How Environmentalism Revived Cuba

By. Miles Bolton

Viñales Valley. Photo Credit: Miles Bolton

I have paid close attention to conservation policies and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in Latin America ever since I had the opportunity to study abroad in Argentina, where I interned for the environmental organization Arboles Sin Fronteras (Trees without Borders) in Buenos Aires. During my time there, through a series of small community workshops and collaborations with other environmental organizations in the area, I got a sense of how environmental organizations operate in Argentina and other parts of Latin America. There are a lot of formidable grassroots environmental organizations in Latin America that have germinated in the past few decades doing important conservation and agro-ecology work; efforts ranging from active habitat restoration, environmental education, to creating alternative communities. This past fall I came across some new scientific publications detailing the history of Cuba’s conservation policies and was amazed at their recent record in conservation and sustainability.

In order to salvage the ecological deficit inflicted by the legacy of Spanish colonial rule, Cuba instituted a number of policies to overhaul its agricultural systems and ecological policies. Cuba’s forest cover was reduced to 14% by 1959 as result of cash crop agriculture (tobacco, sugarcane plantations, etc) during Spanish colonial rule but today it has the lowest annual deforestation rate in Latin America (0.1%) according to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) and has been actively planting trees and restoring critical ecosystems. In terms of agriculture, Cuba is 100% organic. They rely on ecologically sound agroecological practices--i.e.: no artificial pesticides, no artificial fertilizers, and mixed crops rather than monocultures. As a result, Cuba has the richest level of biodiversity in the Caribbean and the highest percentage of endemism (species unique to a specific geographic location): 50% of plant species and 32% of vertebrates in Cuba are endemic. Cuba’s ecological policies have remained largely unstudied until recently, at least to us gringos, U.S. scientists weren’t able to collaborate with Cuban scientists for research due to long standing diplomatic issues between the two countries.

In 2019, I visited Cuba for 6 days to see the state of their conservation policies for myself.

Malecon. Havana, Cuba. Photo Credit: WikiCommons

Following its sovereignty, Cuba made a push to industrialize its economy from 1960 to 1968 making its agricultural system the most industrialized in Latin America at the time. Cuba's industrial efforts were fueled by imports from the Soviet Union and could only be sustained with a constant stream of petroleum, fertilizer, and pesticide imports. Reliance on Soviet trade placed Cuba in a vulnerable position as an emerging industrial player in Latin America. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union, Cuba lost its chief trading partner and watched its GDP (Gross Domestic Product) drop by a staggering 35% from 1989 to 1993. Imports of petroleum, fertilizers, and pesticides fell by over 50% within this period eviscerating Cuba’s economy, food security and industrial aspirations. In between a rock and a hard place, Cuba radically reconfigured it’s agricultural model to switch to agroecological practices and began to invest more heavily in conservation and restoration efforts as well. This transitional period in the 1990s was known as the Special Period. Cuba’s departure from industrialization towards alternative agriculture and sustainability offers an intriguing case study in testing the limits and reliability of these policies.

Stockpiled manure at a farm near Havana. Photo Credit: WikiCommons


Cuba took a “less is more” approach to agriculture when forced to readapt its agricultural system. Forced to abandon the industrial agricultural model Cuba began implementing mixed farming, crop diversification, organic fertilizers, biological pest control, and the use of local traditional knowledge to establish an agroecological food system. For context, agroecology is a vast umbrella term for a variety of farming practices that emphasize taking ecological processes into account when farming to reduce impact and improve the overall efficiency of the farm. Recycling programs were established to repurpose waste products as fertilizers, animal feed, and fuel. Thanks to these efforts to make its food systems more sustainable, according to the FAO, Cuba has the lowest average input consumption and associated greenhouse emissions per farmed area of any country in Central America and the Caribbean.

Examples of Recycling Programs:

  • Cafeteria food waste used for pork production.

  • Livestock dung is utilized for biogas production.

  • Liquid animal waste is used to irrigate/fertilize fields.

  • Sugarcane husks are recycled to make particle boards & paper.

  • Citrus, rice, coffee, sugarcane waste products are also used to make animal feed.

Statistics taken in 2014 by the World Bank reports reveal that only 5% of the Cuban population is affected by undernourishment thanks to the transition to agroecology. During the Special Period, food consumption was cut back to ⅕ of consumption rates during the 1980s, the average Cuban losing 20lbs. The benefits agroecological practices have conferred upon Cuban society in the last 20 years is nothing short of astounding considering the hardships endured during the Special Period.

Tobacco field in the Viñales Valley. Photo Credit: Miles Bolton

Tobacco Fields

During my stay in Cuba, I travelled to the Vinales Valley home to the best cigar tobacco in the world. The land was once covered completely in limestone, which was eroded gradually over time giving way to the characteristic red soil that’s known as the base for the legendary tobacco. Red soil signifies that the soil has a high iron content, which can, at times, be a limiting nutrient for plant growth. However, red soils are often low in phosphorus and nitrogen--the key nutrients necessary for plant growth--and have a low water storage capacity; this typically makes them poor soils for farming. Not in the case of Cuban tobacco. The reasons for why the red soils of the Vinales Valley creates optimal growing conditions for the tobacco are unclear as there is no publicized research available in the English language.

Talking to our guide at the tobacco farm, he explained how they rotate the fields throughout the year to protect the soil and allowed chickens to fertilize the fields as they don’t apply any artificial fertilizers. Instead of using artificial pesticides, they fashion a pesticidal concoction of their own. Using leftover midribs (the center vein of the leaf) from tobacco leaves, which is where 90% of the nicotine is concentrated, they grind it up and mix it with water to make it into a liquid pesticide. Unlike artificially derived pesticides the chemicals in these eco-friendly pesticides won't bioaccumulate in the environment, which could have serious repercussions for local insect and bird populations.

Zapata Swamp, a federally protected wetland in Cuba. Photo Credit: WikiCommons

Reforestation and Conservation Efforts

Reforestation and an expansion of conservation efforts accompanied Cuba’s switch to agroecology, some of which were first laid out right after the revolution, as Cuban society shifted towards a model of self sustainability. The Reforestation Plan was implemented immediately after independence in 1959, starting at a steady annual reforestation rate of 50.8 million trees (1960-1969), increasing to 136.3 million trees (1980-1988), and recently topping at 75,000 hectares (289.58 sq miles) annually. Data from the 1970s was omitted since the rate of deforestation outpaced reforestation efforts due to short lived industrial ambitions. The tone of proactive reforestation was set early; however, it wasn’t until the fall of the Soviet Union that these efforts were ramped up. In 1992, working with the FAO and the United Nations, Cuba established the National Forest Action Plan which developed both national and international funding (equivalent to $34.7 million US dollars) to facilitate a greater push for forest restoration efforts. Thus far, Cuba’s forest cover has increased from 14% to 18% of the total land mass, its 3% increase in the past 20 years gives Cuba the 2nd largest net forest regrowth rate per country in the world behind Puerto Rico.

In addition to the Reforestation Plan, Cuba established the Cuban National System of Protected Areas, which now covers 12% of the entire country, to protect natural forests, wetlands, and other essential ecosystems. Thanks to these aggressive conservation efforts, Cuba has the greatest area of wetland ecosystems in the Caribbean; wetland ecosystems cover 13.4% of Cuba- not all of the wetlands are under the Cuban National System of Protected Areas. These wetland ecosystems include mangroves, flooded savannas, peatlands, and freshwater swamps--all of which provide essential ecosystem services such as water filtration, nutrient sequestration (excess nutrients are stored in plant biomass and sediment), and storm buffering.

According to the GFRA (Global Foot and Mouth Disease Research Alliance), restored ecosystems in Cuba have sequestered 226 million tons of C02, with an annual rate of 10.227 tons of CO2 (FAOSTAT). Most of this carbon sequestration derives from restored mangrove habitats, which also provide a terrific line of defense against incoming hurricanes. There’s a reason you never hear of Cuba being handicapped by hurricanes despite being in a vulnerable geographic location--conservation of wetlands has a lot to do with it. Mangroves in the tropics, in similar fashion to Salt Marshes in the temperate zone, provide storm buffering services as well as water filtration and the provision of nursery habitat (critical for restocking fisheries). Recently, as diplomatic relations with the U.S and the United Nations have improved, Cuba has been partnering up with international science and environmental organizations to collaborate and exchange information. Organizations including but not limited to the Caribbean Biological Corridor of the UNEP (United Nations Environmental Programme), the Smithsonian Institute, Wildlife Conservation Society, Cornell Ornithology Laboratory, Environmental Defense Fund, and the New York Botanical Gardens.

Playa Girón. Photo Credit: WikiCommons

Looking Ahead

Forced to restructure their society from top to bottom in the aftermath following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Cuba has been able to restore food security, the country’s ecosystems, and establish a truer form of independence in a span of two decades. Through the implementation of agroecological food systems and the prioritization of the nations natural resources and ecosystems Cuba has become increasingly economically independent. Regardless of your opinion on Cuba, from an environmental standpoint, the progress they’ve made in the last couple of decades is impressive. With limited resources and funding, Cuba has been able to become a leader in sustainable practices and conservation efforts in the Caribbean while improving the quality of life for many of its citizens.

Cuba’s example offers many potential lessons not only for neighboring Latin American countries but also for places in the United States like New York and Boston. For example, one facet of Cuba’s expansive agroecological program was developing urban agricultural systems in Havana. There are close to 35,000 hectares of urban gardens split into 8000 parcels dispersed throughout the city, operating with the use of hydroponics, rotated and mixed cropping systems, biofertilizers, and integrated pest management using ecological controls. There are some examples of urban farms in New York and the Boston Area however, none of which are on such a large scale. It’s not so far fetched to think that some of these solutions could be applied in our own communities. This is the just the beginning of scientific exchanges between Cuba and the U.S and I hope that there will continue to be a fruitful exchange of information between scientists of each respective country.



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