Cuba, reforestation and the climate crisis

The following is a slightly edited talk given at a Workers World Party forum on Oct. 3 in New York City. Hedgecoke participated in the 50th Venceremos Brigade this summer.

On the Rio San Juan in the Sierra del Rosario biosphere in Cuba. (WW Photo: Stephanie Hedgecoke)

We meet on stolen land. This is Lenapehoking, Lenape homeland. We look forward to the day that all Indigenous nations’ land claims are paid in full.

As we are meeting on environmental issues tonight, I wonder how many of you may have read part of the new U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on the status of the oceans? The report covers the impacts of carbon pollution on ocean, coastal, polar and mountain ecosystems and the human communities that depend on them. Part of that extra carbon in the atmosphere goes into the ocean waters and makes the water more acidic. The acid directly impacts shellfish growing their shells — and coral reefs.

The acidity and the extra heated temperatures, which are much worse in the oceans, and massive amounts of plastic trash made from petroleum, are killing life in the oceans. But life on an ocean planet depends upon the life in the oceans!

How many of you may have read part of the August IPCC climate and land-use report, the first one with a majority of its authors from developing countries, the first one to rely on interviews with Indigenous populations as a key source?

That report covered destruction of lands and habitats by agriculture, logging, mining and drilling — and it covered the point of view of people first impacted by global warming. It said, “Based on Indigenous and local knowledge, climate change is affecting food security in drylands, particularly those in Africa, and high mountain regions of Asia and South America.”

Many young people are reading these reports. For those of you who have not been keeping up with the news about global heating, the youth have left you behind. It’s time to catch up.

Settlers’ war with nature

Deforestation and environmental devastation started in North and South America and in Africa with colonialism, and the arrogant thieving mentality that came with it of “man over nature.” The settlers started a war with nature in these lands. In fact, Europe’s massive ship-building phase, [which enabled settlers] to go forth and steal, leveled swaths of Europe’s forests.

Modern scholars now estimate Indigenous populations pre-invasion at 50 million to 100 million people [in North America]. But by 1800, less than 1 million Native people remained within what are the current U.S. borders, threatened by 15 million European settlers.

And the Native peoples’ population collapse led to immediate imbalances with other species such as game animals. Why? Because Indigenous cultures centered on living in balance with the natural world, centered stewardship of the forests and lands.

Before 1492, what is today the U.S. had about 1 billion acres of forests. Since 1600, some 286 million acres were destroyed (and that might be a low estimate). In a 1763 letter, Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Cleared land absorbs more heat and melts snow quicker.” That he and [Thomas] Jefferson and the settlers were focused on rapidly taking down the forests is well-documented in their writings.

By the early 1800s, settlers had cleared a 100-mile-wide swath from what is now Maine to Georgia, with one-half to three-quarters of the forests cleared. Settlers regarded these lands and resources as plunder for them to abuse. It was not long before soil fertility was damaged — lands were abandoned, and more lands stolen from Native nations.

Eighty percent of Earth’s land animals and plants live in forests. Even taking out part of a forest’s insulating canopy damages habitats and causes temperature swings harmful to plants and animals. And rainforests are key to water supplies and clean air. Between 1990 and 2016, we lost another 502,000 square miles of Earth’s forests.

Colonialism fueled capitalism’s growth. Colonialism and the growth of capitalism have deforested the world. This is a big part of the crisis of global warming; in addition to the massive ongoing increases of carbon in the atmosphere, the forests that draw carbon back out of the atmosphere have been destroyed. The world needs reforestation.

Cuban reforestation: role model for the world

As someone who has suffered eco-grief for years, [this writer brings] a message of hope. As a member of the 50th Venceremos Brigade, I witnessed Cuba doing what the world needs to do.

After the 1959 Revolution, Cuba implemented its first Agrarian Reform. Cuban reforestation began in 1968 in the [mountainous region of] Sierra del Rosario, with support from the revolutionary government, when local villagers decided on a plan.

The area had been totally denuded during Spanish colonization. The original forest was cut down for livestock and plantations. The indigenous trees — Mahogany, Majagua, Cedar, Ebony and others — were entirely wiped out. By the mid-1800s, the soil was degraded, and deforestation continued into the early 1900s. The impoverished rural people worked for ranchers, or they burned trees to make charcoal to sell. By the time of the Cuban Revolution, there was nothing left but isolated palm trees in those mountains.

Socialist Cuba saw a need to implement social and economic projects in the rural areas. This reforestation plan, launched along with the establishment of community services and livelihoods, targeted improving soil quality and providing essential work for the area’s people. They used a terrace-planting system on the mountain slopes. The plan began with an initial 12,355 acres (5,000 hectares) in the eastern part of the mountain range.

Cuban scientists assisted [the project] to determine which indigenous trees to plan, and the villagers planted 3,000 Mahogany, Hibiscus and Teak trees. Within eight years, the rural people in the valley had planted 6 million trees. In 1971, they founded the village of Las Terrazas [the terraces].

The revolutionary Cuban government stated that fruit trees should also be planted among the other trees in order to feed the people. Over 80 percent of the food eaten in the biosphere is locally grown, all of it organic, including bananas, pumpkins, grapefruit, avocados, oranges, mandarins and mamey — all grown between the forest trees.

Indigenous ecosystems restored

When the Cuban people restored the forests, the indigenous mammals, plants, birds and insects, many of which had become endangered during centuries of colonialist and capitalist exploitation of the environment, began to come back. The indigenous ecosystems began to be restored.

Today Cuba has 131 species of birds, 26 [of them] indigenous, the rest pass through on migratory routes to their nesting areas in Cuba. There are 33 reptilian species, including 17 species of snakes and 11 species of lizards. Some of the world’s smallest mammal species are from Cuba — the jutía conga and jutía carabalí, rodents which live in the trees, returned to the forest, and, it is believed, the tiny endangered Cuban solenodon as well.

In 1985, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognized this reforestation project — and, in conjunction with the Cuban government, added 61,776 acres (25,000 hectares) of the Sierra del Rosario — as the first Biosphere Reserve in Cuba.

During the Special Period, after the loss of the Soviet Union and Cuba’s other former socialist trading partners, there was revolutionary support to promote ecological and cultural tourism with a doubled focus on sustainability. Also beginning with the Special Period, it became mandatory to grow organic food.

Local villagers restored a coffee plantation from the ruins of one of the colonial plantations. They planted coffee trees and began to harvest shade-grown, arabica coffee. Honey is also locally produced, and beekeeping is widely practiced.

Las Terrazas: Model for reforestation projects

My subgroup of the brigade visited Las Terrazas [in the Sierra del Rosario Biosphere] July 28. We were joined by Ida, a local guide, at the village, and then we visited the Rio San Juan. The river is fed by sulfur springs, so it is regarded as a mineral treatment. Las Terrazas and the river are popular for workers in Havana to visit on holidays. We were there during the national holidays, and we joined the many Cubans swimming in the river and enjoying the forest.

The village was built with piped water, power, schools, daycare centers, family doctors, dentists, a clinic lab and a pharmacy. From the beginning, scientific workers, public service providers and artists joined the local people — and the project greatly improved [local living] conditions.

Villagers created a lake with fish farming, and some people raise livestock to provide meat. Las Terrazas has some solar power and plans to acquire more when possible. The village later added an eco-museum, a cinema and a disco, as Cubans are renowned for their love of film and music. They later decided to use their tourism profits to build a library.

Las Terrazas [the Sierra del Rosario project] became the model in Cuba for another 11 reforestation projects. UNESCO recognizes the Cuban reforestation programs for “principles of incorporating knowledge and traditional practices to strengthen community involvement in strategic planning,” and UNESCO has recognized five more Cuban biospheres to date.

The Sierra del Rosario Biosphere has regulations of conservation; the community, organized in the local Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR), makes all decisions regarding sustainability, such as limits on further building and housing. The 11 other reforestation communities meet periodically at Las Terrazas to exchange indigenous seeds to promote biodiversity, and they trade produce.

Las Terrazas has three green gardens, which support the schools and community as the source of most of their food. [They also] provide [food] for seven eco-restaurants in the park. Villagers grow fruits, flowers and plants with medicinal uses for herbal infusions and vitamins.

Kindergarten children have their own garden, and they eat their own produce at lunch and snack times. The children even learn to make herbal infusions with various flowers, such as chamomile, and guava, the guayaba fruit.

Ida, our guide, told us, “When I tell you it was mandatory to grow everything we needed, it was not because someone came and told us to do it. We need to do it. And we grow organic all the time.”

Some 7 million indigenous trees have been planted so far, and great biodiversity recovered, with over 800 species of plants. Scientific specialists search for species of plants and animals in the forest daily, and twice a week they work with the local students to teach them to recognize the plants. Even small children know how to recognize six or seven local plants.

Impact of global warming in Cuba

Our guide talked about the impact of global warming on Cuba’s growing seasons and local flora. Some varieties of plants have now disappeared from the forest due to the heat; others are in season earlier and longer, such as mangoes. This July was the warmest month ever recorded in the world. Ida told us the past average year-round temperature in Cuba was 24°C to 25°C (75°F to 77°F), but this year they had a new high of 39.8°C (103.64°F).

Ida said the reforestation plan was focused on the environment from the beginning. She said when she was a child before the reforestation, the rains were so intense that children were forced to stay home from school sometimes for a week or two. Now there are seasonal rains that might last only three days.

The people of Las Terrazas live a rural life — one enriched by living in the peaceful, beautiful forest — but a cultural life very different from a rural life in most capitalist countries. Beyond free health care, education, involvement of the community in all decision-making, the focus on science and sustainability, and the organic food, like all Cubans they are focused on their music and arts.

In addition to the local musicians — one of whom, Polo Montañez, became world famous — every June, Las Terrazas hosts a five-day music festival in tribute to the late Montañez, which is attended by people from all over Cuba and other countries. This village has a very enhanced cultural life.

In the last couple of years, the villagers began to organize work to clean plastic and trash out of the rivers, where foreign tourists and some vacationing Cubans have littered. Children are invited to join the work to clean up the trash tourists leave; in this way, their environmental consciousness is developed from a young age. Their CDR is currently discussing the need to limit the numbers of tourists in order to protect the environment, as a matter of sustainable limits.

Capitalist corporations poison waters

What city in the U.S. ever discusses sustainability? What corporation ever took account of that in its planning around mineral or fossil fuel extraction projects? None of them! They have left huge collection ponds of poisoned waters near shutdown mines that kill flocks of migratory birds.

From the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, in the Arctic, to the BP spill in the Gulf, [corporations] never clean up their devastation of lands and waters. Life pays that penalty — animals, plants, humans.

Capitalism treats our Earth’s lands, waters and air as commodities to sell, exploit, damage, and to use as a dumping ground!

We need a rapid transition away from the use of fossil fuels to stop global heating, but capitalism won’t stop its war on nature. Capitalism is not going to stop adding to its damages to the atmosphere, oceans and lands. U.S. presidents have been getting briefings on greenhouse gases since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965. Big Oil knew the risks decades earlier.

Today, more than 80 percent of U.S. residents live in urban areas, physically and mentally removed from relations with what remains of the forests. [Significantly,] forests that are on western Native reservations are in better shape than U.S. national forests, despite [getting] only one-third of the funding. Native forests are considered by forestry experts to be better cared for and in better condition.

Yet with global heating, there is now a longer fire season and much hotter, faster wildfires. Indigenous nations are focused on sustaining ecological function across the lands. All national forests and parks are stolen Native lands.

The European colonialist worldview of “man over nature” should be seen as superstitious and anti-science. All resource planning needs to become holistic — this is what forestry scientists have learned from working with Native forestry programs: The needs of the forests — the ecosystems — must be protected.

There is no planet B!

Capitalism is not sustainable — it is the death economy, it is the death culture! By its very nature, it cannot be made environmentally sustainable. For those of you who are new to environmentalism, when we speak of sustainability, we are speaking of the biosphere, of life on Earth. There is no planet B.

Big Oil needs to be nationalized and expropriated, and the infrastructure rebuilt as needed to move toward a sustainable living future. And we need to win scientists to a working-class, socialist program — their abilities to help judge the best practices to rapidly transition away from fossil fuels will be sorely needed.

Instead of personal choices, we need central planning that enables communities and nations to make collective choices, like Cuba does.

Stopping global warming also requires reforestation. Forests do more than clean the air of [excess] carbon. They protect soil, water, air, biodiversity, and they provide livelihoods. Despite decades under the illegal U.S. blockade, Cuba has done 50 years of reforestation work. Cuba protects its endangered species and works to restore indigenous ecosystems. Cuba only grows organic food. Despite proximity to Florida, Cuba’s coral reefs are much healthier than Florida’s.

Cuba’s socialist planning centers on sustainability and enables the Cuban people to do all this. Revolutionary Cuba, despite the economic aggressions of imperialism, is a model for fighting global warming.

Like Fidel said, like the Zapatistas say: “Another world is possible!”

Mni Wiconi! Water is Life! Cuba Sí! Bloqueo No!

Reference: “Our Nation’s Forests Need America’s First Stewards.” Gary S. Morishima and Larry Mason. Journal of Forestry, vol. 115, issue 5, Sept. 2017, pp. 354-61. (

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