GLW: Cubans discuss environmental sustainability
Green Left Parramatta
glparramatta at SPAMgreenleft.org.au
Tue Jun 27 07:21:40 MDT 2000
The following article appears in the latest
issue of Green Left Weekly (http://www.greenleft.org.au),
Australia's radical newspaper.
Cubans discuss environmental sustainability
What can environmentalists learn from Cuba, a country
that still flirts with nuclear power, is besieged by many
environmental problems typical of the Third World, and lags
behind countries like Denmark and Holland on issues like
recycling, green taxes, alternative energy and eco-labelling?
During a recent visit to ``the fairest island ever revealed to
human eyes'' (as Christopher Columbus described Cuba), I searched
for the answer. I wanted to understand the impact of the ``Special
Period in Time of Peace'' -- the emergency program to save the
socialist revolution after the collapse of the Soviet bloc.
After talking to environmental scientists, administrators and
activists, and reading recent Cuban writings on ecology, it is
clear that there is a lot of debate about how to reverse
environmental degradation. It is also obvious that few Third
World countries can match the legislative, planning and
educational efforts that Cuba is applying in its battle for
Moreover, few environmental movements can match Cuba's
revolutionaries in government, scientific institutions, education
system and emerging non-government organisations in their passion
and dedication to the environmental cause.
For centuries, Cuba's natural resources and beauty were
sacrificed to Spanish colonial landowners and, later, US
corporations. In the early 1800s, the great Prussian geographer
Alexander von Humboldt was already lamenting the destruction of
Cuba's native forests.
In his book Dialectics of Nature, Frederick Engels -- Karl Marx's
collaborator -- could find no better example of the impact of
capitalist greed on the ecosphere than the operations of Cuba's
Spanish planters ``who burned down forests on the slopes of the
mountains and obtained from the ashes sufficient fertiliser for
one generation of highly profitable coffee trees ... what cared
they that the heavy tropical rainfall afterwards washed away the
unprotected upper stratum of soil, leaving behind only bare
Through such vandalism, Cuba was transformed into an exporter of
sugar, tobacco and coffee. Total forest cover fell from 85% in
1812, 54% in 1900, to 14% by the time of the 1959 revolution. To
this crime against nature before the revolution can be added many
others, including: rapacious nickel mining (coating a wide
expanse of the island in red dust); endemic problems created by
monoculture crops; and the gamut of damage that goes with rural
After the revolution
[Picture]The revolution and the later development of Cuba's
economy as part of the former Soviet bloc was
The revolution eliminated poverty, unemployment, landlessness and
illiteracy and built up basic rural infrastructure, thus
attacking the degradation of the countryside at the source.
Through sweeping land reform, the leaders of the revolution
disproved the myth that degradation is due to the
pseudo-explanation, still favoured by World Bank functionaries,
of ``rural overpopulation''. For the first time, and despite
continuing population growth, deforestation in Cuba began to be
reversed. By 1997, the island's forested area stood at 21.5%, a
7.5% increase since 1959.
On the other hand, the model of industrialisation that Cuba
adopted in the 1970s generated (when combined with the continuing
reliance on sugar exports) a new set of environmental stresses.
Oil spills, coastal erosion, rising salinity, algal blooms and
high levels of industrial pollution showed Cuba was paying a high
environmental price for industrialisation.
Even though environmental protection featured strongly in the
country's law books, the impact on factory managers was often
minimal. According to Cuban environment teacher and writer Carlos
Jesus Delgado Diaz: ``A study carried out by the National Assembly
of People's Power at the end of the 1980s reflected the fact
that, when faced with the choice of fulfilling the production
plan or breaking the law, a significant number of administrators
plumped for fulfilling the plan no matter what the cost''.
The blame for such decisions should not be laid solely at the
feet of the managers. The criminal US economic blockade, which
forced Cuba's integration into the Soviet bloc's economic system
(COMECON), gave the country no choice but to apply Eastern
Europe's resource- and energy-squandering technologies.
Cuba's insertion into the COMECON system retarded the growth of
environmental consciousness. Miguel Limia David, a senior
researcher with Cuba's Ministry of Science, Technology and
Environment (CITMA), has stressed ``the predominance of an
instrumentalist and personally irresponsible attitude to the use,
enjoyment and disposal both of natural as well as socially
created resources''. Why? For years ``we basically aimed at
producing more wealth and raising consciousness without paying
appropriate attention to the costs of producing that wealth''.
However, even before the 1989-91 collapse of the Soviet bloc
threw Cuba's model of highly mechanised agriculture into crisis,
problems such as growing pesticide resistance and soil erosion
had led to the development of alternatives. In the 1980s, some
US$12 billion was devoted to training specialists and developing
infrastructure in the areas of biotechnology, health sciences,
computer hardware and robotics.
This timely move ensured that when imports of fertiliser,
machinery and spare parts fell by 80%, the country was able to
devote its scientific knowledge and agricultural research
infrastructure to the largest-ever conversion from conventional
agriculture to organic or semi-organic farming. This proved vital
to maintaining food supplies in very hard times.
This came with many severe environmental problems intact, as
identified in the 1997 National Environment Strategy:
* Continuing large-scale soil degradation -- erosion, bad
drainage, salinity, soil acidity, and compacting;
* the deterioration of health and environment conditions in
cities and towns, due to a fall in spending on housing and
* fresh and salt water pollution that was undermining fishing,
agriculture and tourism, as well as natural ecosystems;
* selective deforestation, which damaged soils, water tables
and fragile ecosystems; and
* loss of biological diversity.
The concessions that Cuba has had to make to survive in the
capitalist world -- such as a large increase in joint ventures in
industries like tourism -- brings new stresses. Similarly, the
growth in numbers of self-employed people and small farmers also
threatens to boost environmental decline.
Can Cubans solve their environmental problems? Cuba has the great
advantage of having faced facts: the fundamental enemy of global
sustainability is capitalism's production for private profit.
Capitalism cannot survive without constantly regenerating an
anti-environmental and consumerist ethic, no matter what
greenwashing corporations say.
As Delgado Diaz explains: ``As a spiritual phenomenon, capitalism
has produced ways of viewing life and has equipped modern man and
woman with an ethical outlook that is incompatible with the
solution of the environmental problem that science has advanced
as technically viable.''
Energy specialist Hector Eugenio Perez de Alejo Victoria notes
that it is vital not to leave the definition of key ecological
terms like ``eco-efficiency'' to promoters of the capitalist
market. ``The search for a definition is subject to great threats,
one of which is the continual propaganda of the international
media as to the benefits of consumerism, where a satisfied client
is supposedly to be found at the end of every chain. In reality,
consumerism is nothing more than an infinite cycle of
dissatisfactions; satisfaction for a short period of time and
almost immediately more dissatisfaction it is a sort of drug
addiction and produces the greater part of the global
Cuban ecological thinking stresses that the global environmental
crisis and the world's social and economic crises are
interrelated, in particular through way the ``North'' exploits the
countries of the ``South''. As Garrido Vazquez notes: ``It is
impossible to conceive of sustainable development without
resolving beforehand the problems of extreme poverty, which are
nothing but the results of centuries of colonial domination and
exploitation, and which have re-emerged in recent times through
the application of neoliberal policies.''
A point of reference are the writings on the humanity-nature
relationship by Cuba's national hero and martyr, Jose Marti.
These, in the words of Limia David, ``refer to the need to develop
a harmonious relationship with the universal conditions of life,
with `first nature', as well as to build an ordered, pure and
cultured `second nature'''.
A succinct expression of this outlook came in Fidel Castro's
speech to the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, and has since been matched
by a rapid increase in environmental laws and projects within
Cuba. Between 1992 and 1998, the National Assembly of People's
Power amended the Cuban constitution to entrench the concept of
sustainable development; the National Environment and Development
Program was developed (outlining the path Cuba would take to
fulfil its obligations under the Rio summit's Agenda 21); CITMA
was established; an overarching environment law passed; and a
national environment strategy was launched.
Other major initiatives included a national strategy for
environmental education; a national program of environment and
development; projects for food production via sustainable methods
and biotechnological and sustainable animal food, as well as a
national scientific technical program for mountain zones and a
national energy sources development program. Each of these
program are composed of smaller projects and initiatives,
involving local communities, People's Power bodies, universities,
schools and mass organisations.
What has been achieved? There have been gains in health, access
to water and electricity, education and land reform, which
according to orthodox classification methods are not
``environmental'' but without which no real advances against
environmental degradation are thinkable.
Such gains would never be realised if Cuba reverted to capitalism
and was obliged, for example, to pay the US$100 billion debt that
Washington estimates Cuba owes for private property expropriated
by the revolution. As one environmentalist put it: ``The foremost
environmental problem we have is making sure we don't fall into
the hands of the empire.''
Cuba's highly educated people, of whom more than half a million
are university graduates, are an invaluable resource base for
recent advances such as the conversion to organic agriculture,
the thorough surveying of its ecosystems and energy and resource
base, the completion of a national biodiversity study, improved
methods of water and soil management, and the application of new
technologies for treating waste.
Two fields in which Cuba is making headway against the odds are
renewable energy and alternative housing.
Two concerns that have focused increased attention on alternative
energy are Cuba's high level of dependency on oil imports (around
10 million tonnes annually before 1989) and the fact that its
first nuclear reactor has still to come on line, even though work
began in the late 1970s.
According to Perez de Alejo Victoria, the Development Program of
National Energy Sources is putting maximum effort into developing
energy systems based on sugar cane residues (bagasse), wind
farms, micro hydroelectricity plants, solar and photovoltaic
technologies as well as on Cuba's unexploited oil reserves.
Cuba's energy goals have been made more difficult by the
elimination of some potential energy sources: peat reserves are
to be left untouched until environmentally benign methods of
peat-burning can be developed and in 1998 the National Assembly
of People's Power suspended the construction of Toa-Doaba
hydroelectric project, which would have flooded an ecosystem as
rare and beautiful as that of Tasmania's Franklin River.
So far, the energy program can boast the generalised usage of
bicycles, the development of kerosene substitutes for cooking,
the conversion of boilers to enable straw to be burnt as fuel and
the increased use of biogas.
The most promising potential energy source is bagasse. With
existing technology, Cuba's annual production of 4.3 million
tonnes of sugar cane biomass could reduce oil dependency by
700,000 tonnes. If Cuba can gain access to new Brazilian
technology which can gasify sugar cane biomass, the country could
increase electricity output per biomass unit by up to 10 times --
a huge step forward in reducing energy dependency.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Cuba met its relentlessly rising
housing demand by building Soviet-style concrete blocks of flats
as rapidly as possible. The enforced end of this model of housing
development brought some benefits which in the medium term
promise more human-scale, environmentally benign housing.
The non-government organisation Habitat-Cuba is devoted to
producing a sustainable housing model that recognises that the
concrete required for Cuba's standard housing stock has come at a
high (and unaccounted for) cost in terms of greenhouse gas
emissions and that the passive acceptance of the standard model
has led to bureaucratic blindness and indifference towards
alternative building materials in which the Cuba is rich.
At the same time the collapse of housing investment during the
special period had seen a rise in the number of unhealthy
suburbs, especially in older urban areas. This is an urgent
challenge to build environmentally sustainable, healthy
settlements, basing design, techniques and execution on
consultation with local communities, sympathetic architects and
other professionals as well as with the relevant ministries.
Habitat-Cuba has developed bamboo as a housing construction
material, as well as the introduction of mud-brick techniques (in
the face of initial scepticism by a local community who thought
they were being returned to stone-age life!). Like CubaSolar, an
NGO specialising in alternative energy, Habitat-Cuba has built
scores of successful projects across the island as well as having
provided training in alternative construction techniques.
Towards a lasting solution
Despite such advances Cuba's environmentalists do not
underestimate the difficulties their country's environment faces.
Delgado Diaz points out that ``it is extraordinarily difficult to
break the vicious circle of underdevelopment, environmental
degradation and poverty. Phenomena of this type impose an
individual economic dynamic that is often resolved at the expense
of the environment.''
What are the prospects? Perez de Alejo Victoria said that ``the
environmental realities are pretty unflattering, especially as
regards renewable energy, which obliges me to be tactically
pessimistic, even if from the strategic point of view I view the
future with optimism.''
Limia David is less hopeful. He thinks environment policy can
only work to its full potential if Cuban society overcomes the
indifference generated by its paternalistic heritage, conquering
``the unsatisfactory degree of involvement of the direct producers
in the means of production, that is, the inadequate linkage
between everyone's way of life and the final results of the
For David, Cuba's acute environmental problems cannot be solved
by political will alone, necessary and important though that is:
``They essentially demand not a new attitude on the part of policy
generated by the state and the entire political system, but one
that arises from the ordinary people, from the local communities
and specific labour collectives. It is critical to develop a
feeling of responsible ownership when faced with the universal
bases of life.''
However, Modesto Fernandez Diaz-Silveira, a CITMA specialist in
the management of environment policy is more confident: ``The
sustained economic recovery and institutional changes that are
taking place in Cuba provide a solid basis that allow us to
advance with optimism in the application of our environmental
policy, the norms and methods of application of which will take
us to a higher stage in the protection of the environment and the
rational use of natural resources.''
The main factor behind this confidence is the mass participation
and revolutionary commitment of Cuba's people and communities in
implementing environment policy, an ingredient that no capitalist
society can match. Even while Cuba still lags in making use of
many of the tools available to capitalist governments (eco-taxes,
environmentally adjusted national accounting), participatory
democracy gives Cuba the chance to advance towards sustainability
while in the rest of the Third World the environment collapses.
This is especially so when combined with the Cuban political
system's capacity to implement integrated plans involving all
``players'' and its desire to educate its people in humanist and
There is a broad debate on the island about how to involve the
mass of people in the battle for environmental sustainability.
That is far more inspiring and hopeful than an environment policy
which consists of Dodgy Brothers flogging us shares in
tax-deductable eucalypt plantations.
BY DICK NICHOLS
[Quotations from Cuba Verde (Green Cuba), Jose Marti Publishing
House, Havana, 1999. Dick Nichols edited Environment, Capitalism
and Socialism (1999), the Democratic Socialist Party's analysis
of the environment crisis. To obtain a copy, send $17.95
(includes postage) with your address to New Course Publications,
PO Box 515, Broadway 2007.]
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