Green Cuba

by Virginia Warner Brodine

HAVANA, CUBA - Although suffering from both the 33-year-old U.S. trade embargo and the collapse of favorable trade relations, Cuba has bucked the global trend of poor countries eviscerating their environmental protections. With the country mired in its deepest economic crisis since Castro took power, Cuban legislators wrote environmental protection into the nation's constitution this year, and the government has enacted a series of measures designed to protect the island's ecology. Nevertheless, the clash between a long-term interest in preserving the environment and the temptation to ensure economic survival in the short term by exploiting island resources presents Cuba with some very difficult choices.

Forest protection

 One of Cuba's earliest environmental protection efforts was a move toward reversing the deforestation which had reduced woodlands to 14 percent of the island's total land area by 1959. Using mature reforestation methods, Cuba has increased its forested area by more than 4 percent. It has ended its old practice of clear-cutting and diminished its reliance on monoculture crops. Fifty-five percent of new tree planting is for protected areas and 45 percent for commercial purposes, including logging and the production of oils used in pharmaceuticals and paints. Inter-planting with fruit trees is becoming a common practice, with mango trees frequently sharing space with fast- growing Caribbean pines, for example. Cuba's people have actively engaged in community tree-planting schemes around schools and other institutions and along the highways. Over one-half of the population has been involved in these planting projects.

 The Zapata wetland on the south coast and the Sierra Maestra National Park are among Cuba's protected regions, and national parks now cover 100,000 hectares of land. Forest protection varies in degree and enforcement, and is strongest in the country's bioreserves. The bioreserves comprise about 15 percent of the forest area and are used primarily for scientific study. Other areas are less protected and more heavily used for logging or recreation.

 But the economic crisis is placing new pressures on the forests and Cuba's forest protection and reforestation policies may soon fall by the wayside. For example, the oil shortage has spurred the Institute of Transportation into studying methods of using wood to run the railroads. On the other hand, Helenio Ferrer, vice president of COMARNO, the National Commission for the Protection of the Environment and Natural Resources, says that Cuba is cultivating other plant types for energy use which grow rapidly, burn well and are not as irreplaceable as trees.

Alternatives to oil

 The cutoff of Soviet oil has forced Cuba to enact an emergency conservation program as the nation's annual oil imports have plunged from 13,000 tons to 6,000 tons in the last few years since the severe reduction of trade with the formerly socialist countries. The government has contingency plans to keep the country running on as little as 4,000 tons annually. Government officials view conservation, biomass, mini-hydro and solar project not solely as emergency measures, but as permanent alterations in the country's energy production mix.

 The most visible sign of conservation is the ubiquitous bicycle. There are now 800,000 bicycles in Havana alone, most purchased from China. Cuba will soon produce bicycles domestically, and they are expected to be a principal form of local transportation well into the future.

 Almost 30 percent of Cuba's energy supply now originates from biomass. Of Cuba's 160 sugar mills, 104 are totally powered by their own bagasse, a by- product of sugar production. In addition, waste fiber is used to make paper and other products. The process, however, deprives fields of the harvest detritus that has traditionally played an important fertilizing function. Farmers have partially solved this problem by reconstituting the plants' waste water and returning it to the fields. The agricultural sector is also making heavy use of animal manure.

Hydrological sources of energy are limited, but small hydro projects, built with assistance from a German church-based organization, provide electricity for some isolated mountain communities.

 Although Cuba harnesses little solar energy, the abundant sunshine it receives makes the island a good candidate to develop a vibrant solar industry. Now, prompted by the oil shortage, the government has established a Solar Institute in Santiago de Cuba. The Institute has primarily been engaged in small-scale projects such as water heating.

 Unfortunately, Cuba is also continuing to develop non-renewable energy projects. It is constructing a nuclear power plant and undertaking a joint project with a European consortium to explore for offshore oil. Cuba's illusions about the safety of nuclear energy were shattered by the disaster at Chernobyl, particularly since children affected by that accident were brought to Cuba for medical treatment, but the desperation caused by the oil crunch is so severe that the government is going ahead with its nuclear power plant plans anyway. Juan Antonio Blanco, professor of international relations at the University of Havana, describes Cuba's resort to nuclear energy as being "like chemotherapy for a cancer patient. When it is a matter of survival, one takes the risk."

 The price of pesticides

 As the examples of forest and energy policy illustrate, the pervasive economic crisis intersects with environmental issues in a wide variety of ways. In some areas, it has actually led to a strengthening of environmental policies.

But in many other cases, the economic crisis is limiting the ability of the government to enact environmental programs, or leading it to pursue environmentally risky economic policies.

Environmental consciousness

 The future of Cuba's environmental initiatives is uncertain. In some ways, it is hard to see new governmental environmental programs and sensitivities surviving the enormous economic pressure which the country will be under for the foreseeable future. On the other hand, the emerging environmental consciousness of Cuba's well-educated population and Cubans' identification with the country's land, waters and mountains - Cubans speak of "the island" as often as they call it by name - should buttress the government's new emphasis on environmental sustainability.n


Global Warming

CUBANS ARE DEEPLY CONCERNED about the prospect of global warming and the failure of the Rio Earth Summit to seriously address the greenhouse effect. The country is particularly vulnerable to a rise in the level of the seas, since a very small rise in sea level would swamp the Zapata wetland, reducing Cuban land area by 15 to 25 percent.

Scientists at the Institute of Geography point out that most research on global warming has been done in temperate areas of industrialized countries. They point out the need for international monitoring stations for the natural environment stretching through the Caribbean, Central America and northern South America. With its existing 68-station meteorological monitoring network and environmental science stations, Cuba is well positioned to participate in this globally significant scientific work, but more international support is needed.