The World’s Most Sustainable Country: What? Cuba?

By 2006, when this picture was taken, urban farms such as this converted soccer field in the middle of Havana were supplying the city with 90% of its produce while using virtually no petroleum products. (Photo by Dave Williams/Flickr)

By 2006, when this picture was taken, urban farms such as this converted soccer field in the middle of Havana were supplying the city with 90% of its produce while using virtually no petroleum products. (Photo by Dave Williams/Flickr)

After 50 years of pretending that Cuba is not there, the United States government this year admitted that, well, it is still there (even  Fidel Castro is still there) and we may as well deal with it. This is seen in some quarters as progress. But it is widely assumed that American business will swoop in there and upgrade them from their 1967 DeSoto cars, re-mechanize their agriculture, build fast-food restaurants, and stamp out Communism. It’s what we do.

What we should do is recognize that Cuba confronted in 1991 precisely the kind of Apocalypse that looms before us today — the sudden loss of external inputs to the economy — things such as oil, heavy equipment, cars, and did we mention oil? — and handled it. We have more to learn from them than there is likely time to learn before we are in the soup, but we should do the best we can, because there is no better example in the world for meeting and besting such a crisis.

The World Wildlife Fund in its 2006 Sustainability Index Report cited Cuba as the only sustainable country in the world.

To comprehend the magnitude of that achievement, and its significance for our world today, we need to go back to 1990. Cuba then was the very model of industrial agriculture, turning most of its land over to vast monocultures of sugar cane, applying oceans of imported oil to till it, spray it (Cuba at the time used more pesticides than the United States), harvest it and ship it to the Soviet Union in return for oil and food. Most of what was grown in Cuba was exported; most of what was eaten in Cuba was imported. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuba, under embargo by the United States, had no market for its agricultural products and no way to pay for imported oil or food.

An industrial country wakes up one morning to no more oil. Just like that.

Motivated now by survival, not by profit, Cubans did what smart people have been telling us all to do for decades now. They stopped wresting cash from their punished land and started to heal it in order to have enough food to live. It was tough, starting from scratch, with the crisis already upon them. In the decade that followed the average Cuban adult lost 20 pounds.

They brought in experts in Permaculture from Australia and launched a national drive toward diversified, organic, polycultural, restorative agriculture. They did not do this because they wanted to save “the environment,” they did it because they wanted to save themselves. And that is why they succeeded. By the end of that first decade the average Cuban was getting 2600 calories and more than 68 grams of protein, an amount considered “sufficient” by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. By 2006 average caloric intake was up to 3356 calories.

A lot of this food was produced not in the countryside (requiring transport to the cities) but in urban gardens, where food was grown and consumed in the same neighborhood. By 2002, 35,000 acres of urban gardens produced 3.4 million tons of food. In Havana, 90% of the city’s fresh produce came from local urban farms and gardens, all organic. In 2003, more than 200,000 Cubans were employed in urban agriculture. In 2003, Cuba had reduced its use of Diesel fuel by more than 50%, synthetic fertilizers by 90%, and chemical insecticides by 83%.

Cuba’s achievements, in the face of exactly the kind of test we will soon face, are nothing short of awe-inspiring. Our obvious course, now that we are resuming a normal relationship, would be to commend them on what they have done and to invite teachers and consultants to come here to America and show our farmers how to stop destroying the earth and start feeding our people sustainably.

So that’s what we’re going to do, right?


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11 Responses to The World’s Most Sustainable Country: What? Cuba?

  1. Tom says:

    Now yer talkin’ Mr. Lewis! Great post on a timely topic!

    Right in front of our collective noses, Cuba’s been there all along producing some of the best music, “beverages,” “smokes,” lifestyle choices, dancing, baseball players, socio-agriculture, water culture, cooperation, and innovation WITHOUT a “vibrant economy!” Who’s happier? Undoubtedly Cuba outranks the U.S. in “happiness quotient.” Who’s land and ecosystems are being tended to and interacted with? Once again, in thirty years they’re doin’ fine while the U.S. is tanking all around environmentally.

    In fact we ruined their water – the Gulf of Mexico was a U.S. disaster that won’t/can’t be “repaired.” The embargo should have been on the U.S. all along!

    i’m pretty sure they still have the same government they had 30 years ago, so we have to give them stability, too.

  2. Tom says:

    Here ya go: put us right in the mood.

    Cuba Is Hot


    We arrived in Havana tonight, February 8, 2015, or year 56 of the revolution, 150 of us filling an entire airplane, a group of U.S. peace and justice activists organized by CODEPINK. The place is hot and beautiful despite the rain.

    The buildings, the cars, the sidewalks look as if time stopped in 1959. The tour guide on the bus from the airport to the hotel brags that the municipality around the airport has a psychiatric hospital and a spaghetti factory. Both the billboards and the tour guide fit Fidel into most every topic.

    Back home en el Norte we often note that they don’t build things like they used to. My own house predates the Cuban revolution. Prioritizing human needs over “growth” and gentrification is certainly something I would retroactively choose if I could. [read the rest if you want]

  3. Rob Rhodes says:

    A powerful central government, dictatorship if you wish, was one of the things that made Cuba’s transition possible. Food rationing, for instance, meant that people were more or less equally hungry so food riots were avoided. In N. America we have a hard time accepting that something other than liberal democracy might be the right form of government to see us through such a crisis but it is unlikely that a simple market economy will react in a peaceful and orderly manner to the decline of the industrial age. Your country (I’m Canadian) has periodically chosen quite benevolent strongmen, and followed them, in times of crisis. Washington, Lincoln and FDR come to mind. I hope you can do as well again, perhaps a woman this time, but it’s not HRC. Russia got Putin, no sweetheart, but he stopped the asset stripping and brought some order. Castro achieved much the same for Cuba when your gangsters and banksters were stripping her bare. With the largest debt in history you (and we) will need a strong hand to keep what the ECB has attempted to do to Greece from happening to you by your creditors across the Pacific.

  4. Davebee says:

    They sure had lots of energy to engage in a nasty foreign war in Angola I seem to recall.
    What Cuba had to do with Angola is very odd as they actually took a pretty heavy beating from the ‘old’ South African army and air force. Oh, yes, nearly forgot. That benign old dictator Uncle Fidel and his Secret Police would chuck you in the pokey for 50 years if you didn’t sign on for military service…Kinda like Greenpeace with jack boots I guess.

    • Tom Lewis says:

      This piece is about food, not politics, and about what happened after 1991, not back in 1975. Please let’s stay on point.

  5. Abel says:

    I am sorry fellas but how many of those commenting here are actually cuban. how many had to live through years of eating only rice and sugar, living on electric power only 3 hours a day when you were lucky, having no transportation to perform even the basic function of going to and from work. the list could go on.
    Throughout modern history Cuba has never produced enough food to supply itself and even today Cuba is a net importer of food. Why do you think the us agricultural companies are so interested in the Cuban market. Don’t let the numbers fool you. Those urban agriculture centers produce only a fraction of what’s required and there’s still hunger in the country a lot of it. I am Cuban, left the country 5 years ago lived on it for 35 years, still got family there so I guess I know what I am talking about.

    • Tom Lewis says:

      Your perspective is appreciated, and there is no question that you know what you are talking about. However, to say that the emergency was very hard indeed, and to say that Cuba still imports some of its food, both true statements, does not contradict the point being made here: that Cuba’s recovery from the “special time” contains lessons for us all as we face a similar emergency.

      I think the agricultural companies are interested in Cuba for the same reason they are interested in anyplace else — they see an opportunity to make a lot of money pushing petroleum, chemicals, machinery and patented seed. Heaven for Monsanto — soon another hell on earth with topsoil gone and water tainted.

      About the urban agriculture centers producing “only a fraction of what’s required”: nine tenths of the produce consumed in Havana, grown in Havana, is a pretty good fraction, no?

    • Yolanda says:

      I’ve met other Cubans (just two) who have a different viewpoint than yours. While they admitted living through extremely tough times as you describe, that food was still not as plentiful as it needs to be, and that Fidel Castro did some terrible things, they were overall happy with life in their country and felt people were happier and healthier than in the USA or Canada. They were proud of what they lived through and felt the positives of life in Cuba far out weighed the negatives.

      It would be interesting to know how many Cubans feel like you do, and how many are happy with life in their home country.

  6. Hugh says:

    There is an excellent video (Cuban made) called ‘Power of Community’.. worth getting and watching, which details this whole process of gaining self sufficiency (and tackling things like transport etc).
    Also .. after Batista was kicked out the Cubans went to the USA and effectively said ‘Help Us!” – and the USA said ‘No way . Batista may be a bastard.. but he was our bastard’ .. so they went to Russia cap-in-hand.. go figger.

  7. cookieanzac says:

    Talk is cheap! When do we begin to be a Cuba here in NZ? Poor families hear the mantra ‘eat 5 veggies/day’. Problem – a bunch of spinach costs at least $3 and that bunch when cooked amounts to no more than -2 cups. Do the math.

    We can feed ourselves well using Cuba’s pattern. Forget Gov’t/Councils this is up to the people. It is people to people, our elders teaching the young, sharing their knowledge, the young sharing their muscle power. Saving seeds so that the next season the costs are low. We want organic, we can have it or not, our decision!
    Young and old together.

    I have a dream. If you want to know more email:

  8. The Misanthrope says:

    In some ways, Cuba could assist us by teaching lessons in dealing with the inevitable scarcities of fuel and food that are coming. Instead, we’ll impose upon them our short-term bad habits – bringing them a brief period of bounty from money to food to new cars to cheap disposable crap, only to join the rest of us in collapse when the smoke clears and the mirrors shatter.