Feature

The green republic of Cuba

G Magazine

Cuba may not be well known as an eco-travel destination, but its eco-credentials, like its musicians and cigars, are first class.

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In 2006, the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report named Cuba the only nation on Earth achieving sustainable development. This big claim was based on Cubans having a high standard of living (assessed via levels of health, education and Gross Domestic Product) and at the same time maintaining a sustainable Ecological Footprint.

Cuba’s sustainability was a product of necessity. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuba effectively became an economic island. Cut from a lifeline of food and oil imports, Cuba was forced to survive self sufficiently and confront a peak oil situation. Their response placed them at the forefront of sustainable development.

Organic farming was adopted on a national scale. By developing a network of small, localised, organic farms they overcame the lack of fuel for food transport, farm machinery and chemical fertilisers. In urban areas intensive urban farming systems called ‘Organoponicos’ were initiated and natural medicines, grown on the organic farms, became widely available in pharmacies.

Cuba embarked on a campaign of energy efficiency with Fidel Castro declaring, “Energy conservation is like finding a great oil deposit”. Additionally, instead of extending the ailing electric grid system, regional schools and communities not already connected were fitted with solar panels. The public transport system was expanded and became heavily used. Walking and cycling became the Cuban way, as did repair, re-use and recycle.

Cuba has also committed heavily to environmental conservation with a network of reserves and national parks including eight UNESCO protected natural sites and six RAMSAR protected wetlands.

For the visitor, a trip to Cuba starts and ends in Havana. Grandiose in its architecture and brimming with art and music, the pulsing capital is an absorbing city. The good news is, eating green in Havana is easy. Fruit and vegetable markets, called Mercado Agropecuarios, are dotted throughout the city and sell locally grown organic produce. Also, Havana’s salads, in restaurants and homes alike, are all grown in Organoponicos.

Every municipality in Havana has at least one Organoponico. They become more elaborate the further out from the city center they are and all sell their fresh produce at the farm gate. Organoponico Alamar, on the outskirts of Havana, is one particularly large and established oasis of urban farming that welcomes foreign visitors.

Within a day trip of Havana is Las Terrazas, the granddaddy of eco-villages in Cuba. Now a thick tropical forest Las Terrazas started way back in 1968 as an ambitious reforestation project. It later came to incorporate a self-sustaining residential community for the reforestation workers and became a sustainable tourism destination. The reforestation was so successful that the area was included in Cuba’s first UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and now the flora and fauna are the main attractions.

For a taste of the Cuban countryside, at Cuban pace, a bicycle is the perfect low impact vehicle and the Viñales Valley is a peddler’s dream. The rural folk in Viñales travel via horseback or bicycle, so trails criss-cross the fields and on the roads, which are conveniently flat, cars are few and courteous.

The valley is a fertile plain, coloured with volcanic soil reds, tobacco field greens, and thatch roof browns. All this beauty is encircled by mountains and punctuated by dramatic limestone outcrops. The entire valley is a UNESCO World Heritage site, recognised for its cultural importance, preserved in the vernacular architecture of the villages and farmhouses and the continuation of traditional agriculture. Viñales is a slice of Caribbean country life, worth slowing down for.

From Havana to the countryside, Cuban culture is enchanting and the landscape rich in natural beauty, but the spirit of the Cuban people leaves the strongest impression and the way in which they have taken sustainability in their stride is an inspiring example for us all.

The Essentials
Getting there:

Air Canada flies Sydney-Havana, via Toronto. http://www.aircanada.com/au/en/
LAN flies Sydney-Havana, via Santiago de Chile. http://www.lan.com/en_au

Visas and Entry Requirements:

Australians need a visa to enter Cuba. A 30 day tourist card is considered a visa for tourism purposes. The tourist card is available at travel agents who sell tickets to Cuba or the airport of departure to Cuba.
Travelers must have proof of travel insurance to enter Cuba. A departure tax of $25CUC ($24AUD) is collected at the airport from every traveller leaving Cuba.

Eat:

El Romero is a bona fide eco-restaurant (a rare find in Cuba). They serve organic vegetarian food, grown in their own permaculture gardens and cooked in a partially solar kitchen. They practice what they term eco-restoration, in which nutrient rich organic food, grown in harmony with the Earth, is used to replenish the body from the inadequacies of the modern diet. Their food is excellent.

Stay:

Casa Particulars are private Cuban homes, which are officially authorised to rent rooms to foreigners. Most Casas will also offer reasonably priced meals and local recommendations. The Casa network extends from urban Havana to the countryside and, along with offering a taste of the people’s Cuba, places tourist dollars where they are genuinely appreciated.
http://www.mycasaparticular.com/
http://www.casaparticularcuba.org/
Hotel Moka is Cuba’s original eco-hotel. Located inside the Las Terrazas community and nature reserve. They offer 4 star accommodation. The hotel is managed with a solid environmental ethos.
http://www.hotelmoka-lasterrazas.com/

Cuba in the Living Planet Report:

The report compared Human Development Index, incorporating life expectancy, literacy, education and GDP per capita and Ecological Footprint, which is the area required to produce the natural resources consumed and assimilate the waste generated. A sustainable footprint is considered less than 1.8 global hectares per person. Only Cuba was able to provide a high standard of living while producing a sustainable Ecological Footprint.

More information:

www.lonelyplanet.com/cuba