Economic crisis forced Cuba to reduce ecological footprint
SILVER DONALD CAMERON
I REALLY have never seen anything like the "camels" of Cuba — huge
fifth-wheel trailers drawn by tractor trucks, and fitted up as buses
capable of carrying as many as 300 people. They're wonderfully flexible
— the tractors that tow them could as easily tow any other trailer for
any other purpose — and in terms of passenger-miles per gallon, they are
vastly more efficient than a standard bus.
The camels were invented during the "Special Period" of the early 1990s.
Cuba's economy had been dominated by massive sugar exports to the
U.S.S.R., balanced by massive imports of Soviet oil. When the Soviet
Union collapsed and the United States tightened its long-standing
embargo, Cuba abruptly lost almost all its oil supplies, and found
itself isolated and bankrupt.
Imports and exports fell by 80 per cent. GDP declined by a third.
Factories closed, transportation ground to a halt, and power outages of
up to 16 hours a day became common. Cuban agriculture had been
energy-intensive and monocultural, dependent on chemical pesticides and
fertilizers, and machinery. Without oil, food production plummetted. The
average Cuban lost 30 pounds.
The government averted outright famine by instituting food rationing. It
imported thousands of bicycles from China, expanded tourism and leased
agricultural land to private co-ops. A group of Australians came to
teach "permaculture" — permanent agriculture, sustainable local
agriculture, agriculture in harmony with nature.
Soon Cubans were growing food everywhere — on rooftops and patios, in
vacant lots, in former sugar-cane fields. Cuba became a world leader in
urban farming and organic agriculture. Fifty per cent of Havana's food
is grown within the city. The country uses 21 times less pesticide, and
has created a thriving bio-pesticide and bio-fertilizer industry. Cubans
have also benefited from a healthier diet, more exercise, cleaner air
and richer soil.
To reduce transportation needs and discourage people from migrating to
the cities, Cuba moved services out into the country. Before the Special
Period, Cuba had three universities; now it has 50 campuses. Solar power
provides at least a lamp and a radio to householders in remote villages,
and a TV and other appliances in the community hall. Nearly 2,400 rural
primary schools are completely powered by solar cells.
Although Cuba is a very poor country, with an annual per capita income
of about $3,000, it has remained utterly committed to health, education
and international aid. Education is free from primary school through
university, though students must contribute time to public service.
Cuba's literacy rate is 97 per cent, the same as the U.S.
Medical care is outstanding. Cuba has one doctor for every 167 people,
and its international medical school — which enrols students from 23
foreign countries, including the U.S. and Britain — trains doctors to
work in other poor countries around the world. Cuba's rate of infant
mortality is 6.33 per 1,000 births, and the life expectancy of its
people is 77 years — both very close to U.S. rates.
Each year Cuba sends about 20,000 doctors abroad on humanitarian
missions to nearly 70 countries. Think of it: 20,000 doctors, working in
Africa, Latin America, the Pacific islands. After the tsunami and the
Java earthquake, for instance, Cuba sent Indonesia two field hospitals
and 135 workers, which "made a bigger impact on the humanitarian crisis
than the work of any other country," according to an Indonesian official.
Cuba is not paradise — but the country clearly walks its talk, eschewing
the pursuit of private wealth in favour of sufficiency for everyone.
And, having confronted an energy famine with resilience, compassion and
indefatigable effort, Cuba may provide an example for all of us as world
oil supplies approach their peak.
The scale of Cuba's achievement became clear last month, when the World
Wildlife Fund issued its annual Living Planet Report. Trying to map a
route to a sustainable human future, the report compared two key indices
which together tell the tale.
The first index is our "ecological footprint," the amount of productive
land and sea area required to supply current human consumption. The
Earth presently provides 1.8 hectares per person — but our current
footprint is 2.8 hectares per person. That's clearly unsustainable. If
we are to have a future, we will have to reduce our demands.
The WWF's second measure is the United Nations Human Development Index,
a calculation based on life expectancy, literacy and education, and per
capita GDP. An HDI value of more than 0.8 represents "high human
development." Most nations with high HDI numbers (such as Canada, at
.95) also have utterly bloated footprints — in our case, 7.7 hectares.
Conversely, nations with small footprints usually have low HDI scores as
So is it really possible to achieve "sustainable development," defined
as a Human Development score of more than 0.8 combined with an
ecological footprint of less than 1.8 hectares? Has any country ever
Yes. Just one. Amigos, viva Cuba!
Visit Silver Donald Cameron's website at www.silverdonaldcameron.ca