricity system to a very efficient decentralised system.

Also, there was an analysis of who needs what. So people from Havana who don't have anywhere to grow food, their rations were a bit bigger. People in the countryside needed other things, they were given more bicycles.

In terms of other renewables, most of the wind turbines are made in the US [which maintains an economic blockade against Cuba]. So all the generators that have entered Cuba have been smuggled in illegally.

The conventional agriculture of Cuba was characterized by the heavy use of pesticides. Now we are putting 25 times less poison in the soil. This means there is natural control, the health is coming back to the soil and there's less damage to our water tables and our crops. Cuban agriculture is 86% organic.

We were struggling and progressing very slowly until the revolution came to Venezuela. But even now, although we have access to reasonably priced oil, our energy policy is totally addressed toward sustainability. We don't say: "Venezuela, petrol, petrol, petrol." We just get what we need to cover basic needs and keep sustainability and use of available resources.

How has Cuba used solar energy?

Solar energy is very expensive for Third World countries. The priority of Cuba is to power the 150,000 households that are outside the electricity grid. These people have waited for electricity for 50 years. So even though some people think we should put solar in Havana and big cities, our ethical stance is that these people have trusted in the revolution to get electricity and they need to have it as soon as possible.

For Cubans health, education and culture are primary. In terms of health, kits have been given to medical clinics in the middle of nowhere — solar panels, a little radio station, an autoclave for sterilisation, a fridge for vaccines. So each doctor in the mountains now has this.

For us, it is important that a kid who lives in the middle of nowhere will receive the same information and the same respect as those who live in the centre of Havana. This is equity.

But many of the rural schools didn't have electricity. Another basic kit has two solar panels, so they can have lights and a TV for educational channels, a DVD and a computer. This is done even for schools with one student.

Cuba has also started to use biofuels?

First we have to clarify about the word biofuels. Biofuels are fuels produced from a biological source. But what we see now are "agrofuels" — it's the agribusiness culture of fuel.

Cuba's ethical position against agrofuel is that we won't put a hectare of our land that can be used for growing food to produce ethanol for people to continue wasting energy.

Nevertheless, we generate up to 30% of energy in parts of the country from the bagasse [biomass left after sugar cane is drained of its juice] of the sugar cane that we mill. But this sugar cane was grown for a whole year, sequestering carbon dioxide before being created.

So that's an example of biofuels. But we don't use the straw, we need to leave the straw on the fields to protect the soil, to bring back some of the carbon.

Our idea is to have as many as possible small solutions, totally decentralised, that can help the problem.

Another important thing is that all the industries that are not energy efficient have been dismantled. We had paper factories from 1920 that used obsolete technology. We closed it down — we can because it belongs to the people.

Most of the obsolete, energy-inefficient technology has been stopped. But people were not laid-off, they were moved to another part of the economy. Or when 75 sugar mills were closed, people were paid their full salary to study because we cannot leave anybody behind.

Why has Cuba been able to achieve the status of the world's only sustainable country?

This is something that in the beginning we were not aiming for. In the worst of the crisis our only ambition was to resist, to survive, to fight. Once the worst part was past, about 1996, we started to refine the ideas and we were aiming for sustainable development. But sustainable development is only possible when you have social justice.

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