A socialist path to sustainability
26 July 2011
The magazine of CSC
|Karen Bell, spent a year studying environmental justice in Cuba and believes that their model can teach the world a lot about sustainable living|
|In its 2006 Sustainability Index Report, the World Wildlife Fund determined that there is only one nation in the world that is currently living sustainably — and that nation is Cuba. This assessment was based on Cuba’s high levels of social development, in conjunction with a small per capita ecological footprint. Cuba also rated 7th place in the global ‘Happy Planet Index’ survey carried out by the New Economics Foundation (the UK only reached 74th place). How did Cuba, a small island of only 11 million people, struggling with a US embargo and devastating annual hurricanes, achieve these extraordinary distinctions? And what can environmentalists elsewhere learn from Cuba’s challenges and successes?
In 2008-2009, I went to Cuba as part of my PhD research on environmental justice, to find out the answer to these questions. Using secondary data analysis, alongside participatory methods as well as formal interviews with NGO activists, environmental experts, government officials, citizens and worker organisations, I was able to trace the history, context, struggles and ongoing problems that lie behind Cuba’s environmental achievements. This article is based on some of my findings.
Firstly, though, it is important to be aware that only fifty years before receiving these accolades, at the time of the 1959 revolution, Cuba’s environment was in a state of serious degradation. The aftermath of colonial rule, first by Spain and then by the United States, left a legacy of environmental problems resulting from intensive exploitation of minerals and other natural resources for export. After the revolution, a number of environmental programmes were put in place, including wide-scale reforestation schemes and, in 1981, the first environmental law (Law 33) was passed bringing in regulation that was considered to be pioneering for the Latin America region.
However, some degradation continued as the country embraced the so-called ‘green revolution’, an era of intensive, industrialised agriculture and heavy use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. These practices, though consistent with the global norms and prevailing trends all over the world at that time, meant that, by the early 1990s, Cuba faced serious environmental problems, including deforestation, water pollution, extensive damage from strip mining activities and destruction of coastal ecosystems.
The turning point came in 1992 when, after a landmark speech at the Rio Earth Summit, where Fidel Castro warned ‘Tomorrow will be too late to do what we should have done a long time ago’, the government initiated a series of reforms aimed at redressing past environmental harms and minimising future degradation.
This included establishing a new and powerful Ministry of Science, Technology, and Environment (CITMA); publishing the country’s first environmental programme – ‘The National Environmental Strategy’; and passing new framework environmental legislation, Law 81, ‘The Law of the Environment’.
The new law empowered CITMA and its agencies to use a number of instruments of environmental protection, including environmental planning processes and environmental impact assessments. It also established the basis of an enforcement system that includes emissions monitoring, inspections, penalties and opportunities for private citizens to seek justice regarding environmental violations through the courts. The most important general principles of Law 81, from an environmental justice perspective, are that it establishes:
• the right to a healthy environment
• the precautionary principle
• the right to environmental information
• the right to be consulted on environmental actions and decisions
• the necessity for community participation to achieve effective environmental decision-making
• the right to access to administrative and judicial bodies to demand compliance with the law
These legislative reforms were accompanied by practical measures which made a dramatic difference to Cuban daily life. For example, industrialised agriculture, featuring large-scale irrigation schemes and considerable inputs of chemicals, was rejected in favour of organic food production. Cuba also moved away from a transportation system that was dependent on oil and turned to renewable energy sources and energy conservation (see Guevara-Stone’s article in Cuba Si, Autumn, 2010). In addition, reforestation schemes were stepped up and systems were established to ensure managed protection of ecologically, socially, historically, and/or culturally important areas.
Consequently, many of the people that I interviewed, or spoke to informally, during my fieldwork in Cuba said they were happy with their environment and proud of the country’s achievements in this respect. The most widely appreciated aspects included the provision of low-cost (or, sometimes, free) housing, food, public transport and utilities; successful energy efficiency programmes; care of the population during hurricanes; urban agriculture initiatives; improvement of public transport; and improvements in workplace safety.
Many of Cuba’s environmental policies and programmes are extremely innovative and all work to ensure that environmental and social progress go hand in hand. These include:
• The ‘Revolución Energética’ (Energy Revolution), which included replacing household appliances with more efficient and safer equipment, supplied free, or at low cost, to the entire population.
• Social work brigades, where thousands of unemployed and marginalised youth were paid to train and work as ‘social workers’ who would identify and help solve environmental and social problems in the poor communities they had come from.
• Radical land use policies, where many of the mini-dumps in the cities have been cleaned up as a result of a policy to allow unused land to be leased, rent and tax-free, to small farmers on a usufruct basis. The soil has been cleaned up or replaced so that now urban gardens are a regular feature of all Cuban cities.
• Integrated community transformation workshops which help local people influence the planning and development of their local areas.
• Innovative transport policy which has kept the number of private cars in check by prohibiting the purchase of cars purely for the personal gratification of those who can afford to buy them. All cars are assigned according to the needs and responsibility that the person has. Alongside this, there is now considerable investment in public transport.
• Planning policies which reduce the need for travel. Mixed-use developments are encouraged so that, where new housing is constructed, enough new facilities and jobs are provided locally.
Furthermore, financial support enables people to exchange their job for one closer to their home, if they wish.
However, despite all these achievements, there are a number of ongoing problems. Many of the people that I interviewed complained about inadequate sanitation; shortcomings in the water supply; river and air pollution; deficiencies in waste collection services; damaged streets; and inadequate and insufficient housing.
There is also ongoing damage in relation to tourism and industrial facilities, in particular, from the expanding nickel industry. The environmental experts I spoke to in Cuba all recognised that there was no cause for complacency and were keenly aware of the work to be done (e.g. Director of Environmental Policy, CITMA; Director of Centre for Environmental Studies, University of Havana).
Even so, although there were clearly serious problems in particular areas, if we compare Cuba with other countries, it does seem to be doing relatively well in terms of environmental standards. As Table 1 (below) shows, Cuba uses much less energy and emits less CO2 and other air particulates than the average Latin American country or country of a similar income bracket. In addition, it has much better sanitation coverage than these countries and a similar level of improved water source coverage.
In addition, it must be acknowledged that Cuba, by being resource efficient, is not generating such severe environmental problems for future generations as other countries. Moreover, Cuba has to live with its own pollution because, unlike the developed capitalist countries, it is not exporting its waste to other parts of the world.
Thus, the environmental situation in Cuba, as all over the world, is something of a mixed picture. The reasons for Cuba’s successes and difficulties are also mixed, but I would argue, they can largely be explained by the processes of socialism and capitalism.
Positive achievements seem to have occurred as a result of a basic commitment, at all levels of society (though, not necessarily all sections), to environmental and social protection and improvement, with a distinct focus on meeting human needs. This was backed up by the favourable overall policy and legislative framework. In addition to this, the effective, and often innovative, programmes, such as the urban gardening projects and the ‘Energy Revolution’, seemed to be enabled by an experimental and correctable approach. Underlying this, the socialist revolutionary ideology promoted a collective spirit, which facilitated sharing and community based mobilisation to address environmental problems. In addition, an educated population and participatory decision-making processes have enabled citizens to successfully engage with environmental planning processes (although, on occasion, the consultation processes are bypassed – for example, with regard to the recent release of genetically modified organisms).
The main causes of the environmental problems in Cuba are geographical factors (location of primary resources, propensity to hurricanes etc.); economic shortages, intensified by the ongoing blockade (difficulties in acquiring technology; problems in funding environmental improvements, protective equipment and legal enforcement; a need to sometimes prioritise the economy above the environment); the adoption of market based policies in order for the state to acquire hard currency (limited productive choices, consumerism, development of informal economy); and a history of colonialism (dependence on global economy, inherited environmental problems).
Therefore, it seems that it is generally socialist policies and practices that enable positive achievements in Cuba and capitalist influences that undermine them. It is frequently alleged that the environmental improvements made in the 1990s were not borne of any genuine environmental commitment on the part of the Government, but were rather an improvised emergency response to the ‘Special Period’. However, Cuba could have chosen other options, such as IMF-style cuts to basic services, in response to the crisis. Moreover, the environmental changes were consistent with ongoing developments and debates in the country. The relative weight accorded to environmental concerns in Cuba in the first decades after the revolution, reflected the dominant thinking globally. The use of industrial-style agricultural up to the 1990s, for example, had occurred in the context of fierce debates between Cuban agro-ecologists and those who advocated ‘modernisation’. It seems that it is socialism that enabled the ecologists to win the debate in Cuba because nobody was pushing chemicals or destructive technology in order to make a profit.
So, there is much that we can learn from Cuba, but perhaps the most important lesson is that social and environmental improvement must occur together. Environmental policies that do not also help people cannot be successful in the long-term and vice versa. The UK government intends to fund its low carbon ambitions through high energy tariffs, which will have the greatest impact on poor people, who already die in their thousands every year in this country because of fuel poverty. Cuba shows that such policies are not necessary or useful. Cuba’s prioritisation of meeting needs above making profit is the way forward for all nations to begin to live sustainably.