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The Success and Challenges of Sustainable Development in Cuba

Cuba's sustainable development and its biodiversity. Can the Island achieve economic development without risking its biological diversity? This image was taken near Cayo Largo.

Cuba’s success as a global leader in sustainable development is well known, but will the need for economic development in conjunction with sustainable development present challenges?

In 2006 and again in 2016, Cuba was identified by the environmental group World Wildlife Fund (WWF) as the only country in the world with the most sustainable model of development.  The WWF report includes the United Nations Human Development Index and the “ecological footprint” as measures of this success.

Jonathan Loh, former Policy Manager, Global Change and Biodiversity at WWF International said at the time, “Cuba, however, was found to have implemented a good — yet not perfect — combination of human development and environmental footprint, with a high level of alphabetization and a high level of life expectancy, while using little energy and natural resources.”

There are two chief reasons for these successes in Cuba.  Not only have government policies and initiatives fostered sustainable development, but also sheer necessity has created the conditions whereby Cuba leads the way in sustainable development.

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In the Caribbean, Cuba has been identified as one of the richest in biological diversity.  It is home to the largest number of flora and fauna, animal species, freshwater and marine ecoregions, pine forests, and moist forests.  Cuba can also rightly boast of having the largest number of unspoiled beaches, healthiest coral reefs, and forests in the region.

Protecting this environment is not a new trend in Cuba.  Since 1986, the Cuban government has increased the amount of protected lands.  As an example, the Cienaga de Zapata Biosphere Reserve, designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2000, is one of the largest and most diverse ecosystems in the world.  It is also one of the best protected of reserves in the Caribbean.

In 1999, former president Fidel Castro signed the Ramsar Global Wetlands Treaty.  Government policies were formed early on to support effective conservation of these diverse environments.  In 2008, Cuba signed the ban on harvesting sea turtles.

Biodiversity and the protection of the environment became a priority as government policies following the former president’s speech at the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio in 1992.

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Between 1992 and 1998, the National Environment and Development Program was formed and going forward, would define Cuba’s strategy in fulfilling its obligations in the Earth Summit’s Agenda 21.

A national strategy for environmental education, agricultural projects for sustainable food production, biotechnological and sustainable animal food, as well as a national scientific-technical program for mountain zones were created.  Educational institutions, local communities and organizations became a vital part of the strategy.

As a part of the Cuban government initiatives, CITMA, the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Environment, was established in 1994.  CITMA became the leading environmental agency of Cuba.  Since being founded, its mission has been the evaluation of biodiversity resources, air and water quality, human settlements, and land degradation.

Sustainable agricultural practices began in the early 1990s.  Food is grown without chemical fertilizers and Cuban farmers have switched to crops resistant to extreme weather conditions.  Cuba has created its unique system of organoponicos, (urban organic farms) out of a desperate need to feed its citizens during what was known as the Special Period in the 1990s.

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Strategies of the Cuban government include improving energy efficiency by distributing approximately 13 million LED bulbs to be installed in homes, offices, and hotels.  People were also urged to replace coil-based electric cookers with induction cookers.

Cuba’s green energy policy targets a decrease in fossil fuel reliance and to increase renewable energy by 24% by the year 2030.  An example of this in action is the construction of the largest bioelectric plant in Ciego de Avila to produce clean energy.  The project is a joint venture between Biopower S.A. (AZCUBA’s Zerus S.A.), and the U.K’s Havana Energy.

More people ride bicycles in Cuba than perhaps any other country in the world.  This not only includes regular bikes, but there is a growing proliferation of Chinese-made electrical bicycles on the streets throughout Cuba.  This could be viewed as a “necessity” behind this factor.  However,  there are two factors at play here.  There is a lack of public transportation and the cost of purchasing an automobile in Cuba is prohibitive.

Issues of global warming and deforestation have been recent challenges in Cuba.  In response, Cuba has embarked on plans to facilitate reforestation and combat global warming

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There are some big challenges facing Cuba today in continuing the role as a leader in sustainable development.  These challenges include tourism, food security and infrastructure development for regular trash collection and recycling initiatives.  The other big challenge is the global warming of the planet.

With the rapid increase in tourism and the predicted increase in tourism stats, analysis and a viable solution is a pressing factor.  Hotel construction, developing sustainable tourism practices and protecting the environment from the onslaught of tourists is of chief concern.  Further developing ecotourism alternatives is a possible direction.  Not every tourist will want to hang out in Havana or bask in the sun at an all-inclusive resort.  Cuba’s task, according to official media will be both environmental and social.  Those responsible for tourism industry policy should be, “conserving and promoting natural and cultural heritage, minimizing the negative economic, social and environmental impact of the industry, and offering tourists a unique experience.”

Cuba, like many other Latin American countries, will need to develop trash collection and recycling facilities to clean up many of its city streets.  This is one of the challenges facing municipal and provincial governments.  There is a need to develop the infrastructure for providing services as well as the need to educate the community.  On the other hand, the development of infrastructure initiatives needs funding to move forward on such projects.

As Cuba moves forward, a thriving economy is vital to the well being of its people and the nation. Economic development and sustainable development can go hand in hand as Cuba has already proven thus far.  There are more challenges on the horizon which will need sustainable solutions.  Environmental issues such as global warming, rising sea levels, extreme weather, storms, winds and severe drought urgently require international awareness and solutions.  Cooperation between governments such as the Cuba – Canada agreement to increase sustainable economic growth and food security, as well as the recent Cuba – U.S. cooperation agreement on environmental protection are steps in the right direction.  The environment, the sea, severe weather, recognize no man-made borders.  Sustainable solutions are needed.  Global warming is not a problem of one nation, it is as labelled:  a global issue.

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