Cuba’s shift from sustainability laggard to climate leader

- November 7, 2019

Valerie Miller, a senior manager with U.S.-based non-profit Environmental Defense Fund, speaks during The Cuban Revolution at 60 conference last Friday. (Photo by Daniel Salas)
Valerie Miller, a senior manager with U.S.-based non-profit Environmental Defense Fund, speaks during The Cuban Revolution at 60 conference last Friday. (Photo by Daniel Salas)

Cuba’s climate-change credentials have improved in recent years as the country has shifted away from the highly intensive, industrial-scale agricultural practices of the past towards a more sustainable approach to economic development.

The Caribbean island now counts itself as one of only 10 countries in the world with a constitution that mentions climate change. It is leading the way in sustainable fisheries management. And five of the world’s 50 most climate-resilient coral reefs are located partially in its waters, a resource that will help future repopulation of coral damaged by climate change.

International experts on Cuba’s climate and sustainability policies detailed these and other aspects of Cuba’s sustainability shift during a panel at the Dal-hosted Cuban Revolution at 60 conference last week. The three-day symposium included a series of talks and panel sessions with Cuba scholars, policy makers and policy analysts.

“The whole of the Caribbean, including Cuba, is in a climate change hot spot,” said Julia Sagebien, an associate professor in Dal’s Faculty of Management and chair of the Climate Change, Envisioning the Future panel Friday.

Creating a low-carbon economy

Dr. Sagebien has worked closely with other academics, NGOs and experts in recent years to explore some of these issues as part of the Research Initiative for the Sustainable Development of Cuba (RISDoC). Forged a few years ago at a time of increasing optimism around relations between Cuba and the United States and a shift to dialogue around low-carbon economies after the Paris Climate Accord, RISDoC’s mandate was to explore sustainable investment approaches and opportunities in the country.

“It meant that Cuba didn’t have to develop along 19th century models. It could leapfrog, the way people talk about technology and telephones. But it wasn’t a consumption-level leapfrog, it was a production leapfrog — how things get grown, how buildings get built,” said Dr. Sagebien, noting Cuba’s climate knowledge, plans and will to achieve a sustainable future.

While U.S. President Donald Trump’s blatant disregard for climate change and more antagonistic tone in relations with Cuba has sidetracked the country’s plans somewhat, Dr. Sagebien called the setback temporary.

Indeed, as evidenced by the panel’s other speakers, there are many partnerships and projects currently ongoing in the country related to climate change and sustainability.

Conservation collaboration

Valerie Miller, senior manager of the Cuba Oceans team for U.S.-based non-profit Environmental Defense Fund, spoke about her organization’s work with Cuba on building a network for a sustainable ocean through strong marine conservation collaboration.

“[Cuba is] the most important island in the entire western hemisphere in terms of biological diversity,” she said, noting the country’s vast marine ecosystems — mangroves, sea-grass beds and some of the best-preserved coral reefs in the Caribben — and the hundreds of animal species and thousands of plant species found only in Cuba.

With strong environment policies, including an extensive network of protected areas that connect land and sea around the country, nearly 25 per cent of coastal waters in Cuba are now under a certain level of protection.

“Cuba continues to lead the way in conservation in the Caribbean,” she said. “There’s a new fisheries law that sets the stage for recovering more fisheries and continued collaboration.”

Margarita Fernández, executive director of the Vermont Caribbean Institute, and Rebekah Stewart, director of communications with the Center for Responsible Travel, rounded out the panel, with talks on agroecology, food and the climate crisis and the potential for ecotourism, respectively. A related, yet separate, talk on disaster management in Cuba was given by Emily Kirk, a SSHRC postdoctoral fellow in Dal’s Department of International Development Studies.

To learn more about this and other panels that took place at The Cuban Revolution at 60 conference, visit the event website for access to full Power Point presentations.   


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