How Are Cuban Environmentalists Made?

Article and Photo by Selena Lilly

Cuba is often described as an accidental Eden—or, at least, a paradise for tourists interested in dining on abundant organic fare, free from pesticides, GMOs and Monsanto.

Cubans, however, have come by their environmentalism the hard way. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s principal trading partner at the time, Cuba lost access to industrial farming equipment, fertilizers, pesticides and other agrochemicals. Near-starvation conditions led Cubans to experiment with organic farming.

In the context of Cuba’s history, has the Special Period in Cuba created a utopia comprised of die-hard environmentalists? The answer is: not quite. Cubans need extensive education and monetary incentives to pursue eco-friendly practices.

Socialist Cuba’s production practices have not always been environmentally friendly, but Fidel Castro wanted to instill a sense of environmental responsibility among Cubans. For example, the government requires all Cuban citizens in secondary school to work on a farm 15 days per year. Though, if that policy is designed to get young people excited about working on a farm, it doesn’t always work.

A farmer works in the fields of Finca de la Confianza; one of many Cuban organic farms where tourists can receive guided tours to learn more about Cuba’s sustainability efforts and organic farming techniques.

Today, Cubans have latched onto environmentalism for two primary reasons–lack of technology and because it’s good business. While the Cuban government still promotes traditional sand-and-sea tourism at luxury hotels, an approach that can be detrimental to beaches, Cuban entrepreneurs are taking the lead in eco-tourism. Organic farms are a big attraction for tourists and educational tour packages in Cuba tend to include visits to at least 2 or 3 different private organic farms.

Local scientists and NGOs also have developed educational programs as a way to promote conservation and environmentally friendly practices. For example, Planta! – Plantlife Conservation Society is an NGO, founded by Luis Torres, that works with artists, scientists and journalists, to teach Cubans about the island’s rich biodiversity. One goal of the organization is to work together with the local people to design research projects that will help to preserve Cuba’s endemic plant population.

One such project focuses on the Cuban Magnolia (Magnolia Cubensis) cultivation using coffee plants. The Cuban Magnolia has been declared as critically endangered since its population was practically eradicated after massive deforestation occurred to clear areas for cattle raising and sugar cane production. Growing Cuban Magnolias in the same area as coffee plants provides more nitrogen for the soil, as well as shade, both of which promote coffee growth. In turn, replacing imported plants with Cuba’s native Mongolia as the coffee plants shade-provider has doubled the number of Cuban Magnolias from 500 to 1,000.

Similarly, the Fundacion Antonio Nuñez Jimenez, an organization dedicated to the research and preservation of Cuban culture and environment, is developing incentives for ordinary Cubans to adopt more sustainable practices, according to Esther Velis Diaz, the foundation’s director of international cooperation. For example, her organization works with communities in the Zapata peninsula to teach fishing communities sustainable fishing practices, in order to prevent overfishing. During an educational conference with Baruch students on the organization’s environmental initiatives, Reinaldo Estrada, a research and community liason who co-presented the event with Velis Diaz, noted that “the main line of work is education, but they are also working with the communities to recycle water, develop gardens, permaculture. Getting the community involved allows community members to understand how [these initiatives] can benefit themselves.”

Photo by Massy Vainshtein. The Finca Agroecologica Paraiso farm grows an amalgam of crops maintained through an innovative irrigation technique that utilizes the farm’s falling slope to feed a drip system.

In Cuba’s most profitable industries, though, high yields take precedence over environmental consciousness. Production of Cuba’s top exports of raw sugar, refined petroleum, rolled tobacco, and raw nickel are still ripe with examples of harmful environmental practices. In areas like Holguin, a small town in Cuba where sugar cane is an important crop, the use of pesticides and monocultural practices is still prevalent. In the municipality of Artemisa, Havana the company “Juan Rodríguez Gómez” produces approximately 100,000 liters of the herbicide glyphosate per year. Giuliano Lipardi, a German exchange student at Instituto Superior Minero-Metalúrgico de Moa, conveyed his thoughts about the nickel mines in Moa dumping nickel into the waterways in the area: “Everyone like to think of Cuba as this organic paradise, but when you go to places like Moa, there is a lot of pollution and mining companies will dump their waste in the the water. It’s actually pretty disgusting.”

Among ordinary Cubans, too, responsible environmental practices flourish mostly where there is a financial incentive. In casas particulares, homes that are rented out to tourists, sustainable practices are only used if doing so provides a cost-effective benefit. Yuris Belky, who rents out her home in Viñales stated that she did not conserve water or electricity–resources that are practically free in Cuba. But she does recycle plastic bottles; these are sold to locals for a nominal fee who then bring it to the recycling center and reused food scraps from guests to feed her pigs, chickens and goats.

And at Organiponico Vivero Alamar, one of Cuba’s leading urban farms, which began using sustainable practices during the Special Period, Isis Maria Salcines Milla, an agronomy engineer and farmer says: “Cubans do not care whether their food is organic or not, only that it’s there.”

In this sense, Cuba is very much like any other nation: environmentalism often comes down to supply and demand.