Lessons for a greener world
In a CubaSí exclusive, Derek Wall, principal spokesperson for the Green Party, argues that to achieve a green planet, we all need to learn from Cuba
We all know about climate change, forest destruction and other ecological threats but in Latin America environmental concern is treated more seriously than perhaps in any other part of the world.
In 2006 I visit Venezuela with my partner Sarah, we were there to see our friend Cesar Aponte who works in the Ministry of the Environment. Although Venezuela is an oil economy and Caracas is a sprawling polluted city, Chavez’s government are working hard to promote ecodevelopment. We visited an ecological high school where kids were taught organic agriculture and saw the huge permaculture city farm in Caracas next to the Hilton Hotel.
Venezuela’s own energy needs are nearly all from renewables and there is a plan to stop using petrol for cars, new railways have been built and organic agriculture is a big priority. Visiting London Hugo Chavez’ praised the congestion charge and defined one person one car culture simply as ‘a thing of stupidity.’
There are other examples from the region. The Peruvian peasant leader Hugo Blanco is part of a huge continental ecology movement and Bolivian President Morales is famous for making an inspiration speech on climate change to the UN.
However, ecological concerns have gone furthest in Cuba and the Cuban government have shown a long term interest in ecology. In 1992 at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro, Fidel Castro observed prophetically:
“An important biological species is at risk of disappearing due to the rapid and progressive elimination of its natural habitat: man.
“(...) consumer societies are fundamentally responsible for the atrocious destruction of the environment.
“The solution cannot be to hinder the development of the neediest.”
The Cuban constitution enshrines environmental protection. Cuba has been identified as the one country in the world that has been able to develop in an ecologically sustainable way by the WWF. Uniquely Cuba has balanced a rising standard of living with practices that are ecologically sustainable. While it is pretty shocking for the rest of the globe that no other state has achieved this, it shows just how important the example of Cuba is if we are to meet environmental challenges such as climate change and to deal with global problems of poverty and injustice at the same time. Put most simply to achieve a green world, we all need to learn from Cuba.
Cuba is perhaps most famous for its organic agriculture. During the 1990s the collapse of the Soviet Union meant that the country no longer received cheap oil from Russia. The ‘Special Period’ as most readers know led to much hardship but it also meant that Cuba had to go on a crash course of oil reduction. Non-organic agriculture is heavily dependent on oil, for example, most pesticides and chemical fertilizers are a by-product of petroleum. To survive Cuba had to go organic. Cubans were encouraged to produce as much of their food as possible and to use low impact ecological methods.
In Havana highly productive organic allotments can be found between tower blocks and all sorts of land that would be otherwise unused. Cuba has over 7,000 urban allotments know as ‘organopinics’ nearly 100,000 acres.
Cuba imported organic expertise from around the global and is celebrated in particular for its use of permaculture. Permaculture uses complementary planting and biological techniques to reduce digging and to make it easier to produce crops. Instead of monoculture where one uniform homogenous crop is grown, interplanting makes it easier to avoid pests and to maintain soil fertility. Organic waste such as vegetable peelings is composted and used to restore soil nutrients. Worm bins are particularly important. The worms accelerate the breakdown of compost, turning waste into horticultural gold.
The special period forced Cuba to go green but in recent years awareness of global ecological problems particularly climate change caused by rising CO2 levels have increasingly motivated the countries environmental reforms. Fidel Castro has been a pioneer of such concern, identifying the ecological costs of neo-liberal globalisation and noting that capitalist economic growth is unsustainable.
By creating unsustainable consumer patterns in industrialised countries and sowing impossible dreams throughout the rest of the world, the developed capitalist system has caused great injury to mankind. It has poisoned the atmosphere and depleted its enormous non-renewable natural resources, which mankind will need in the future.
Please, do not believe that I am thinking of an idealistic, impossible, absurd world; I am merely trying to imagine what a real world and a happier person could be like. It would not be necessary to mention a commodity, it suffices to mention a concept: inequality has made more than 80 per cent of the people on the planet unhappy, and this is no more than a concept. (Castro 2003: 18)
While George Bush has attempted to derail international action on climate change, Cuba has been a world leader. It was one of the first countries to sign the Convention on Climate Change and, its successor the Kyoto Protocol. The country was one of the first to move to low energy light bulbs to cut CO2. While Cuba now swaps oil with Venezuela in exchange for health care, it has developed renewable energy on a large scale including solar and wind generated electricity.
In March this year Jose Manuel Presa, deputy minister of the Basic Industry (energy and mining) told the Cuban Society for the Promotion of Renewable Energy Sources and Environmental Respect that Cuba had saved the equivalent of one million tons of oil in 2006 and 2007. The Cuban government’s ‘energy revolution’ has not only promoted renewables but carefully planned ways of conserving energy. The country is also exporting its expertise to other Caribbean and Latin American countries.
Recycling is also highly developed the country. Virtually all waste is reused both out of environmental concern and ecological necessity. In contrast in Britain low levels of recycling mean that many local authorities risk being fined by the European Union and there is a drive to build new incinerators despite the pollution they produce. Wildlife conservation is also a priority and the country has recently banned the hunting of all marine turtles to prevent extinction.
Many supposedly green solutions have proved to be both environmentally damaging and social unjust. Sustainability must be driven by sound scientific research and a commitment to ending poverty and inequality. One example of a supposed solution, which is neither, is biofuels. While it sounds like an obvious solution to crop energy crops instead of burning polluting fossil fuels, there are a number of devastating consequences. In South East Asia the fastest growing threat to rainforest is from biofuels, with forests being cut down to make way for palm oil plantations.
Fidel Castro has been one of most important critics of this policy pointing out that while biofuels production from waste may make sense, growing crops for fuel will mean environmental damage and lead to starvation as the area used for food production is reduced.
It would be possible to think of areas where Cuba could make more progress, however criticism must be balanced with an understanding that Cuba is unique in its commitment to raising the standard of living of its people, while maintaining environmental quality.
During the 20th century socialism seemed largely divorced from green concerns. However in the 19th century Marx and Engels were already aware of environmental issues including soil erosion, deforestation and industrial pollution. It is fitting that Cuba more than any other country has come closest to implementing eco-socialist policies that can be traced back to Marx and Engels.
The defence of Cuba is vital task for all serious greens. Capitalism is unsustainable, so an eco-socialist model is necessary. Cuba shows the way and its example is already inspiring other countries, particularly in Latin America, to follow a green path.
Castro, F. (2003) On Imperialist Globalization: Two Speeches. London: Zed.
Further information: The Power of Community - How Cuba survived peak oil
Watch this 53 minute DVD for more details on how Cuba coped with the loss of its oil imports overnight and the lessons for other countries. Available from CSC for £12 + £1 p&p