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    Economic crisis forced Cuba to reduce ecological footprint


    I REALLY have never seen anything like the “camels” of Cuba — huge
    fifth-wheel trailers drawn by tractor trucks, and fitted up as buses
    capable of carrying as many as 300 people. They’re wonderfully flexible
    — the tractors that tow them could as easily tow any other trailer for
    any other purpose — and in terms of passenger-miles per gallon, they are
    vastly more efficient than a standard bus.

    The camels were invented during the “Special Period” of the early 1990s.
    Cuba’s economy had been dominated by massive sugar exports to the
    U.S.S.R., balanced by massive imports of Soviet oil. When the Soviet
    Union collapsed and the United States tightened its long-standing
    embargo, Cuba abruptly lost almost all its oil supplies, and found
    itself isolated and bankrupt.

    Imports and exports fell by 80 per cent. GDP declined by a third.
    Factories closed, transportation ground to a halt, and power outages of
    up to 16 hours a day became common. Cuban agriculture had been
    energy-intensive and monocultural, dependent on chemical pesticides and
    fertilizers, and machinery. Without oil, food production plummetted. The
    average Cuban lost 30 pounds.

    The government averted outright famine by instituting food rationing. It
    imported thousands of bicycles from China, expanded tourism and leased
    agricultural land to private co-ops. A group of Australians came to
    teach “permaculture” — permanent agriculture, sustainable local
    agriculture, agriculture in harmony with nature.

    Soon Cubans were growing food everywhere — on rooftops and patios, in
    vacant lots, in former sugar-cane fields. Cuba became a world leader in
    urban farming and organic agriculture. Fifty per cent of Havana’s food
    is grown within the city. The country uses 21 times less pesticide, and
    has created a thriving bio-pesticide and bio-fertilizer industry. Cubans
    have also benefited from a healthier diet, more exercise, cleaner air
    and richer soil.

    To reduce transportation needs and discourage people from migrating to
    the cities, Cuba moved services out into the country. Before the Special
    Period, Cuba had three universities; now it has 50 campuses. Solar power
    provides at least a lamp and a radio to householders in remote villages,
    and a TV and other appliances in the community hall. Nearly 2,400 rural
    primary schools are completely powered by solar cells.

    Although Cuba is a very poor country, with an annual per capita income
    of about $3,000, it has remained utterly committed to health, education
    and international aid. Education is free from primary school through
    university, though students must contribute time to public service.
    Cuba’s literacy rate is 97 per cent, the same as the U.S.

    Medical care is outstanding. Cuba has one doctor for every 167 people,
    and its international medical school — which enrols students from 23
    foreign countries, including the U.S. and Britain — trains doctors to
    work in other poor countries around the world. Cuba’s rate of infant
    mortality is 6.33 per 1,000 births, and the life expectancy of its
    people is 77 years — both very close to U.S. rates.

    Each year Cuba sends about 20,000 doctors abroad on humanitarian
    missions to nearly 70 countries. Think of it: 20,000 doctors, working in
    Africa, Latin America, the Pacific islands. After the tsunami and the
    Java earthquake, for instance, Cuba sent Indonesia two field hospitals
    and 135 workers, which “made a bigger impact on the humanitarian crisis
    than the work of any other country,” according to an Indonesian official.

    Cuba is not paradise — but the country clearly walks its talk, eschewing
    the pursuit of private wealth in favour of sufficiency for everyone.
    And, having confronted an energy famine with resilience, compassion and
    indefatigable effort, Cuba may provide an example for all of us as world
    oil supplies approach their peak.

    The scale of Cuba’s achievement became clear last month, when the World
    Wildlife Fund issued its annual Living Planet Report. Trying to map a
    route to a sustainable human future, the report compared two key indices
    which together tell the tale.

    The first index is our “ecological footprint,” the amount of productive
    land and sea area required to supply current human consumption. The
    Earth presently provides 1.8 hectares per person — but our current
    footprint is 2.8 hectares per person. That’s clearly unsustainable. If
    we are to have a future, we will have to reduce our demands.

    The WWF’s second measure is the United Nations Human Development Index,
    a calculation based on life expectancy, literacy and education, and per
    capita GDP. An HDI value of more than 0.8 represents “high human
    development.” Most nations with high HDI numbers (such as Canada, at
    .95) also have utterly bloated footprints — in our case, 7.7 hectares.
    Conversely, nations with small footprints usually have low HDI scores as

    So is it really possible to achieve “sustainable development,” defined
    as a Human Development score of more than 0.8 combined with an
    ecological footprint of less than 1.8 hectares? Has any country ever
    done it?

    Yes. Just one. Amigos, viva Cuba!

    Visit Silver Donald Cameron’s website at

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