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Sustainable agriculture in Cuba

Cuba is more eco-friendly than you may realise

This may come as a surprise to you, because Cuba isn’t widely recognised as a particularly eco-friendly island, especially next to it’s more popular rival Costa Rica. However in early 2020 Cuba was ranked once again as the worlds most sustainable developed country by the Sustainable Development Index (SDI), designed by anthropologist and author Dr Jason Hickel. The index measures it’s results by taking each country’s CO2 emissions in alignment with other factors linked to human development like life expectancy and education. 

... Cuba's complex history could be to thank

Whilst Cuba being named the ‘most sustainable developed country’ is all well and good, it is also worth talking about the reasons why this might be the case. You might not be surprised to learn that Cuba’s sustainability stems from an enforced and challenging economical and political situation thrown upon them in the early 90’s. 

You see, prior to the 1990s Cuba had been a country entirely dependent on fossil fuels for transportation, agricultural and industrial needs. After the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the oil supply to the island was cut off. The effect was felt immediately and the island was paralyzed over night. This was the beginning of the Special Period. Cuba then experienced a huge productivity loss – imagine all of your modern agricultural and industrial systems were previously dominated by machinery (tractors, combines, harvesters etc.) and then suddenly you had no oil to power them… 

This blow to the island, in turn, forced Cuba to rethink and restructure its economy to be as self-sufficient as possible. To do so, they changed the mechanical agriculture to organic man-powered agriculture (think oxen and carts instead of tractors). They built more schools & hospitals so that people didn’t have to travel long distances (think less reliance on cars, so less need for petrol and ultimately less pollution). Soon Australian and other permaculture experts arrived to Cuba and began to distribute aid and teach their techniques to the locals, who then implemented these tricks in the fields, gardens, and farms across the island.

That’s a very long and complex story short. 

... so what's the situation today?

Well, some things that have succeeded after a long sixty years of the US embargo and the restricting socialist policies, are the untouched miles of forest, coastline and countryside. Wildlife has thrived whilst the cities and economy have gone in decline (yet another paradox of the island). Eco-communities have popped up in the cities and the countryside, and the recent influx of tourism has generally lent itself well to supporting those enterprises.

The must-see village of Las Terrazas, half way between Havana and Viñales, is a pioneering eco-community inviting in tourism-en-mass but in a way that doesn’t negatively harm the environment. Viñales is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, protected fiercely by the government, and home to an abundance of eco-sustainable farms and eco-tourism experiences. Urban farms are cropping up island-wide as locals realise the need to be self-sufficient. The ‘new-rich’ era of millennials in Havana are supporting and creating small eco-friendly private businesses. Tourists are keen to flock here and support the locals by staying in casa particulars, eating in farm-to-table paladares, and hiring local guides.

Locals are unknowingly implementing the ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ initiative (again, not necessarily out of choice but instead desperation, but it’s a win for the environment at the very least…). In the early 2000’s Fidel Castro initiated new programs to protect the environment and to increase forest coverage on the island. Farming is done so organically using natural fertilizers rather than chemicals to treat the land. Specific areas were built and designated for rubbish and industrial waste rather than having them dumped into the Havana Bay.

... ok but what about the future?

Cuba’s sustainability stance is still far from perfect. It has an opportunity now to refocus its economic priorities to promote and maintain sustainable growth in terms of practicalities and education of the people. But, the current economic collapse (especially now post-COVID), reliance on importation, depressingly low state wages and the general ongoing suffering of the country is all having a negative impact (which is an essay for another day!).

When Obama began to soften relations in 2014, presumably moving one step closer to the eventual lifting of the embargo, it was thought that Cuba would be able to access some US markets and indulge in some new investment opportunities. Sadly, as we welcomed Trump into power two years later, the situation did a 360. So, if this taught Cuba and its people anything, it’s that Cuba should now be investing to secure its own development opportunities – without the United States. 

Here's my two cents on the matter...

It seems that Cuba has been/is forced to be much more resource efficient than they would probably like to be, thanks to the fall of the Soviet Union and the ongoing embargo from the United States. The country has been left with no choice but to work with what they have, which in turn, has forced them to be efficient and resourceful. So it’s bitter sweet.

What has struck me over the years is that governmental information and instruction on recycling and implementing alternative forms of energy have not been a visible priority in Cuba. O sea, in Viñales at least. This doesn’t sit well with me, especially considering Viñales is situated around a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I often walk out into the national park and I’m faced with ‘hidden’ trenches where the uneducated and uninterested locals have dumped their weekly rubbish. It doesn’t get picked up but rather swept away and dispersed with the weather. 

Since we started building our casa en el campo we’ve been able to plan and implement many sustainable and perma- features which we have done out of desire, but also because there has been no alternative. And this lack of alternative doesn’t come down to any ‘eco laws’ from the powers that be, but rather simply a lack of modern resources to make use of. This is a blessing in disguise for the eco-friendly ones amongst us, but also a severe deprivation of human rights and available facilities to generally be able to construct a house/private business venture in the modern world.

I’m glad Cuba is considered number 1 on the Sustainable Development Index (that no one seems to have heard of…) but I do think it may have happened somewhat accidentally. Whilst Cuba has already made considerable progress in achieving sustainability, the Cuban people need better education on the subject, and local laws need stricter enforcement to truly turn this island into a total eco-friendly haven. 

Sustainable agriculture in Cuba

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