21 February, 2009
From December 2008 to January 2009, activists travelled to Cuba for the Southern Cross Solidarity Brigade from Australia and New Zealand, organised by the Australia-Cuba Friendship Society. Resistance member Ash Pemberton was in Cuba for the 50th anniversary of the triumph of the revolution. He spoke to Green Left Weekly’s Jay Fletcher.
Few first World — let alone Third World — countries can match the legislative, planning and educational efforts that Cuba is applying in its commitment to environmental sustainability.
‘A lot has been said about Cuba and its innovative approach to ecology, being declared the only country in the world to have achieved sustainable development by the World Wildlife Fund’, said Pemberton.
‘This system came about out of necessity during the ’Special Period’, when Cuba’s access to oil and other products was severely cut back due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the continuing US blockade’, he explained.
Overtime, through democratically planned and implemented changes, Cuba transitioned from an agricultural system based on large farms or plantations with a reliance on fossil-fuel-based pesticides and fertilisers, to one largely based on small organic farms and urban gardens.
As a result, Cuba has achieved a higher level of food security and a far healthier population. Sixty percent of the fruit and vegetables consumed in Havana are grown within the city limits.
There are many national initiatives that exist in the country, all under popular democratic control, including a national strategy for environmental education; projects for food production via sustainable methods, biotechnological advancement and sustainable animal food; and a national energy sources development program.
‘The brigade allowed us access to a side of Cuba the average tourist wouldn’t get to see. We got to meet people involved in mass organisations that drive political decision making, such as the Federation of Cuban Women, the trade unions, as well as university and school students’, said Pemberton, who toured various ecological programs.
‘We also got to visit medical centres, schools, cooperative farms, universities and more. These meetings really highlighted the gains of the revolution and the way that it is driven by, and seeks to include, the maximum number of Cubans possible.’
Unlike capitalist countries, Cuba recognises that more extreme weather is going to become a dominant feature of climate change. It also understands its own vulnerability. Cuba was beaten by savage hurricanes — Gustav and Ike — last year, where wind speeds of up to 300 kilometres per hour were recorded.
Despite this, no one was killed during Gustav and 1 million people were evacuated with less than 24 hours notice. Seven people died during Ike, but this is compared to more than 700 people killed in the neighbouring island of Haiti.
‘The hurricanes last year certainly had a devastating impact. They’ve cost the Cuban economy billions in reconstruction costs and wiped out food and tobacco crops from a wide area of the country. Food shortages are still in effect and will continue for a while to come.
‘I saw some of the damage in Vinales in Pinar del Rio province — one of the most badly affected areas — which was quite intense, with massive trees either completely uprooted or snapped clean in half by 300km per hour winds.’
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported estimates of damage in Cuba from Ike and Gustav at US$3-4 billion, around 10% of the island’s gross domestic product. However, Cuba’s moves to rebuild after the devastation have been swift and effective.
‘The recovery effort seemed impressive given the few resources Cuba has. Damaged houses had already been repaired and temporary housing has been built for those whose houses were destroyed’, said Pemberton, who visited the country only months after the damage was done.
‘Excluding the effects of the recent hurricanes, Cuba now produces enough vegetables for its domestic population, but still has to import some food for tourists. This system has brought about a lot of jobs’, he continued.
Full-scale conversion to organic agriculture, improved methods of water and soil management and the application of new technologies are only possible because of Cuba’s highly educated and politically engaged population, half of which are university graduates.
‘These days, workers in the ‘organoponicos’ [urban organic gardens] earn roughly double the wage of the average Cuban worker and the harvesting of food is seen as one of the key tasks for the social wellbeing of the country’, Pemberton said.
Ordinary people, from local communities through to labour collectives, participate in food production in a meaningful way — not simply as workers being exploited by multinational, corporate interests. It is a system that is connected to all other areas of life and recognises that access to healthy food and sustainable living are vital to true equality and are fundamental human rights.
What we can learn from Cuba is that it doesn’t simply take an understanding of environmental solutions and methods, or even a willingness to implement them. If that were the case, Australia would have been on the way to renewables long ago.
What Cuba has that other countries don’t is a mass, participatory system and commitment to lasting solutions and sustainability that draws in all parts of society. Cuban people care about these problems and see the necessity of addressing them.
Many Australian people also understand these problems and are committed to addressing them. The difference is Cuba’s economy is not under the control of big corporations and it has a political system where the power and control lie in the hands of the majority of people, and it is only the majority that are capable of creating lasting change.