In 1992, Fidel Castro spoke about a radical new idea. During the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, Cuba's president lamented the destruction of nature at the hand of humankind. Less than a decade after scientists had reached a consensus on climate change, Castro was already urging the world to start an environmental revolution.
"The forests are disappearing. The deserts are expanding. Every year billions of tons of fertile soil end up in the sea. Numerous species are becoming extinct," he said.
"Population pressures and poverty trigger frenzied efforts to survive even when it is at the expense of the environment. It is not possible to blame the Third World countries for this. Yesterday, they were colonies. Today, they are nations exploited and pillaged by an unjust international economic order."
Since his death last week at the age of 90, Cuba's late-patriarch has been called many things: revolutionary, dictator, savior, and tyrant. And there is evidence for each. But he also seems to have a lesser-known legacy as an environmentalist.
Cuba's shining array of biodiversity has earned it the nickname, the "jewel of the Caribbean," and for good reason. The country boasts some of the largest regions of untouched forest, and its oceans are among the most pristine on Earth. Six UNESCO biosphere reserves, including the 1.5 million acre Ciénaga de Zapata Biosphere Reserve, were created to protect the island's unique flora and fauna.
And while Cuba's wildness can reasonably be attributed to its economic isolation, Castro's strong influence on the country's environmental legislation has arguably helped to preserve its splendor.
In the eyes of Castro, environmental destruction was one of the evils of capitalism. He blamed consumer societies for the desecration of nature that disproportionately harmed the poor and disenfranchised. During a speech on climate change in 2002, Castro regarded Cuba as an example of how humanity's needs can be met "without destroying nature and basic human values." (It's important to note here that many Cubans would not agree that their needs are met given the country's food insecurity and other limited resources.)
After Castro's Rio de Janeiro speech, Cuba's government amended its constitution to include sweeping environmental provisions that would safeguard land, air, and water resources. In 1994, the Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment—the country's first cabinet-level institution given jurisdiction over environmental issues—was established. Three years later, Cuba's Law 81 of the Environment was decreed to provide a framework for sustainable socioeconomic development.
Since then, some 22 percent of Cuba's land is said to be under legal protection. (Approximately 13 percent of land in the United States receives some level of protection.) Logging has decreased while total forest cover has increased. According to government reports, 104 marine protected areas either exist or are coming down the pike. And recently, the country prohibited development within 25 percent of its marine habitats—an astoundingly ambitious goal compared to the 3 to 5 percent cordoned off by the United States, respectively.
Today, for those who can get there, Cuba is also a tantalizing hotbed for biological research. "It's been called an 'accidental Eden,' and some of that's true. The island didn't develop in the same way as its Caribbean neighbors, in part because of the embargo. But in large part, this is also due to the government's affirmative decisions," Dan Whittle, the Senior Director of the Environmental Defense Fund's Cuba Program, told me.
"Scientific diplomacy [with Cuba] has been effective throughout a number of administrations," Whittle said. "Cuba's government places a premium on science; high calibre natural sciences, even despite a brain drain. Cuban scientists have been extremely eager to collaborate with American groups."
Yet, as with most aspects of Castro's rule, the truth of the matter is complicated. For example, some Cuban researchers, or "guerilla scientists," say the trade embargo has only suffocated scientific opportunity. With little funding, and even less hope for American collaboration, many of these researchers have bootstrapped their own projects with whatever materials they could find.
There's also the argument that Cuba's environmental accomplishments have been more accidental than intentional. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba has witnessed an industrial hibernation of sorts. In lieu of large-scale agriculture, much of Cuba's farming is now practiced sustainably, diminishing the country's overall carbon footprint. And thanks to the United States' travel embargo, the island has also remained relatively immune to commercial development and cruise ship traffic.
However, if Cuba's ecological health was indeed accidental, "then Haiti could be expected to be a verdant ecological paradise, instead of being the most environmentally devastated country in the region, with just a tiny fraction of its forest cover intact," Jim Barborak, former program leader at Conservation International, once told National Geographic.
Regardless, the strength of Castro's environmental legislation will be tested in years to come, as diplomacy with the United States continues to evolve. Will Cuba's economy be revived at the cost of its natural capital? Or will ecotourism be allowed to flourish instead?
Perhaps auspiciously, after relations between Cuba and the United States were most recently normalized, both countries signed agreements to cooperate over the protection of marine and coastal habitats.
"Cuba's now saying that economic development is good for the country's well being, and it plans to pursue it in a sustainable manner," Whittle added.
"But it's going to be done with the Cuban government calling all the shots. 'We welcome tourists from the United States, but we're going to do tourism our way.'"
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