Fidel Castro: "deterioration of the environment is the worst threat to all humanity"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue Aug 24 07:13:47 MDT 1999

1992 Fidel Castro issues environmental address to United Nations Conference
on the Environment and Development

(full speech at

1.  [``Exclusive text'' of message issued by Cuban President Fidel Castro
Ruz to the UNCED, on 12 June in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; no dateline as

2.  [Text] Messrs Heads of State or Government:

3.  Each of us attending this UNCED is aware of the significance of this
meeting and the urgency of reaching decisions that will allow effective
measures to defend the very survival of mankind.

4.  The accelerated and spiralling deterioration of the environment is
today possibly the most serious long-term threat to mankind as a whole, and
most especially to what is still called the Third World. In addition to the
ever present danger of nuclear destruction, deterioration of the
environment is the worst threat to all humanity. In underdeveloped
countries it is one of the factors that most seriously worsens the living
condition of millions of Third World people.

5.  Never in the history of mankind has such a generalized and destructive
aggression taken place against all of the world's vital systems. In the
underdeveloped world, underdevelopment and poverty itself are the main
factors that today have a multiplying effect on the pressure exerted on the
environment. The over exploitation of arable or grazing land, improper
agricultural practices, and the lack of financial and technical resources
add to the harmful effect of adverse climates. In addition, the eagerness
to obtain the greatest profit margin of natural resources and industrial
capacities-in the case of capitalist exploitation, national or
multinational, in or outside the Third World-adds its serious destructive
quota and adds additional ways of contamination and degradation to the

6.  In the developed world, there are lifestyles that encourage irrational
consumption and encourage waste and destruction of nonrenewable resources.
These lifestyles multiply the tensions and effects to local and world
physical environments at unprecedented and previously unimaginable levels.

7.  For the first time in his history, man is capable of altering the
equilibrium of the principal vital systems and breaking the natural laws
that have governed evolution on the planet. Man can wipe out life if he
unleashes nuclear war. Man actively affects, through genetic engineering,
the accelerated mutation of species that required thousands of years to
form in their natural state. For the first time man is capable of changing
the course of life.

8.  He is already doing so by acting directly on the environment. Every day
the effects of the irrational race of man in his aggression against the
environment are more evident. A short time ago for affluent societies these
were faraway worries-worries that were detached from their immediate
concern. Today, however, these worries are not a distant threat but a
common reality for all peoples.

9.  This is why we are gathered in Rio de Janeiro. Awareness of the serious
effects of the environment's deterioration has begun to spread. This
deterioration is felt directly, immediately, and devastatingly by the
world's most vulnerable and the poor and extends beyond the limits of the
Third World to become a threat that affects all humanity. It is certain
that if necessary actions are not taken, man is at the uncertain threshold
that may mean the destruction of all forms of life.

10.  Cuba, a small Third World country that struggles to develop under
singularly adverse circumstances, can, notwithstanding, in its modest way,
offer the world in general, particularly the underdeveloped world, the
experience attained in conservation and environmental protection and the
results obtained by our people in the various fields directly related to
the topics that will be discussed at this meeting.

11.  We state our recognition of the government of the friendly Republic of
Brazil and its esteemed president, Fernando Collor de Mello, for the great
responsibility of hosting the conference and our personal gratitude for his
kind invitation to participate in the conference. I wish to state that Cuba
participates in this meeting with the determination to contribute in the
full measure of its capabilities and potential to achieve the goals for
which we have gathered-fully convinced that all the efforts exerted toward
the achievement of those goals represent a specific guarantee for our future.

12.  Character and Urgency of a Modern Ecological Debate

13.  The ecology issue has moved in the last two decades from the periphery
to the very center of theoretical debate and the decisionmaking process in
many parts of the world. The abundant literature on ecological issues that
has recently proliferated frequently talks about the internationalization
of the debate on ecology issues and the ecological movement, as a result of
the evolution process that has gained prominence in recent years. The
phenomenon that decidedly contributed to this awareness at world level is
the emergence of an increasing number of nongovernment ecology
organizations, some of which are characterized by their aggressiveness and
the progressive range of their influence.

14.  The consciousness-raising process is obviously based on the fact that
the actual and potential effects of certain worldwide ecology problems
worrying mankind have become much more evident in the last 20 years-
including a depletion of the ozone layer, the warm climate resulting from
the so-called greenhouse effect, acid rain, other forms of ecological
damage caused by the more developed countries' consumer oriented and
squandering model, the loss of our biodiversity, pollution caused by urban
overcrowding, the international traffic of toxic waste, the pollution of
underground and surface waters in our seas and coastal areas, the
destruction of forests, and the depletion of agricultural lands.

15.  These extremely critical problems include an element that should be
given priority in our modern ecology debate-the awareness that man himself
is the most endangered biological species, particularly in large areas of
the world, where a majority of the population subsists in extremely
precarious conditions.

16.  Everyone knows this past decade has been the hottest in the last 100
years and it includes six of the seven hottest years in history. According
to existing records, 1990 was the hottest year in history. This global
warming phenomenon, a result of the so-called ``greenhouse effect,''
entails important ecological, economic, and social consequences.  According
to certain estimates, given the lack of limitations on the current emission
of gases that cause the greenhouse effect, the amount of carbon dioxide in
the atmosphere will double between now and sometime in the 2025 to 2050
period, causing an increase of between 1.5 and 4.5 degrees Celsius in the
world's average temperature. A direct effect of this phenomenon will be an
increase of between 30 and 50 cm in the sea level by 2050, and
approximately 1 meter in 2100, which would result in the flooding of many
densely populated coastal areas. It would also affect many inland states.
Other forecasts are much more worrisome and on a shorter term.

17.  Weather changes would bring, among other things, changes in the rainy
seasons and marine ecology. They would increase the probability of
phenomenons such as hurricanes, tropical cyclones, and typhoons. Likewise,
this would increase the temperate zones' vulnerability to tropical diseases
such as malaria, dengue, and yellow fever; and many of the area crops, such
as wheat, would be critically affected.

18.  It is calculated the world's average ozone layer decreased
approximately 5 percent in the 1979 to 1986 period. A hole in the ozone
layer over Antarctica was discovered in the middle 1980's and, more
recently, certain scientific reports indicate that conditions are ripe for
the appearance of a similar hole over the Arctic Circle.

19.  This deterioration of the ozone layer increases the vulnerability of
living beings on the planet to noxious ultraviolet rays and, consequently,
constitutes an enormous risk factor that is expressed in the increased
likelihood of diseases such as skin cancer and many eye lesions, as well as
considerable damage to cattle and certain crops.

20.  The relative speed with which international negotiations have
progressed, and the adoption of specific agreements to reduce and
eventually eliminate the use and production of chlorofluorocarbons and
gases that ravage the ozone layer, reveal not only the developed countries'
concern over the deterioration of the stratospheric ozone, but the interest
of important economic circles within those countries in leading the
technological transformations that are suggested, and in controlling the
transference of these technologies at an international level. It would be
desirable to find a similar collective resolve at this conference-for
whatever reasons-that would allow us, with specific and effective actions,
to deal with other environmental issues, which are just as worrisome and
more urgent, such as the ozone layer problem.

21.  During the period from 1860 to 1985, sulphuric anhydrite emissions,
one of the leading causes of acid rain, increased from seven million tons
to approximately 155 million tons annually. Very often acid rain is blown
by the wind to other regions far from the area where the contamination is
generated. This phenomenon has made life impossible in tens of thousands of
rivers and lakes because it has altered the chemical composition of their
waters, and has seriously damaged forests and crops, especially in Europe,
North America, South America, China, and Africa.

22.  There are other very important problems that contribute to
deterioration, not of the atmosphere but of the planet's waters and lands.
Many of these problems perhaps are not that new, but they have taken a high
toll in terms of damage and lives, especially in underdeveloped countries.
Poverty has been identified as one of the leading threats to positive
environmental development because most poor people live in areas that are
vulnerable from the ecological viewpoint: 80 percent of Latin America's
poor; 60 percent of Asia's, and 50 percent of Africa's.

23.  Water quality and the provision of potable water in underdeveloped
nations creates dramatic situations. As a result of soil erosion, over 20
million hectares of farmland are lost throughout the world every year. At
present, deserts are expanding at a rate of 6 million hectares annually.
Approximately 3,500 million hectares of productive lands-a surface
approximately equal to that of the American continent-are currently being
affected by desertification, one-third of them severely, which is,
according to the United Nations, a threat to the means of living of 850
million people. Recent figures from the FAO [UN Food and Agriculture
Organization] indicate that the deforestation of tropical zones has
increased from 11.3 million hectares annually in 1980 to 17 million in 1990.

24.  The loss of biological diversity involving these processes is reason
for deep concern. The contamination of oceans, seas, and coastal areas, as
well as the dangers to which existing living resources are exposed in those
areas, constitute another serious environmental problem.

25.  Special attention should be paid to problems involving the
international trafficking of toxic wastes, especially when the receivers
are underdeveloped countries that lack the necessary means to adequately
manage and dispose of these residues. Experience seems to prove that the
solution of this issue should not depend solely on control methods aimed at
making the shipment of such wastes so expensive that it would be more
advantageous for industry to reduce the production of those substances.

26.  If you examine the deterioration of the environment from a historical
viewpoint you will see, generally speaking, that the greatest damage to the
global ecosystem has been caused by the development patterns followed by
the most industrialized countries. Meanwhile, the conditions of poverty in
which the immense majority of the world's population lives also severely
affects the environment and creates a distracting vicious circle between
underdevelopment and poverty on one hand and environmental deterioration on
the other.

27.  Now, when the concept of sustained development has become commonplace,
we must recognize that both the North's development pattern as well as the
South's underdevelopment are environmentally untenable paths to economic
development. However, it would be a mistake to view these two paths as
having similar focal points, even though they are related, because it is
absurd to demand the same degree of responsibility for the deterioration of
the environment from a citizen with relatively high income, used to a
consumer-oriented, developed country with wasteful ways, as from the poor
inhabitant of any one of the more backward countries of the underdeveloped
world. The poor man's daily concern is to find- with increasing
difficulty-ways of preventing his children from starving.

28.  The immediate environmental concerns of Third World countries differ
from those of developed countries because very poor sections of the
population in the underdeveloped world find it very difficult to plan the
needs of future generations. Many of their daily basic needs are not even
minimally satisfied.

29.  In the more developed countries, where the common concern is the level
of the quality of life, there is a growing concern about the medium and
long-term effect of phenomenons such as ozone layer depletion and global
warming. But ecological priorities must be different in underdeveloped
countries, where infant mortality sometimes reaches 115 stillborn babies
for each 1,000 born alive, where each year 14 million children die under
the age of five, where more than 1 billion people have no access to the
most elemental health service, where life expectancy is less than 63
years-52 years in poorer countries, where 300 million children are denied
the right to schooling, where nearly 1 billion adults are illiterate, where
more than 500 million people went hungry in 1990, and where 180 million
children under the age of five suffer malnutrition.

30.  In the Third World what is in danger first is not the quality of life,
but life itself and the right to life. In environmental issues, the main
concern in these countries has to be the availability of water, the lack of
firewood, and the exhaustion of agricultural land.

31.  What practical meaning can definitions such as ecosystems,
biodiversity, environmental degradation, and ozone layer depletion have for
the illiterate masses of the underdeveloped world? What possible attention
can millions of human beings pay to these problems when hour after hour,
day after day, week after week, and year after year-all their lives-are
spent in a desperate and anguished struggle to survive?

32.  Obviously, if we truly want to eliminate the world's primary
environmental problems, humankind must do two things. On the one hand, we
must replace the consumer-oriented and wasteful culture of the
industrialized world and high income sectors in developed countries. This
culture must be exchanged for a way of life that, without sacrificing
current material standards, will tend to a more rational use of resources
and a significant reduction of aggression against the environment that
today is nearly everywhere, because of that culture. We must encourage a
radical change in the socioeconomic conditions of the Third World, and thus
a change in the way of life of the enormous masses of impoverished people,
through the transformation of current international, social, and economic
systems- social and economic structures that in most of the underdeveloped
countries favor the existence of these hungry, sick, dispossessed, and
ignorant people.

33.  Only then can we hope for a proper solution to the world's main
ecological problems in the 21st century, which is on our doorstep. This
requires, however, a general global awareness of the causes of these
environmental problems, in all countries and at all levels in each country.
>From that point on, we could generate the required political resolve and
the indispensable international aid to face it effectively.

34.  Everything done in the meantime will be useful, and it should be
encouraged and supported, but it certainly will not be the solution
required and demanded by our own children, to whom we will bequeath an
uninhabitable planet if we do not act soon.

35.  The Vicious Circle of Underdevelopment and Ecological Deterioration

36.  It has been proved repeatedly that the characteristics of
environmental deterioration in Third World countries- given their
underdeveloped state-have their own traits and origins, and have more
critical results in those countries. The search for sustainable development
in these countries is, above all, the search for development itself.
Development entails not only growth, but also transformation of economic
and social structures to improve living conditions and achieve a
progressive formation of new ethical values.

37.  It is precisely this development process that has been rejected in the
South, not as a casual or occasional outcome, but inherent to a specific
type of social relations and a way to organize production. Backwardness and
poverty are possibly the least sustainable aspects of this development model.

38.  The economic and social crisis that began in the 1980's has
considerably contributed to the swift reproduction of factors that threaten
the close and foreseeable future of the environment-by worsening the
international economic order these countries embrace.

39.  Third World economies still depend largely on the excessive
exploitation of natural resources. In recent years the export of basic
products, including fuel, has represented more than 45 percent of these
countries' total exports, especially in Africa where they represent 90

40.  These economies experienced a dramatic decapitalization process-both
commercial and financial-in the last 10 years, thus precluding the
possibility of sustained economic growth during a population explosion.

41.  Consequently, the annual growth rate of the underdeveloped countries'
gross national product has been decreasing for the last 2.8 percent in the
period from 1983 to 1990. Something similar happened with the per capita
income, which dropped from 3.3 percent between 1961 and 1970, and to 0.1
percent between 1980 and 1990.

42.  Another phenomenon associated with the crisis, which has had very
negative consequences on the ecology's deterioration, is undoubtedly the
unequal distribution of income between the economies of the North and
South, and even within the countries. Meanwhile, 20 percent of the
population with the highest income in 1960 made 30 percent more than the
poorest 20 percent; those levels were 60 percent higher by 1990. The
richest groups currently represent between 10 and 15 percent of the
population in underdeveloped countries, yet they control the largest part
of the economic and natural resources.  Ten percent of the population in
Latin America controls 95 percent of its tillable land.

43.  The main trade problems encountered by Third World countries are
generally linked to the export of basic products, and they result from
increasingly reduced access to developed countries' markets. This is caused
by a more aggressive protectionist policy, and constant deterioration of
prices and purchasing power, among other factors. Between 1980 and 1991,
the average prices of 33 basic products exported by underdeveloped
countries-excluding fuel-suffered a drop of 50 percent and, although their
future behavior is difficult to predict, the World Bank has implied that
they will remain at that level until 1995. In real terms, certain analysts
have placed these products' current prices on a level with prices prevalent
earlier in this century, while others have placed them on a level with
prices prevalent around the middle of the 19th century.

44.  A sample of 24 industrialized countries shows that 20 of them are
currently more protectionist than they were 10 years ago. Their
protectionism takes a toll on the underdeveloped countries. In terms of GDP
[gross domestic product] sacrificed for exports that are not delivered,
this represents a loss of $75 billion annually.

45.  During the eighties, with the so-called foreign debt crisis, the flow
of foreign financial resources was drastically reduced; decades earlier,
these resources had paid at least part of the most essential investments.
The flow of resources in the shape of Official Development Assistance
(ODA), especially, from the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and
Development] countries, is at present 50 percent lower than the proposed
goal of 0.7 percent of these countries' GDP. The total ODA received by the
underdeveloped countries in 1990 was scarcely $44 billion, while the
foreign debt service-the foreign debt currently surpasses $1.3
trillion-over the past four years has averaged a little over $165 billion

46.  Thus, the underdeveloped countries' foreign debt service is equivalent
every year to three times the total official foreign aid they receive. The
final result is that, paradoxically, these countries have become net
capital exporters, with figures ranging between $40 and $50 billion yearly
over the past decade.

47.  In 1990, the UNDP [UN Development Program] calculated that in the
Third World there were approximately 1.2 billion people living below the
poverty line. The economic and social situation in the South will tend to
worsen to the extent that backwardness and recurrent economic crises
increasingly decrease opportunities to revert, or at least halt, certain
phenomena associated with the increase of poverty. One of these phenomena
is uncontrollable demographic growth and the disproportionate process of
urbanization in the Third World.

48.  While the population growth rate in the industrialized countries
averaged 0.8 percent annually between 1960 and 1990, in the underdeveloped
countries it averaged 2.3 percent annually during the same period.

49.  Between 1990 and the year 2000, the population growth rate in the
underdeveloped countries will continue to be the highest: 2 percent
compared to 0.5 percent in developed countries. It is believed that over 90
percent of world population growth during the next 10 years will take place
in the underdeveloped countries.

50.  Likewise, the rate of urbanization will continue to be more
accelerated in the underdeveloped countries, as it will be influenced by a
constant exodus from rural areas.  Between 1960 and 1990 the Third World's
urban population increased at an annual average rate of 4 percent, while in
the developed countries urban populations increased by 1.4 percent.

51.  For the period from 1990 to 2000, the urban growth rate in the
underdeveloped countries is expected to remain the same, while in the
developed countries it is expected to decrease to an annual average of 0.8
percent, according to UNDP estimates. Therefore, by the year 2000, of the
24 cities that will have more than 10 million inhabitants, 18 will be in
underdeveloped countries, and of the six with over 15 million, four will be
in underdeveloped countries also.

52.  Do not forget that in conditions of underdevelopment, urbanization
takes on a special connotation because of the lack of sufficient adequate
infrastructure solutions.  What really takes place is a process of
disorderly growth of urban groups, primarily in the form of poor
neighborhoods, with the consequent creation of large sources of
environmental contamination and environmental degradation.

53.  Under these conditions, it is much more urgent to face the serious
challenge of ensuring an adequate level of nourishment for all the beings
on earth, and to do so without causing further damage to our worldwide
ecological surroundings. Effective worldwide political resolve is required
to achieve this. Thus far, this has been impossible. Sixty percent of the
current world population lives in countries that have low incomes and food

54.  The poverty of the Third World is closely linked to the degradation of
the environment.

55.  With the exploitation of natural resources as the primary means of
economic and social reproduction, and without the financial conditions and
technology to adequately confront this issue, literally the only means of
survival in these countries lies increasingly in the overexploitation of
natural resources.

56.  This relative wastage brings more poverty, by way of a shortage of
available financial and technical resources to face the most adverse
ecological conditions.

57.  This creates a degrading vicious circle between the two phenomena. As
the FAO has stated: ``It is precisely those resources that are the source
of life that are destroyed, not out of ignorance, but just to survive one
more day.''

58.  The problems of underdevelopment, backwardness, natural disasters, and
armed conflicts in the underdeveloped world, particularly during the decade
of the 1980's, also contributed to a further deterioration of the
environment. This is due to the large number of people who migrated from
one country to another or from one area within a country to another, and
the resultant overexploitation of the natural resources of a given region.
This phenomenon is worsened, in most cases, due to the fact that nothing is
done to protect the environment.

59.  The most serious ecological problems created by this whole situation
center mainly on the degradation of the soils, the creation of desert
lands, flooding and drought, a deterioration in the quality and supply of
drinking water, the loss of soil layers to erosion and deforestation, the
loss of biological diversity, as well as the untapped growth of urban
concentrations, among others. The present situation of these negative
processes is much worse than that registered at the 1972 conference on the
urban environment.

60.  At present, close to 1.3 billion people-almost 30 percent of the Third
World population-have no access to sources of drinking water, and over 2.2
billion have no sanitary services. This is relatively worse in rural areas.
 In 1990, only 63 percent of the rural population in this group of
countries had drinking water, versus 82 percent of the urban population.
Only 49 percent of the rural inhabitants had adequate sanitary services,
versus 72 percent of urban inhabitants.

61.  Meanwhile, the number of human beings continues to grow whose food
supply hypothetically depends upon a fraction of an acre of farming land.
This is the result of the increasing population and the continuous
degradation of the soil.

62.  The lack of financial and technical resources is well known. These
resources would allow Third World farmers to increase the productivity of
their work and the yield of their land, in order to maintain adequate
production levels on the already existing areas of agricultural
exploitation. Based on this, it is understandable that the only short-term
solution for these farmers is to incorporate new extensions of land for
their primitive farming methods, which is the direct cause of some of the
worst forms of environmental deterioration. To this we must add the
displacement of the individual farmer from the more productive lands in
certain regions, by extending land tenure practices, or inversely, the
continued subdivision of the land into ever smaller and unproductive plots.
So closes another vicious circle, from which there seems to be no escape
for the impoverished farmer of the underdeveloped world.

63.  To act in favor of the conservation and improvement of the
environment, then, unavoidably means to act against the causes that foster
the degrading poverty displayed by the Third World as it approaches the
21st century.  Without a doubt, this will require a series of social and
economic changes, both on a national and international level. Such changes
could begin with a just and lasting solution to the issue of foreign debt
in the underdeveloped nations and with the redirection of available
financial and monetary resources to those development plans.

64.  On this same line, it is quite elementary to say that the world's
expenditure on weapons is still excessively high, particularly as we
witness the fall of socialism in Eastern Europe and the disappearance of
the Soviet Union- which for many means the end of the Cold War and the
establishment of a single-poled world from a political and military
standpoint. Although they have dropped slightly, expenditures surpass $800
billion a year. Underdeveloped countries account for over $120 billion a
year.  It is essential to do away with the absurd contrast between the mass
of resources used for means to exterminate man and nature, and the need to
direct such resources to the development and conservation of human life and

65.  Analyzed in its environmental scope, interdependence between the
backward and poor underdeveloped world of the South and the industrialized
world of the North grows more pronounced because they exist in one planet.
The underdeveloped countries have also taken on the battle for the
ecological protection of the Earth. The strategy of this war, however,
cannot entail separating the problems of the environment and the problems
of economic and social development.

66.  Quite to the contrary, if we want to guarantee a future ecological
security, we must endeavor to keep the indiscriminate exploitation of the
environment from becoming pronounced. This exploitation is happening now,
due to the indifference toward the right of development of three-fourths of
mankind. Indifference must be replaced by the recognition of the different
degrees of responsibility regarding this phenomenon and by the
establishment of fair and preferential treatment so that the underdeveloped
countries can have access to the appropriate resources and technologies to
this end.

Louis Proyect


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