Greening Cuba

The Island’s New Environmentalism Faces Challenges

The students of the escuela primeria in Los Tumbos, a village nestled deep within the rich agricultural province of Pinar Del Réo, constantly hover around the computer awarded to the school a year ago. Their computer runs off of two small solar panels that gleam in the sun when not subjected to occasional rain showers in early summer.

One hundred feet away, across coffee bean drying troughs, is another solar-powered edifice: the "sala de television," Los Tumbos" community television room where villagers congregate to choose between one of three state-run Cuban television stations. Every night, villagers trudge down the steep hillsides, leaving behind coffee plants tended with minimal chemical inputs, to their homes. At seven, they might gather with their neighbors, many of whom belong to the same coffee cooperative, to watch Mesa Redonda, a public affairs show not unlike Meet the Press.

Los Tumbos is one of thousands of rural Cuban villages with schools, doctors" offices, salas de television, and hospitals drawing power from silicone-based solar panels. The government’s initiative to electrify Cuba with solar, wind, microhydro and biomass energy is one of the many programs that has caught the attention of sustainability gurus around the world, casting the country into the limelight as a model for environmental innovation.

At the same time, Cuba under Fidel Castro is still under attack from the U.S.-based exile community for political and social oppression. In contrast, American export trade associations are also promoting it as the next big market. Throughout the spectrum, attitudes towards Cuba and predictions about the country’s future remain mixed and inconclusive. In poorer communities like Los Tumbos, where basic human needs are just barely being met but where electricity arrived for the first time via affordable solar panels, a better future still hinges on a more vibrant economy. As Cuba’s economy responds to the waves of tourists, consumerism, oil production and food imports flashing on the horizon, the country’s institutional commitment to the environment will be put to the test.

Peter Rosset, co-director of Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy, who has been researching food issues in Cuba since the early 1990s, says, "Cuba has resisted three things: the U.S. embargo and blockade, the fall of the Soviet Union and the industrial green revolution and economic globalization that have taken their toll elsewhere in the world." Many other Cuban and American experts agree that green-minded development is in part a consequence of the "periodo especial" or Special Period, the phase immediately following the Soviet Union’s fall and the removal of its support of Cuba—1990 to the late 1990s.

Carlos Garcia, an oceanographer with the Cuban Ministry of Industrial Fisheries, says that environmental protection was elevated significantly during the Special Period because producers could no longer ignore the possibility of a future with very limited resources.

Beyond the solar panels dotting rooftops, there are other green signs. In the long-neglected neighborhood of Central Havana, urban organic gardens, sandwiched between decrepit apartment buildings, are sprouting fresh vegetables and spices to stock and add flavor to schools, retirement homes, hospitals and factory kitchens. In 2002, Cubans produced 3.4 million tons of food from 86,000 acres of urban land; in Havana, 90 percent of the city’s fresh produce came from local urban farms and gardens. In the U.S.-controlled Dry Tortugas, where brilliant, textured coral reefs teem with tropical fish and other striking sea life, Cuban scientists and resource managers have worked with Ken Lindeman, a senior scientist at Environmental Defense, to create two no-take reserves that connect to a network of more than 20 marine parks.

These achievements in energy, agriculture and coastal protection may be on the verge of taking on some unprecedented challenges. Despite its commitment to renewable energy, the Cuban government has set ambitious goals for oil production in the next two years. According to the Ministry of Energy, domestic oil production has increased by a factor of six between 1991 and 2000. By December 2004, the Ministry projects that the country will only be importing 3.7 percent of its fuel, despite the fact that Cuban oil has high sulfur content and a history of low marketability.

Still, Bruno Henréquez, of the Renewable Energy Group at CubaEnergia and founding editor of Energia y Tu magazine, says, "I don’t believe that in the future we [Cuba] will abandon renewable techniques due to the limited tenure of petroleum. We are looking towards sustainable development and a more efficient way to use energy."

The trickle of exports allowed into Cuba from the U.S. through the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act (TSRA) has the potential to turn into a heavy flow, according to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. And, as William Kennedy wrote in the introduction to the book Cuba on the Verge, "Billions of American investment dollars are hovering, waiting to rain on Cuba."

Approximately 1.7 million tourists visited Cuba in 2002. Cuban ecologists and policy makers may have to reconcile tourism increases and the subsequent encroachment of hotels and resorts with significant impacts to sensitive and valuable coastal ecosystems. "It is too early to predict what the long-term impacts of the substantial increase in tourism will be," says Lindeman.

Some leading Cuban environmental experts sense no threat from increasing international commerce. Rosa Elena Simeñn Negrén, Minister of Science, Technology and the Environment, says that the Ministry has set up a sophisticated system of environmental research and management institutes. "Considering these established structures, the environment is not a transitory issue that can be brought down by more favorable economic conditions," she says. "It’s a collective commitment that will remain under any circumstance, even when the U.S. blockade against Cuba is eliminated." Still, more environmental expertise is badly needed within dozens of key agencies, along with tools such as computers and fax machines. Building capacity in these fields will be critical to long-term survival of environmental initiatives.

On the ground, literally in the trenches between raised beds, Filberto Samora, who manages a lush, award-winning "organoponico" (intensive organic vegetable garden) in Havana, is confident that his garden is here to stay. "It is very much a part of the neighborhood," he says. "We have learned to farm it successfully without pesticides, with our own seeds and compost and the help of neighbors." The coffee farmers in Los Tumbos are also receiving significant training from groups such as the Association of Small Farmers (ANAP), which uses farmer-to-farmer training to promote sustainability.

At the national level, Cuba’s environmental programs may be under unprecedented pressure. But for the villagers of Los Tumbos, the prospect of growing shade-grown organic coffee for the foreign market, and using solar energy in the process, just makes good environmental and economic sense. Voices on both sides of the Florida Straits seem to be working to keep Cuba on the path towards sustainable development.