A socialist path to sustainability

Summer 2011

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:

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