Solar power in Cuba

Fidel Castro's environmental legacy and Cuba's Green Revolution

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Now that Fidel Castro is dead, what will become of Cuba’s Green Revolution?

Fidel Castro, the Cuban politician and revolutionary leader, died in November at the age of 90. For some he was an authoritarian tyrant, for others a courageous visionary who gave the Cuban people western-style healthcare and education. 

Yet amid talk about his human rights and economic record, what will be his environmental legacy? Will gains in environmental agriculture withstand President Barack Obama’s moves to resume trade relations with Cuba? Will that economic opening increase the sustainability of the energy supply?

As things stand today, Castro’s ‘green’ record looks good.

According to the United Nations’ 2016 Human Development Report, Cuba is one of just a handful of countries that has managed to improve the health and wellbeing of its citizens while developing sustainably. In the Environmental Performance Index compiled by Yale and Harvard universities, Cuba ranked 45 out of 180 countries – the highest ranking for a non-OECD, non-European state.

Cuba didn’t go green because it wanted to, but because it had to. The collapse of the Soviet Union deprived Cuba of its main trading partner and source of petrol.

Castro had to rapidly rethink his economic strategy that hitherto had been of the classic Soviet industrial model.

The first savings he made were with words. Known for his excruciatingly long speeches, in 1992 he bucked the trend with just a five-minute address to the landmark United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio Do Janeiro. He predictably blamed modern Western consumer societies for the destruction of the environment, and ended by saying:

“Tomorrow will be too late to do what we should have done a long time ago.”

On his return, Castro set about amending the constitution to safeguard land, air and water resources, becoming one of the first leaders in the world to do so.

These measures have worked, although again, economic under-development and a shrinking population – due mainly to social policies – have helped. The amount of land under forestation in Cuba has grown considerably, from 19.2 per cent in 1990 to 30.1 per cent in 2015, according to the World Bank. An estimated 22 per cent of Cuba’s land is under legal protection, compared to 13 per cent in the US.

There has been a similar record in marine environment. The island has almost 100 protected marine areas, with a quarter of its marine habitats protected from development.

Cuba now has the richest biodiversity of plants and animals of all the Caribbean, and is the fourth richest island in the world, from a natural history point of view. Over half of its plants and 95 per cent of its amphibians are not found anywhere else.

In a sign of the growing enthusiasm for the country’s environment, the American Museum of Natural History recently hosted a major exhibition celebrating Cuban biodiversity.

“Cuba’s nature has been protected by a combination of historical circumstance, but also because Cubans themselves have been very committed to protecting their biodiversity,” says Ana Luz Porzecanski, director of the museum’s Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation.

Conservationists are not the only ones looking to Cuba for lessons learned during the Castro years. The country has also become a darling of organic farmers.

Again, the greening of Cuban agriculture was brought about by necessity. By 1993, Cuba itself was facing hunger. GDP had plummeted 35 per cent, while shortages of fuel, pesticides and fertilisers led to food rationing and a rise in malnutrition in an extended crisis that Cubans call the Período especial – the Special Period.

Beans and rice was all that was available to eat in Havana apart from a strictly rationed one chicken per month. Cats and dogs disappeared from the streets.

In response to the growing crisis, the government looked to the agroecology movements that had sprung up in different parts of Latin America 20 years earlier in response to chemical-heavy mechanised farming.

As oxen replaced ploughs, farmers’ cooperatives and peer-to-peer knowledge sharing schemes were encouraged. When this proved insufficient, all “inefficient state companies” and government-owned farms were dismantled, and farming on some three million hectares of unused state lands was allowed.

Yet the area where Cuba’s organic farming revolution has been most applauded is in urban horticulture.

There are now 50,000 hectares of otherwise unproductive land used for urban agriculture in Cuba, according to government statistics. Although it is almost impossible to gain accurate figures, some estimate that as much as 60 per cent of the vegetables and fruit consumed in Havana are supplied by local urban farmers.

“No other country in the world has achieved this level of success with a form of agriculture that uses the ecological services of biodiversity and reduces food miles, energy use and effectively closes local production and consumption cycles,” says Miguel Altieri, professor of agroecology at the University of California, Berkeley.

The success of city farming in Cuba has helped to develop the biopesticide industry as well. The government set up artisanal production centres to make biopesticides against plant pests and diseases, developing technology and knowledge that is studied and shared with other countries.

“Cuba was really the first country in the world to scale up its biopesticides to such a degree that it became a cost-effective option for producers,” says Alison Hodder, an expert in urban horticulture with the Food and Agriculture Organisation.

By developing its own pesticides and organic fertilisers, Cuba has managed to cut costs in agriculture, improve the environment and also develop new technologies for organic farming. Only last December, the Agriculture ministry announced the development of a new Cuban patented organic liquid fertiliser to replace German imports.

However, green agriculture has still to extend to much of the country’s famous cash crops like tobacco, and Cuba is still heavily dependent on food imports, with more than half coming from outside.

Climate change is also creating new challenges to farming, with increased drought and hurricanes. Farmers are among those most keen to capitalise on President Barack Obama’s moves to normalise economic relations.

“If relations with US agribusiness companies are not managed carefully, Cuba could revert to an industrial approach that relies on mechanisation, transgenic crops and agrochemicals” says Altieri.

Whatever happens, experts say the prolonged period of organic farming on the island will be of valuable experience in the future for other countries facing similar shocks to their food system.

While improved trade relations could be detrimental to the agroecological system of agriculture in Cuba, it could help to reduce Cuba’s dependency on fossil fuels.

Around 96 per cent of the island’s energy is from burning crude oil. Cuba consumes 140,000 barrels of petroleum products a day, and 68 per cent of these products are heavy fuel oil, with 3.5 per cent sulphur, which is a very high pollutant.

Nearly half of Cuba’s oil is imported, mainly from Venezuela, bartered for medicine and other technologies. Cuba has some oil, but only three active rigs, and hopes of exploiting deposits off the Cuban coast have not materialised.

Green energy requires not just technical knowledge, but also capital investment – with Cuba dependent on friendly nations for its fossil fuel requirements. Yet it was the increased voracity of the weather brought about by climate change, not Fidel Castro or his brother Raul, that triggered the move towards greener fuel.

The 2005 hurricane season battered Cuba’s already inefficient electric grid. In 2006, the government instituted a series of reforms in the sector in what became known as the ‘Energy Revolution’.

These measures transformed the island’s lighting, eliminating the use of nearly 116 million old-fashioned incandescent light bulbs and making Cuba the first nation to entirely phase them out.

Millions of inefficient consumer appliances such as fridges and fans were replaced with modern energy-saving versions using government aid, although the scheme has been criticised because cheap imports from China haven’t lasted and are more expensive to repair.

The energy revolution also included a switch to a more distributed countrywide network of energy generation, with smaller power plants in order to reduce the potential for damages and blackouts. This added nearly 3GW of capacity through decentralised systems and reduced transmission and distribution losses to 14.8 per cent. Electricity blackouts have been drastically cut.

The Energy Revolution in Castro’s twilight years helped reduce consumption, but progress has been much slower in developing infrastructure for domestic power generation.

Cuba needs to diversify its energy supply. Oil imports weigh heavily on the nation’s coffers and the dire economic situation in Venezuela has led to a reduction in oil shipments and less generous financing terms for the island.

In 2014, Cuba set an ambitious target to produce 24 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030.

“Cuba expects to have 780MW [renewable energy] in the next 14 years, and I think it set the pace for 14 years because they want to be realistic,” Carlos Fernández-Aballí, chief strategy officer of Havana-based sustainable development consultancy Cuba Strategies, told a conference in New York.

“If they can do it in three, they’d also be happy, because these investments correspond to what the grid can physically incorporate without becoming unstable.”

To reach that target, Cuba needs an estimated $3.5bn of investment. The 24 per cent renewable energy target will, Cuba hopes, be achieved by 14 per cent from biomass, 6 per cent from wind, 3 per cent from solar and 1 per cent from hydropower.

The solar energy sector is moving the fastest towards the target. The government has built a manufacturing plant that has produced 14,000 photovoltaic solar panels outside the city of Cienfuegos and a 4.5MW solar plant near the US naval base at Guantanamo. Deals are also being struck with foreign engineering companies. Last May, British company Hive Energy signed a contract for a 50MW project with the Union Electrica de Cuba.

Cuba is also looking to harness wind power. There are currently four wind farms in operation, financed by Chinese and Spanish investors, with total capacity of 11.7MW, ranking Cuba 72nd worldwide in installed wind-power capacity. And the island’s largest wind farm to date, Herradura 1, is being built in the eastern province of La Tunas. The facility will have 34 of the 1.5MW-turbines made by China’s Goldwind, for a total of 51MW.

Yet the renewable energy technology that has most potential in Cuba is probably biofuels. Many commentators expect the sector to grow following the death of Fidel Castro, who once described them as a “sinister idea” because of concern they would compete with food crops.

In 2013, UK-based Havana Energy entered into a joint venture with the Cuban state-run Zerus SA to build five biomass power plants in Cuba. Called Biopower SA, it will generate power from bagasse at sugar mills. Valued at a total of $250m, the power plants are expected to produce 32MW each.

As well as using residues from sugar crops, Havana Energy is also involved in a project to use the marabu plant, an invasive shrub that has taken over much of Cuba’s arable land, as biomass. The burning of marabu would not only provide fuel, but would also give a boost to Cuban farming if the land it has overrun can be reclaimed.

Renewable energy companies in the US, constrained to selling technical equipment, are also keen to see the 2014 US-Cuban agreement to normalise diplomatic relations progress to a full lifting of the trade embargo to enable them to invest directly.

President-elect Donald Trump has once again threatened to get “tough” with Cuba, reversing the ‘Cuban Thaw’ of his predecessor. However, with powerful agricultural and energy industry lobbies, as well as tourism and cruise companies keen to do business, he may be in a minority.

Whatever transpires over the next few months and years, the fate of the environment will probably depend more than anything else on how deeply ingrained Castro’s environmental lessons have been in the Cuban population. 

Organoponics: Cuba’s horticultural revolution

One of the most popular developments in the growth of urban horticulture is the use of ‘organoponicos’. Originally using old-school concrete Soviet hydroponic gardens, Cuban organoponic gardens are now started by making furrows in the soil, then lining the rows with wood, stone, bricks or concrete. As organic matter is added, the soil quality improves, as does the height of the bed.

These organoponicos – the term applies to both the technology and the garden – can be used anywhere like building sites and disused land and if the land is sloping, it can be arranged in terraces. With specific mixes of organic material, soil can be tailored to specific crops. If pests or fungi invade the soil, the entire substrate can be replaced. If they invade the plants, then these are attacked with biopesticides and other biotic solutions. If necessary, the gardens can be disassembled and relocated. They are watered via drip-irrigation using minimum water. Organoponicos can produce up to 20kg of vegetables per square mile.

There are an estimated 100 high-yielding organoponicos in Havana, growing carrots, lettuce, beets, beans, cucumber, tomatoes, spinach and peppers.

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