Monday, September 26, 2011

Comment: Cuba and sustainable development

Cuba: Breaking corporate power allows sustainable development

Green Left Weekly, September 24, 2011

By Marce Cameron

Cuba is a world leader in ecologically sustainable practices. It is the only country to have begun the large-scale transition from conventional farming, which is heavily dependent on fossil fuels, to a new agricultural paradigm known as low-input sustainable agriculture.

Thriving urban organic farms feed and beautify Cuba’s cities, strengthen local communities and employ hundreds of thousands of people thanks to government support. 

These farms provide about 80% of the fresh fruit, vegetables, herbs and medicinal plants consumed by urban residents. They are now being complemented by “green belts” on the urban fringes aimed at local self-sufficiency and ecological sustainability.

Cuba was the first country to replace all incandescent light globes with energy-saving compact fluorescents and to ban the sale of incandescents. 

It has also pioneered the decentralisation of electricity generation by installing thousands of diesel generators the size of shipping containers where they are needed. This has cut transmission losses and made the grid less vulnerable to disruption.

Many sugar mills burn crop residues to generate electricity for the grid, and rural schools and other social facilities have been fitted out with solar panels. Bicycles have been promoted as a sustainable transport mode and neighbourhood committees play a key role in recycling.

Tree cover is increasing thanks to reforestation efforts. From coral reefs to cloud forests, Cuba’s network of protected areas makes it the ecological jewel of the Caribbean. For visiting ecologists, a trip to Cuba is like stepping back in time.

Like all countries, Cuba has serious environmental problems, from recent severe droughts and flooding that may be linked to climate change, to soil erosion, pollution and loss of biodiversity as a result of unsustainable practices past and present. A small Third World country subjected to a crippling US economic siege since 1962, Cuba cannot afford many expensive green technologies.

Yet Cuba has become a social laboratory for the application of sustainable practices that environmentalists in developed capitalist societies such as Australia can only dream about.

One reason why Cuba leads the world in sustainable practices is dire necessity: Cuba has had to adapt to acute shortages of energy, raw materials, manufacured goods and financing as a result of external circumstances. 

At the beginning of the 1990s, the Soviet Union and its eastern European allies, which accounted for 85% of Cuba’s foreign trade, cut ties with Cuba as they reverted to capitalism. The sudden demise of Soviet bureaucratic “socialism” caused Cuba’s own post-capitalist economy to contract by 35%.

But thanks to the solidarity embodied in its deeply popular socialist revolution, Cuba avoided the descent into abject poverty and political chaos that would have taken place had Cuba not abolished capitalism in the early 1960s.

Cuba turned to oxen to plough the fields because there was no alternative: thousands of Soviet tractors stood idle for lack of fuel, lubricants and spare parts. But once farmers got used to ploughing their fields with oxen, they discovered that oxen offer many advantages over tractors, particularly in small-scale agriculture. 

Oxen are cheaper to “run”, eat grass rather than consume oil, compact soil far less and produce free, natural fertiliser. Integrated into agricultural systems designed for low cost and ecological sustainability, oxen are a step forward as well as a step “backward”.

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but many good ideas for how to begin the transition to a more sustainable civilisation are destined to remain marginal as long as capitalism dominates the planet — even when capitalist societies experience economic crises of the magnitude of Cuba’s post-Soviet “Special Period”.

The very nature of capitalism tends to prevent such good ideas from being applied on a sufficiently large scale to make a real difference. This is mainly because it’s more profitable for capitalist corporations to continue plundering the planet.

Cuba’s socialist revolution abolished capitalist ownership of large-scale productive wealth and replaced the capitalist market with central planning to meet social needs. There is a subordinate role for market mechanisms, cooperatives and small private businesses.

Unless corporate power is overthrown and replaced with a state based on the democratic self-organisation of the millions of workers and farmers that produce most of society’s wealth, corporate power will remain an insurmountable barrier to Australia, and other nations ruled by the corporate rich, following in Cuba’s footsteps.

Cuba treads lightly on the Earth. In 2006, a World Wildlife Fund study concluded Cuba is the only country in the world with both a high UN Human Development Index — a composite ranking based on quality of life indices and purchasing power — and a relatively small “ecological footprint”, a measure of the per person use of land and resources.

The study concluded that if the world followed Cuba’s example we’d only need the resources of one Earth to sustain us indefinitely. By contrast, if the world followed the example of Australia’s capitalist economy, we’d need about 3.7 Earth-like planets. Recent telescope surveys suggest such planets may be dotted throughout our galaxy, but even the nearest one would be unimaginably far away.

As global capitalism drags humanity towards an ecological meltdown on our own planet — the early stages of which are unfolding before our eyes — the need to replace capitalism with a democratic social order based on common ownership of large-scale productive wealth and human solidarity will be posed ever more sharply. Yet people will struggle for such a society only if it seems possible, realistic and necessary. Here too, Cuba leads the world.

Not only does Cuba offer an inspiring example of what’s possible when even a small, poor country frees itself from the tyranny of the corporate rich, Cuba and Venezuela lead a bloc of Latin American countries with progressive governments — the Bolivarian Alliance for Our America (ALBA) — on the world stage in the struggle for social and environmental justice.

At the United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen in 2009, the ALBA countries denounced capitalism as the root cause of the ecological crisis, and scuttled a backroom deal that would have placed the burden on the poor countries that are least responsible for rising greenhouse gas emissions.

Next year’s UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, will mark 20 years since the first UN Earth Summit. It’s worth recalling the words of then-Cuban president Fidel Castro at the 1992 summit. Castro pointed out that a fifth of the world’s population “consume two-thirds of all metals and three-fourths of the energy produced worldwide”.

“They have poisoned the seas and the rivers. They have polluted the air ... They have saturated the atmosphere with gases, altering climatic conditions with the catastrophic effects we are already beginning to suffer.

“The forests are disappearing. The deserts are expanding. Billions of tons of fertile soil are washed every year into the sea. Numerous species are becoming extinct.

“Population pressures and poverty lead to desperate efforts to survive, even at the expense of nature. Third World countries, yesterday’s colonies and today nations exploited and plundered by an unjust international economic order, cannot be blamed for all this...

“Enough of selfishness. Enough of schemes of domination. Enough of insensitivity, irresponsibility and deceit. Tomorrow will be too late to do what we should have done a long time ago.”

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