Why Cuba's Sustainability is Not an Accident

Humberto Ríos Labrada© Goldman Environmental Prize

Cuba gets a lot of attention for sustainable practices it has adopted over the last few decades, but they're often framed as accidental choices—that embargo restrictions have made it difficult to get things like pesticides and traditional building materials and so has ended up with sustainable architecture and agriculture because it had no other choice.

Although that's true to some degree, it's an unfair generalization in many ways.

Cuba is home to the Caribbean's largest and best-preserved wetland area, the Cienaga de Zapata Biosphere Reserve, and some statistics show that Cuba's protected lands overall have grown by 43 percent since 1986.

A bicycle culture has taken hold, and whether or not that started accidentally, Havana officials have worked to make the streets safer for cyclists by adding bike lanes and offering a bus to take cyclists to and from the center of downtown so that they don't have to ride along cars and trucks on busy roads.

And while deforestation is said to be Cuba's most pressing environmental problem, there have been some impressive reforestation efforts, including one in a low-income neighborhood in Havana that "used to be a garbage dump" and is now an extensive woodland area.

Writing the Environment Into the Laws
These are individual examples of specific efforts—but the government deserves credit for integrating sustainability, very intentionally, into policy initiatives.

GreenLeft summarizes the policies and initiatives that unfolded after 1992, when Fidel Castro delivered a strongly pro-environment speech to the Earth Summit in Rio:

Between 1992 and 1998, the National Assembly of People's Power amended the Cuban constitution to entrench the concept of sustainable development; the National Environment and Development Program was developed (outlining the path Cuba would take to fulfil its obligations under the Rio summit's Agenda 21); CITMA was established; an overarching environment law passed; and a national environment strategy was launched.

Other major initiatives included a national strategy for environmental education; a national program of environment and development; projects for food production via sustainable methods and biotechnological and sustainable animal food, as well as a national scientific technical program for mountain zones and a national energy sources development program. Each of these program are composed of smaller projects and initiatives, involving local communities, People's Power bodies, universities, schools and mass organisations.

Authors Daniel Whittle and Orlando Rey Santos explain in a research paper on Cuba's environment that CITMA, the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Environment, became the first cabinet-level agency devoted to the environment when it was established in 1994—and that it almost immediately began assessing Cuba’s air and water quality, land degradation, biodiversity resources, and human settlements, among others.

The paper continues that the National Assembly formally approved in 1997 the Law of the Environment (Law 81), which would affirm CITMA's role as the lead environmental agency:

Among the six stated objectives in Law 81, there are two that expressly provide for a new and meaningful role for the general public in environmental decision making. The law tracks Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration by establishing the public’s legal right to access to information, access to participation, and access to justice. If faithfully implemented, these provisions promise an unprecedented role for nongovernmental organizations, trade associations, and the general public in the realm of policymaking and decision making on particular projects and activities of government agencies, state-owned entities, and foreign investors.

Cuba is also home to a 2010 Goldman Prize winner, a biodiversity researcher whose work with farmers has helped to increase crop diversity and ultimately encourage Cuba’s agricultural shift away from a dependency on chemicals and toward sustainability.

Why Cuba's Sustainability is Not an Accident
The government of Cuba deserves credit for integrating sustainability, very intentionally, into policy initiatives.

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