Socialism is good for the environment

Fidel speaks at the UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992

The World Wide Fund for Nature Living Planet Report 2006 pointed to Cuba as the only nation in the world to have achieved sustainable development, which it described as having a United Nations human development index score of 0.8 or more, with a measure of human demand on the biosphere of 1.8 global hectares per person or less. That Cuba is able to achieve sustainable development is because it is socialist. State ownership and central planning, along with a grassroots system of participatory democracy, facilitate a rational allocation of resources for the benefit of the population’s collective interests. That Cuba stands alone in this achievement supports Marx’s contention that socialism is needed to overcome human alienation from nature under capitalism. David Hetfield reports.

Achieving sustainable development is not just a case of using organic farming and renewable energy; it is dependent on the productive and social system. Marx showed that labour and nature are the sources of wealth and that under capitalism both nature and the worker are exploited in the interests of capital accumulation. In capitalist production, nature is seen as a free gift to capital. Driven by the profit motive, the capitalist is only interested in the unlimited expansion of capital. Natural resources like land, water, raw materials and hydrocarbons are only of interest to the capitalists in so far as they can be turned into profit. It is the logic of the system of capitalist production, not specific policy decisions which makes capitalism unsustainable. Marx observed, in Britain, both a loss in soil fertility and workers living in overcrowded polluted cities, with precarious livelihoods. Today we see catastrophic global warming and fuel shortages, with the mass of humanity living in permanent underdevelopment, whilst a small majority live unsustainable consumerist lifestyles.

Cuban socialism demonstrates that countries can recover from over-exploitation and underdevelopment, and that societies can be organised without the profit motive and obscene inequalities, but with human welfare and environmental sustainability at the core of their development. Between 1900 and 1959, as a semi-colony of the US, Cuba’s forest and plant cover was reduced from 52% to 14% as land was concentrated in the hands of a few private domestic and foreign companies. In 1959, in the first year of the Cuban Revolution, the first reforestation programme was implemented. In the first decades of the Revolution, with trade and cooperation with the socialist bloc, Cuba largely continued with monoculture farming, in sugar and tobacco, relying on large-scale machinery, oil supplies, petroleum-based pesticides and fertilisers supplied from the Soviet Union. Whilst the favourable terms of trade allowed Cuba to develop a relatively high level of industrialisation and continually improve its healthcare and education, it relied on the socialist bloc for 80% of its trade and 57% of its food. With the fall of the socialist bloc between 1989 and 1991, all this disappeared, leaving critical scarcities in fuel, food, agricultural inputs, materials, medicines, machinery, and spare parts. Along with the US tightening the blockade, this caused GDP to shrink 35% by 1993. Cuba had to turn to its own resources to survive.

Cuba entered its ‘Special Period’ of economic crisis. Economic reforms were introduced including concessions to the ‘free market’, however, free universal welfare provision, state planning and the predominance of state property were maintained. Tourism was encouraged to generate hard currency for necessary imports, but with measures to reduce its environmental impact. Where workplaces were closed, workers were offered alternative jobs or retraining on their former income.

Even at the start of the Special Period, rather than just being concerned with production, Cuba demonstrated its commitment to the environment at the UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 (see Castro’s speech ‘Tomorrow will be too late’, That year Cuba amended its constitution to recognise the importance of ‘sustainable and social development to make human life more rational and to ensure the survival, well-being and security of present and future generations’, stating ‘it is the duty of citizens to contribute to the protection of the waters, atmosphere and conservation of the soil, flora, fauna and nature’s rich potential’.

Agriculture and food production

As a result of the economic crisis, average calorie intake fell by 40%. In capitalist countries, food shortages cause price hikes ensuring hunger hits the poorest sections of society. However, in Cuba, the basic ‘ration’ (food quota) secured some food for everyone. Nonetheless, it was essential to increase food production. Some large state farms were transformed into co-operatives, where large machinery was replaced by human and animal labour. To encourage greater efficiency and productivity, co-operative workers and small farmers were allowed to sell surplus food after meeting their state quotas. In cities, unused plots of land were turned into urban farms (organoponicos) and gardens, increasing food production, providing employment for 30,000 people in Havana alone, reducing transport costs of food, and allowing a more efficient recycling of nutrients. In Havana, these now supply 100% of the city’s fruit and vegetables and are supplemented by urban patios, which number 60,000 in Havana. Idle land is being distributed in usufruct (rent-free, short-term loan) to those who want to produce organic food. Average daily calorie intake has returned to its 1980s levels.

State-run biotechnology and agricultural institutions develop organic methods like crop-rotating, the use of biofertiliser, such as compost, and the use of vermicomposting (worm farms) to replace chemical fertilisers, and replacing synthetic pesticides with unique biopesticides and the specialised use of pests to combat crop-attacking pests. They develop permaculture methods, interplanting complimentary crops, making it easier to avoid pests and maintain soil fertility. They have developed pasture techniques to increase milk productivity and help recycle nutrients. These specialists work closely with the farmers, learning from each other and overcoming the artificial gap between manual and mental labour. Cuban agronomists have taught agroecological farming methods to farmers in Haiti and across Central and South America. By 2003, the Agriculture Ministry had reduced diesel fuel use by 50%, and chemical fertiliser and synthetic pesticide use by over 90% from 1989.

Energy efficiency

The Revolution had raised access to electricity from 56% to 96% of the population, but inefficient equipment and lack of fuel led to frequent blackouts. 2006 was nominated the year of energy, when Fidel Castro said ‘We are not waiting for fuel to fall from the sky, because we have discovered, fortunately, something much more important: energy conservation, which is like finding a great oil deposit.’

Efficiency in electricity generation was made by installing hundreds of small distributed generators, which are more efficient than large power stations and cause smaller transmission losses. 40% of Cuba’s electricity now comes from these generators, causing less disruption from mechanical breakdowns and natural disasters. Electricity is also generated from natural gas produced as a by-product of Cuba’s off-shore oil industry, with the aim of producing 20% of the country’s electricity this way. In 2004 and 2005 there were over 400 days of large-scale blackouts greater than 100 megawatts that lasted over an hour; in 2006 there were three days and in 2007 none. Within two years of the Energy Revolution, the country consumed 34% less kerosene, 37% less liquefied petroleum gas and saved 872,000 tons of oil in energy saving measures.

As part of the Energy Revolution, thousands of social workers, most of them teenagers, visited every household in Cuba, distributing ten million energy saving light bulbs to a population of 11 million people, discussing energy conservation and noting which electrical appliances were in use. All incandescent light bulbs were replaced within six months. Over six million rice cookers and pressure cookers replaced kerosene and gas cookers. Energy efficient appliances were sold at low prices with long-term payment facilities. This included two million refrigerators, one million fans, 182,000 air conditioners and 260,000 water pumps. To encourage efficient use, the electricity subsidy was reduced for high use. In 2007/8 average per capita consumption was less than a tenth of US usage.

In electricity generation, Cuba uses a variety of renewables:

• Biomass, mainly from waste products of sugar cane, but also using rice, coconut husk, forest debris and coffee waste.

• Hydroelectric, which is small in scale and largely used for local needs.

• Biogas, produced from the decomposition of organic waste, which is used for domestic cooking and electricity generation, and leaves useful by-products such as fertiliser and food for fish and poultry.

• Solar energy, both solar thermal for heating water and using photo-voltaic cells to generate electricity, particularly in rural areas where it supplies homes, medical clinics and schools with electricity. Cuba now manufactures solar heaters and is expanding another plant that produces solar panels.

• Wind farms have been established in Ciego de Avila, Holguin and Isla de la Juventud, designed to be dismantled at short notice in case of hurricanes.

Cuban social workers have also distributed over two million energy efficient light bulbs in Haiti. Cuban technicians and scientists have installed solar panels and advised on energy efficiency in Venezuela, Bolivia, Honduras, South Africa, Mali, Nigeria and Lesotho. They have been invited by the Chilean government to teach people how to make biogas digesters and to Peru to make solar driers for industrial timber factories, as well as helping to build small hydroelectric stations in Ecuador.

Cuba is one of the most vocal critics of biofuel production to power cars. Fidel Castro condemned as immoral the use of land for biofuel exports, not food, where people lack food security, and the destruction of forests to ‘feed the insatiable demand for fuels needed by a civilisation based on their irrational use. The only result possible is an increase in the cost of food and thus, the worsening of the social situation in the South countries’ (April 2007). In 2007-2008 food prices rose by 83%, a suppressed World Bank report stated that price increases of 75% were caused by biofuel production replacing food production. One-quarter of all the maize and other grain crops grown in the US is used for biofuel production. EU companies have taken millions of acres of land out of food production in Africa, Central America and Asia to grow biofuels for transport.

Co-operation for the environment and development

The Centre of Investigation in Structures and Materials (CIDEM) research institute at Cuba’s Santa Clara University develops eco-materials for use in small scale localised production of housing. It has developed lime pozzalana cement, which generates approximately half the amount of CO2 emissions of normal cement production, as well as light but strong micro-concrete roofing tiles; low-energy fired clay bricks using bio-waste products as fuel; and laminated bamboo sheeting. The researchers go into the communities to train people, then the local people and government organise production.

Wildlife and biodiversity are also protected in Cuba. In 2006 National Geographic magazine stated Cuba’s environment is ‘largely pristine’; land is set aside for protection. Cuba’s coastal areas and mangroves are an important refuge for hundreds of species of fish and marine animals, many of which have been wiped out elsewhere in the Caribbean. Recently, Cuba responded to the UN Climate Change Conference call for 140 billion trees to be planted worldwide, by mobilising mass organisations including the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution and the Federation of Cuban Women, so that now forest cover has risen to 24.3%.

Cuba’s internationalist solidarity and its building of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) with Venezuela, joined by Bolivia, Nicaragua, Dominica, Honduras (under Zelaya), Ecuador, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Antigua and Barbuda, with its policy of humanitarian, economic and social cooperation through non-market, non-profit-based exchanges show the only sustainable and workable basis to deal with the effects of climate change. Socialism is good for the environment.

FRFI 214 April / May 2010