SUBMITTED: 26 October 2006 - 9:00pm HST

The only sustainable country: Cuba

gardeners near large leafed pumpkin vine under banana along rock-edged path in Santa Fe, Havana

26 October 2006 in (SusHI Sustainability)

A closer review of the WWF’s 2006 Living Planet Report” (earlier posted here) reveals that Cuba is the only country in the world with sustainable development.

The WWF’s rating includes both its own measure of “Ecological Footprint” and the UN’s “Human Development Index”.

Countries must score well on each to qualify as sustainable, and it’s interesting that the only one is an island.

The ecological footprint is a measure of demand on the biosphere. Whereas the U.S. footprint represents 5.3 times our global share, Cuba’s is actually 17% less than its share.

The HDI is an indicator of well-being. Cuba ranks 52nd (among 177 countries) on the HDI (at .817), while the U.S. ranks 10th (at .944).

Key areas where Cuba actually bests the U.S. include 50% more spending on education and 50% less on health care, nearly three times the share of women in politics, 10% more physicians, one-tenth the CO2 per capita, and 1/3 the poverty rate…all with equal literacy and life expectancy.

Some might argue Cuba is sustainable because it had to be more self-reliant. Yet, that’s the point of sustainability…especially for an island.



SUBMITTED: 26 October 2006 - 9:00pm HST

A Green Revolution
from Cuba Organic Support Group (

Sugar cane was introduced to Cuba on Columbus' second voyage. By the early 19th century sugar production had established a dominant position in the island's economy. Large tracts of fertile land were put down to sugar cane, divided into great estates, and the whole process fueled by a slave economy. The pre European population had long been decimated, along with their traditional systems of agriculture. Although slavery was abolished in the 1880's the estates survived, and in the 1950's, prior to the Revolution, only 1% of landowners held over 47% of all arable and grazing land. Agrarian reform after the Revolution nationalised the larger estates into state farms which accounted for 75% of farmland. The remaining land was privately owned by campesinos and other small farmers.

After the Revolution in 1958, sugar continued to play a dominant role in the economy, and the agricultural system was run on standard agro-industrial lines. The direction provided by Soviet technicians ensured that the major adherence was to the industrial model of food production, increasingly mechanised and reliant on chemical inputs to maintain a steady, controllable, and standardised output.

With generous trading terms provided by the Soviet bloc, Cuba was able to sell its sugar at five times the world price and in return buy cheap petroleum and agrochemicals. Ten million tons of sugar was the dream from the 60's through 70's. Orchards and mixed use land was lost to the singular demands of the sugar harvest. The island became dependent on imports for a high percentage of its staple foods. 100% of its wheat, 50% of its rice, and up to 90% of its beans: as much as 57% of all calories consumed. The agro-industry also relied largely on imports (e.g. £53 million per year on pesticides).

The 'Era of Rectification ' which started in the mid 1980's saw the beginnings of diversification as the enthusiasm for monoculture waned. Some state farms were turned into workers co-operatives, large farms encouraged to put land down to mixed crops for local use. Unfortunately events elsewhere brought this era to a close. The collapse of the Soviet bloc threw Cuba's whole economic system into crisis. This process was cut short by the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1990/91 which precipitated a massive economic crisis. Within a year the country had lost over 80% of its foreign trade. Factories closed or reduced production through lack of raw materials and resources, sugar and other agricultural production was cut for the same reason. Hunger returned to the island.

A priority for the government was to increase food production. The enormous task facing them was to produce twice as much food with less than half of the chemical inputs. Cuban farming's previous dependency on mechanisation, artificial fertilisers and insecticides meant that the soils were in poor condition having been sterilised by agrochemical inputs and salinised by excessive irrigation.

Pushed by the loss of imported agrochemicals and pulled by a growing awareness of environmental damage caused by intensive agricultural techniques, the Cuban government looked to sustainable, organic methods of cultivation to resuscitate and develop domestic food production and make better use of the country's resources. A few agricultural scientists had long advocated sustainable methods, and it is to these people that the government turned for advice.

Large tracts of land were switched from export-oriented cash crops to food crops. Government incentives encouraged people in large urban centres to move back to work on the land. Oxen were reared in large numbers to replace tractors for ploughing and transporting crops. Organic methods such as integrated pest management, crop rotation, composting and soil conservation were implemented. Research institutes were set up to develop more sophisticated techniques such as worm composting, soil inoculants and biopesticides. Over 200 biopesticides production centres were set up, run by university graduates, children of the local farmers.

Urban Gardening in Cuba
For the vast majority of urban Cubans since the Revolution, food came from a grocery store or supermarket. Growing food was generally considered a part of campesino (peasant) life, left behind on the move to the city. To encourage small scale food production in urban areas, the government gave unused land to anyone who wanted to cultivate it. Havana, with a fifth of the island's population, was a priority area for urban food production. The provincial Ministry of Agriculture (MinAgri) set up an urban agriculture department to give support to the new gardeners, which was delivered through the activity of the MinAgri outreach workers (extensionists) based in each of the city's municipalities, and through direct support given to community efforts. The department was also responsible for the shops which supplied seeds, tools and sundries to the growers. The three types of garden supported were known as huertos, organoponicos and autoconsumos.

This all created, almost overnight, a new urban gardening culture. By the mid 1990's there were over 28,000 huertos in Havana city province, run by 50-100,000 individuals. Some of this new army of gardeners could remember farming with their parents 35 years ago, before they moved to Havana. For many it was an entirely new occupation.

Huerto is Spanish for 'kitchen garden' and these are the equivalent of allotments or smallholdings in Britain. They may be individual, family or collective and some are attached to institutions such as day care centres and schools. They range in size from postage stamp to two or more hectares. Garden clubs are comparable to allotment societies and may be a gathering of gardeners in a particular locality or may be the overseers of a large patch, a parcela, divided into a number of huertos. There are more than 19,000 individuals organised into more than 800 clubs throughout Havana.

Auto-consumos are horticultural units attached to colleges, hospitals and factories. The workers may be part or full time, working by choice or placed there as a disciplinary punishment by their workplace. The primary object is to produce food for the occupants/workers' lunches.

Organopónicos originally were defunct hydroponic units which had been re-filled with composted sugar cane waste and used to grow vegetables and herbs organically. The success of this conversion led to new ones being constructed As the ground itself is not cultivated they could be built on any waste land including old car parks and building sites. Some are state owned, others are cooperatives. The vegetables produced are sold to the local communities, on-site or at the farmers' markets. Beyond quota, the profits of the state-run units are split between the state and the workers. 'Organopónico' has become the general name for an urban market garden, with beds raised by mulching as well as by containing the soil.

In 1992 Cuba wrote the resolutions passed by the Rio Earth Summit into its constitution. By 1996 bylaws in Havana allowed only organic methods of food production. In 1990 the city produced a negligible amount of food. It now produces a substantial percentage of its population's needs.

Once the city fully embraced organic methods the need for a separate department was over and by 1998 the Urban Agriculture Department was reorganised and each of its specific responsibilities became a section in the provincial MinAgri. The number of shops rose from three in 1996, to eight in 1998, and to 23 by early 2000. As well as a source of necessary equipment the shops are now also advice centres and a means for ordinary gardeners to make contact with specialists and researchers.

see also:
Island Breath: Cuba survives Peak Oil
Cuba Organic Support Group (