When Fidel Castro became President of Cuba in 1959, the country’s environment was in ruins as a result of hundreds of years of US and Spanish colonial exploitation of natural resources. Yet by 2006, an extensive World Wildlife Fund study praised Cuba’s environmental achievements and found it to be the only country in the world to be developing sustainably it terms of successfully meeting human needs whilst maintaining a low per capita ecological footprint.
Cuba now uses much less energy, produces less CO2, andhas better air quality than the average Latin American country or country of a similar income bracket. It also has the highest proportion of protected forest in Latin America and the Caribbean. These achievements might be considered Fidel Castro’s environmental legacy, though they could also be seen as emanating from socialism and/or the struggles of the Cuban people as a whole.
In the first decades of the revolution, there were fierce debates between ecologists and those advocating Western-style ‘development’. Eventually, socialism enabled ecologists to prevail in Cuba because there were no corporations lobbying for pesticides or mechanisation so that they could make a profit.
At the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, before the threats of climate change and overuse of resources were generally accepted, Fidel Castro gave a speech that astounded the world, beginning: “An important biological species – humankind – is at risk of disappearing due to the rapid and progressive elimination of its natural habitat.” He then outlined the problems that we now face and, placing the responsibility largely on ‘consumer societies’, he concluded: “Enough of selfishness. Enough of schemes of domination. Enough of insensitivity, irresponsibility and deceit. Tomorrow will be too late to do what we should have done a long time ago!”
Thereafter, the Cuban government initiated reforms to redress past environmental harms and minimise future degradation. This included establishing a new and powerful environmental ministry and passing new framework environmental legislation (Law 81) that established the precautionary principle, community participation in environmental decision-making and rights to: a healthy environment; environmental information; consultation on environmental actions and decisions; and access to administrative and judicial bodies to demand compliance with the law.
Accompanying practical measures had a dramatic impact on Cuban daily life. Industrialised agriculture was rejected in favour of organic food production. The country moved away from a transportation system that was dependent on oil. Planning policies aimed to reduce travel by ensuring enough new facilities and jobs were provided locally at new developments and private cars were assigned according need. The country also turned to renewable energy sources and energy conservation and reversed the worldwide trend of rainforest destruction through large-scale reforestation programmes. In addition, all Cuban GPs were trained to understand how inadequate environments undermine health and to respect natural medicine.
Despite these achievements, environmental problems continue, including inadequate sanitation and water supply; river and air pollution; deficiencies in waste collection services; inadequate housing; and biodiversity loss. The greatest environmental destruction has resulted from tourism and industrial production, particularly from the nickel industry. Problems have largely arisen as a result of historical and external pressures: in addition to the impacts of colonialism, the US blockade has affected the availability and cost of technology, as well as causing a shortage of resources to carry out monitoring, to replace and modify polluting facilities, and to adopt consistent standards. Finally, the economic crisis following the end of the Soviet-led Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) in 1989, led to intensified resource extraction and tourism in an effort to diversify the economy.
Cuba’s environmental successes are frequently dismissed as resulting from an improvised response to the 1989 economic crisis – born of necessity, rather than choice. However, Cuba could have chosen other options, such as austerity-style cuts to basic services, and the changes were consistent with ongoing ecological debates. Signicantly, even when cheap oil from Venezuela and chemical production methods became available, these innovations remained in place.
Therefore, Fidel Castro’s immediate environmental legacy is borne of his struggle to achieve socialism and then, alongside many other Cubans, to help steer the country towards eco-socialism. Their example shows us that, even in the most difficult circumstances, respect for nature, innovative polices and a commitment to meeting human needs can enable us to live more sustainably.
Dr Karen Bell is ESRC Future Research Leaders Fellow examining fair and inclusive social/environmental transition alternatives at the School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol