Environmental Awareness and Protection in Cuba

Isbel Diaz Torres

Photo: Hablemos Press

HAVANA TIMES – Environmental awareness and protection programs in Cuba after 1959 have been highly institutionalized and centralized, allowing for broad-encompassing, top-down efforts that trickle down from central (national) bodies to the local level.

A critical glance at this system, however, reveals that it has often been plagued by redundancies and, more importantly, that, in practice, it has left independent citizen initiatives out of its efforts. All cases of independent environmental activism in Cuba must therefore be regarded as exceptions to the rule.

Generally, Cuba’s population has adopted a passive attitude towards the environment. This is the result of State propaganda, which offers a moralistic, didactic and always complacent perspective on the country’s reality, while leveling severe criticisms at situations abroad (provided these do not unfold in sister nations, that is).

In addition, Cuban science and its institutions, subordinate to State programs that are also defined at entities distant from the community, have proven incapable of adequately protecting the environment on the island.

Aggressive agricultural, forest, tourism and energy programs are undertaken around the nation, while the handful of environmentalists in the country remain isolated, bemoaning the advance of the invincible State apparatus that implements development programs without consulting citizens.

From an institutional perspective, however, we must acknowledge that the Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment has insisted don developing policies aimed at raising environmental awareness. These, though ineffective, have generated jobs and research projects that would prove useful, if the State only made the effort to implement them.

Cuba’s educational system has also launched a “Nationwide Environmental Education Strategy,” a governing document that is basically never applied.

Incorporating environmental studies into official programs of studies and syllabi, particularly at the higher education level and in the training of professors, is one of the problems that Cuba’s educational system has acknowledged for years.

In practice, primary, secondary and senior secondary education provide an excessively didactic approach and encourages students to “love” nature as a foreign and abstract concept. There are no holistic or participative perspectives to be found anywhere.

Thus, elements of Cuba’s flora and fauna are sugar-coated and divorced from the political and economic realities they are found in. Of course, the practice of emphasizing the beauty of nature is accompanied by the traditional, apologist discourse about Cuba’s benign environmental policies.

The Havana malecon seawall. Photo: chiringadecuba.com

Generally, not one critical glance at the problems faced by our ecosystems is offered in these programs. If educators must speak of the pollution of rivers and seas, or of the atmosphere, or if any reference to deforestation must be made, it is done by using images from other countries that are never related to Cuba.

At the higher education level, environmental studies have timidly been introduced into a handful of majors and disciplines, and these are associated to research related to basic natural resources. These studies are offered by a handful of professors and do not constitute a priority for the institution.

Utilitarian ends color the perspective of nature offered at this level. This way, not even the Faculty of Biology, which trains the ecologists who will later implement environmental policies, encourages an ecological mindset or sensitivity.

Ecology or environmentalism are often seen as a petit bourgeois fad that only wealthy countries have the luxury of encouraging. From this standpoint, the aim of science is to satisfy the developmental expectations of human beings. No posture of respect towards nature as its own end is even entertained.

Ultimately, after spending 15 years within Cuba’s educational system, students leave without any awareness of the main environmental challenges faced by the country and do not feel part of the solution needed.

That said, the economic crisis of the 90s led to the emergence of a number of autonomous associations on the island and some environmental NGOs, as well as the development of social and community projects that in some way addressed the ecological problems proliferating in Cuba.

This is another reason environmental issues are not foreign to the Cuban public, particularly those that have a direct impact on the lives of peoples, such as waste treatment, access to drinking water, scant rainfall, noise, air pollution in urban areas and others.

Not only are they not unaware of these problems, Cubans also have a certain sensitivity when it comes to these issues, even though this is never translated into concrete educational or protective activities.

Today, Cuba is a signatory to more than 90 conventional and unconventional international, global, regional and bilateral treaties. On the basis to the Civil Code in effect, it is reasonable to assume that, when a country is party to an international treaty or agreement, that its clauses are part of the domestic regulations of that nation and that they prevail over local regulations.

However, in practice, we see that policies in Cuba aren’t traced on the basis of such laws, but in accordance with the economic demands of the country and its elites.

Isbel Diaz

Isbel Diaz Torres: Pinar del Rio and Havana are my cities. I was born in one on March 1, 1976, and I’ve always lived in the other. I am a biologist and poet, though at times I’ve also been a musician, translator, teacher, computer geek, designer, photographer and editor. I’m very non-conformist and a defender of differences – perhaps due to always having been an ever-repressed “model child.” Nothing enthralls me more than the unknown, nature and art; these serve as my sources of mystery and development. A surprising activism has been born in me over the recent period. Though I’m not very sure how to channel it, I feel that it’s a worthy and legitimate energy. Let’s hope I have the discernment to manage it.