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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

July 21, 1995

Air Date: July 21, 1995


Cuba: The "Special Period" / Martha Honey

Reporter Martha Honey provides an overview of how economic necessity has increased national self-reliance in medicine, agriculture and transportation on isolated Cuba. This segment originally aired in November of 1994. (09:05)

Living in the Material World

Host Steve Curwood interviews photographer and author Peter Menzel about his recent photographic journal of typical families in 30 countries around the world. The images examine the consumptive patterns of people in developed and less-developed nations. This segment originally aired in November of 1994. (05:30)

Living on Earth Profile # 12: Eugene Odum, the Godfather of Ecology / Mary Kay Mitchell

Forty years ago Eugene Odum wrote a book that revolutionized the academic approach to the science of ecology. Odum advocated the integration of plant and animal studies into holistic, ecosystem studies. At age 81, Odum is writing about his ideas for general readers. Mary Kay Mitchell of WUGA in Athens, Georgia has this profile. (04:51)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright c 1995 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Jennifer Schmidt, Amy Eddings, Martha Honey, Mary Kay Mitchell
GUEST: Peter Menzel

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. Cuba's economic crisis has raised a host of questions about the future of the island nation... herbal medicine and other green technologies may be among the answers.

PEDROSO: In our community we have clubs of elderly men and women who know about medicinal plants. We also have a new laboratory for making these medicines from medicinal plants. In Cuba, the green medicines supply about 20% of our needs nowadays.

CURWOOD: Also, a photo-journalist looks at who has what in typical families around the world, and what they want.

MENZEL: Well the families all wanted 3 things, Steve. They wanted physical security and economic security. They wanted more leisure time, and they wanted a better education for their children. That was pretty universal.

CURWOOD: Also the father of modern ecology on Living on Earth, right after this news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: From Living on Earth, I'm Jan Nunley.

The federal government wants to list the Pacific Coho Salmon as a threatened species. And if Coho Salmon populations common to the Oregon and California coast continue to decline, they could be reclassified as endangered. From KPLU in Seattle, Jennifer Schmidt reports.

SCHMIDT: The government calls its proposal the most significant in the history of the Endangered Species Act. It would provide federal protection for Coho runs from central California all the way to the Columbia River along Oregon's northern border. The Coho's habitat includes not only the ocean but millions of acres of coastal land---much of it private---surrounding the streams where the fish spawn. National Marine Fisheries Service Regional Director Will Stelle says the proposed listings are a signal that Pacific Salmon are in serious trouble.

STELLE: The region faces a basic choice. It's a choice on whether it wants - whether the region wants - healthy, harvestable runs or not.

SCHMIDT: The Fisheries Service doesn't want to force a strict recovery plan on the region. It wants states to develop their own conservation plans with federal assistance. But angry environmentalists are already criticizing the plan for failing to include dwindling Washington State Coho runs in the listing proposal. And property rights advocates are concerned about the effect it will have on private landowners. For Living on Earth, I'm Jennifer Schmidt reporting.

NUNLEY: Not all West Coast salmon are in trouble. The number of Chinook salmon going up California's Sacramento River is at an all-time high. According to state authorities, most of the Chinook were spawned 3 to 4 years ago in state hatcheries in the Sacramento area. Chinook heading to sea from the river face diversion pumps that send water to southern California. Pumping rates were low, however, in 1992 and '93.

The House Appropriations Committee has voted to slash the budget for the Environmental Protection Agency by 33 % - more than any other major federal agency. California Republican Jerry Lewis, who chairs the Subcommittee on Independent Agencies, says the cuts will make the EPA "leaner and more flexible." But EPA administrator Carol Browner says the vote was "a deliberate attempt to dismantle environmental and public health protections." President Clinton says the cuts would "decimate" the government's ability to protect people from pollution. He vowed to veto the bill in its present form.

And the Full House has voted to extend a moratorium on discount land sales to mining companies for a second year. The bipartisan measure prevents the Department of the Interior from selling mineral-rich land to mining companies for as little as $2.50 an acre. That rate hasn't changed since passage of the 1872 Mining Law. A tough battle is expected for the measure when it moves to the Senate.

A controversial House bill amending the Clean Water Act would end federal control of most protected wetlands. That's the conclusion of a joint survey by the Army Corps of Engineers, the EPA, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The study found that almost 98% of wetlands in South Carolina, 90% in Georgia, and 94% in Alabama would be removed from federal jurisdiction under the bill. Federal regulations would also be lifted on nearly 150 million acres of Alaskan wetlands. The Senate is now considering a similar measure. Foes of the legislation argue that wetlands are essential for ecosystem protection.

A bipartisan group of New York state legislators have passed a bill adding New York City to a planned 150-mile hiking-and-biking trail along the Hudson River. The plan's supporters - including the Natural Resources Defense Council - say it will give New Yorkers access to a waterfront that's currently off-limits. But others have their doubts. From WFUV in New York, Amy Eddings reports.

EDDINGS: The Hudson River Valley Greenway Project was established by the state in 1991 to link river-front communities on the Hudson River from the New York Harbor to the upstate city of Troy. Supporters believe the project will spur the city to develop its languishing river-front property, provide it with development funds and boost tourism. But an unlikely coalition of local city Democrats, Republicans, and other environmental activists are skeptical. They say the bill is vaguely worded and could allow for commercial development in neighborhoods already suffering from a lack of open, green space. And they complain that the bill is redundant since most of the river-front is already publicly owned, and could be made into a part or trail at any time. A decision on the bill is expected by Governor George Pataki before the end of the month. For Living on Earth, this is Amy Eddings in New York.

NUNLEY: A new battery may make electric vehicles more appealing to consumers by increasing their range and cutting recharge time. California-based Battery Automated Transportation International claims its new Fiber-nickel-cadmium battery will boost vehicle range from 100 to 150 miles, recharge to half-capacity in just 5 minutes, and run at less than a quarter of the cost of gasoline engines. The company says the new battery will be available by the end of 1996.

That's this week's Living on Earth news , I'm Jan Nunley.

Back to top

(Theme music returns)

Cuba: The "Special Period"

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

The Cuban revolution brought harsh political and economic controls to the island nation... but it also brought education, a good diet and health care to nearly all its people. When Cuba's Soviet patrons collapsed in 1991, all these gains were threatened--the country lost most of its oil, food and industrial imports. But what Cuba still had was its intellectual capital--more doctors and scientists per capita than just about any other Latin American nation. And in the last few years it's enlisted them in the search for ways to do more with fewer imported goods and using local sustainable techniques in areas like medicine and agriculture. Today, Martha Honey has the second of our series of rebroadcasts on Cuba's new "green" revolution.

(Crying child in clinic)

HONEY: A 6-year-old boy protests loudly as a doctor stitches up a deep cut above his eyebrow. Three other adults try to comfort the youngster, who lies on an operating table in the rural clinic of Las Terrazas. All medicines and supplies used in this minor operation are made in Cuba, except for the band-aid which was brought in by the US visitors. Cuba used to import most of its drugs and medical supplies from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. It also imported 63% of all food, 86% of industrial raw materials, 98% of fuel, and about 75% of its manufactured goods. The collapse of the Soviet Bloc, together with a tightened US trade embargo, has forced Cuba back on its own resources. One of the initiatives has been a campaign to recoup traditional home remedies and produce herbal medicines. Dr. Rodobaldo Pedroso, Las Terrazas' 31-year-old physician, says these so-called green medicines are now an important part of his clinic's stock.

PEDROSO: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: There is a greater interest in the enormous possibilities of green medicine. In our community we have clubs of elderly men and women who know about medicinal plants. We also have a new laboratory for making these medicines from medicinal plants. In Cuba, the green medicines supply about 20% of our needs nowadays.

(Footfalls and hushed conversation: "Oh, good. Can we see that?")

HONEY: A group of 50 Americans follow engineer Leonardo Blanco into an enormous, rain-soaked field. It's 117 degrees in the midday sun at the University of Pinar del Rio's Medicinal Plant Research Station.

BLANCO: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: Now it's the beginning of the planting season for medicinal plants here in Cuba. We don't apply insecticides; we don't use any inorganic fertilizers because as you know, all these things affect health. And precisely because we're investigating medicinal plants, we need to be sensitive in the application of chemicals that can endanger people. This plant is called French oregano. It's being used a lot with children to control coughs. We have over here a species of tilo; it's a sedative. It's endemic to our province, and it calms the nerves.

HONEY: Cuba has identified over 50 plants which can be used to make safe, effective and inexpensive medicines. But Cuba still has severe shortages of about 300 drugs which it used to import and cannot yet manufacture. Top of the list are penicillin and sulfur-based antibiotics, and anti-parasite medicines needed most urgently for children. Cubans call the economic crisis the worst since the Revolution, the Special Period. They say that like the Chinese character for the word "crisis," the Special Period contains within it elements of both danger and opportunity. There are enormous hardships. Perhaps most worrisome has been the severe food shortages. Caloric intake per person is estimated to have dropped by 30%. Faced with such hardships, thousands of Cubans have tried to flee the island, and nearly everyone grumbles. But there is also a strong undercurrent of resilience and determination. The special period has prompted bureaucratic reforms and grass-roots inventiveness. Daily life is lean, but on some fronts it's also more healthy and environmentally- friendly. People ride bicycles or walk. In Havana the number of bicycles has jumped 25 times, to over 800,000. Throughout the city, Cuban workers have planted small garden plots. People eat more fruits and vegetables, less pork, plow fields with oxen instead of tractors, use organic instead of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and recycle nearly everything. Agricultural and animal waste has been turned into fertilizers and biogas.

(Children yelling)

HONEY: The children at this Pinar del Rio tobacco cooperative in the western part of the island show no signs of suffering from the economic crisis. They are well-dressed, very active, and look healthy and well-nourished.

RODRIGO: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: Despite difficult conditions, we have maintained and increased production of tobacco and increased production of food for ourselves.

HONEY: Agricultural engineer Eduardo Rodrigo says that the cooperative has successfully adopted a number of low-impact farming practices.

RODRIGO: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: We have given a great part of our capacities to look for alternatives that compensate for the lack of fertilizers, lack of fuel, lack of spare parts and machinery. The cooperative has developed the utilization of organic fertilizers, and at the same time the production of humus using worms.

HONEY: Amongst a grove of African palms is a worm farm, one of 172 such centers in Cuba started during the Special Period. It produces organic fertilizer, using earth worms, animal manure and garbage: a process known as vermiculture. A group of technicians jockey to explain that through this technique ordinary soil can be transformed into rich humus.

[Several men speak in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: We have produced already 25,000 tons of humus in 4 years. This is a substitute for all the nitrogen fertilizers that the country used to import before, and we cannot afford any more. Most of the humus is used in tobacco, potatoes, other tubers, onions, and garlic.

(Sound of engines)

HONEY: A short distance away is a huge complex of steel machinery, metal conveyor belts and silos. It's the island's first sugar mill, built entirely with Cuban technology. Off to the side, there's another sound.

(Quacking ducks)

HONEY: This is a technological innovation that the factory has made in response to the economic crisis, and it produces meat, not sugar. A series of ponds is stocked with hearty fish, and a long the banks is a fenced-off area for ducks and a dozen or so pig- pens. Technician Antonio Valdi says that each part of the system helps feed the others - and all, in turn, provide enough meat to feed the factory's 450 workers. Valdi explains how it works. The pigs are fed a special mixture which includes sugar cane waste from the factory and protein-rich fly larvae, which grows in the pig's dung.

(Grunting pigs)

HONEY: The pig manure is also shoveled into the ponds, where it produces algae. The fish eat both the manure and the algae. The ducks, in turn, feed from the ponds. And completing the cycle, pond lilies help purify the water so that it can be used to irrigate the cane fields. Valdez says it's a process of symbiosis, where the various species live together and don't alter the ecology around them. This is one of many such projects around the island. They are part of Cuba's campaign to use every available resource to help produce food. Cuba's old production model, particularly its large-scale chemical-intensive and import-dependent agricultural sector, has died a sudden and painful death. Experts say without the government's relatively rapid transition to new methods, such as green medicine, vermiculture, and integrated food production, the depth of the economic and social crisis would have been much greater. Economic necessity precipitated these changes, but many Cubans say they like them. The economic downward slide appears to have stopped, and Cubans are looking forward to the day when the US trade embargo and the Special Period will end.

(Children speaking)

HONEY: They are hoping that the future will be brighter for their kids. The future is still unclear, and the government hasn't articulated a new social and economic model. If, however, change continues to be fairly orderly, experts predict many of these environmentally-friendly innovations will be permanently integrated into the new Cuba. For Living on Earth, I'm Martha Honey in Pinar del Rio, Cuba.

Back to top


Living in the Material World

CURWOOD: While the lifestyle in Cuba today is lean, Cuban health care and educational systems are still considered to be among the best in Latin America. But what is important when it comes to happiness for people everywhere? That's the question photographer Peter Menzel and a team of photo-journalists set out to answer. The results are a fascinating book called Material World: A Global Family Portrait. It's a set of photo essays of middle income families from 30 countries around the world. They removed all the objects from their homes, placed them outside, and posed with them, the most prized possession at the center. The American family put its Bible in front; the Bhutan family its Buddha, the Mexican family its television, and the Haitian family its machete and goat. Peter Menzel says despite the obvious differences, he found common desires among the families.

MENZEL: Well the families all wanted 3 things, Steve. They wanted physical security and economic security. They wanted more leisure time, and they wanted a better education for their children. That was pretty universal.

CURWOOD: Let's go on a visit now to these places.

(Children's voices, a television)

CURWOOD: Where are we now, what time is it?

MENZEL: We're at the Yukita's in suburban Tokyo, and I'm sitting on the floor at the dinner table and they're having a typical Friday evening meal. And as always, their wide screen television, high-definition television, is on in the background. And they're usually watching the news or a movie, and here they're watching a Kung Fu movie while they're talking and eating, discussing homework. They take a break to clip one of the kid's toenails. The father talks about his work, the mother talks about her work. Everybody's talking, eating, while there's this Jackie Chan Kung Fu movie in the background that is, like, incredible.

CURWOOD: If you look at the picture of the objects that they have, and this is on page 48 and 49 of your book, we're looking at a unicycle, books, dolls, pogo sticks, clocks, toys, baskets, clothes, bookcases, there's a Toyota minivan I guess under all this stuff. There's a washer, there's a dryer, there's a video game player, there's of course a refrigerator.

MENZEL: Japan's got one of the highest income levels in the world, and also one of the highest life expectancies in the world. They still have to be very active in order to make a living there, and they work very hard 6 days a week.

CURWOOD: Let me talk a little bit about sustainability and - well, for lack of a better word, comfort. Some of the most sustainable societies that you showed here, I'm thinking of Bhutan, don't seem very comfortable. And those that seem very comfortable, Japan or the United States, don't seem all that sustainable.

MENZEL: Exactly. That seems to be the problem. Bhutan is an amazing small kingdom in the Himalayas that until the 1960's had no currency; they had no road to the outside. They had no airport until 1970. All of a sudden they're letting 2,000 tourists in a year, and Westerners are going there looking at these people with very strong Buddhist traditions doing subsistence agriculture. It looks idyllic until you actually go inside of their house, go behind the walls, and see how they're really living.

(Child speaking with a man, bird song)

MENZEL: We're in Namgay's house on the second floor of their rammed earth house in this small village of Shinka. There's 12 other rammed earth houses in this village. And everyone's sitting on the floor; there's an open fire. They're cooking rice and they're eating rice from a central bowl. They put it into their bowls and then they're eating with their hands. With one hand, and with the other hand they're trying to keep the flies off themselves and the food. There's swarms, clouds of flies all over the place. All the kids had dysentery, and they, their life expectancy for a woman is close to 50 and for a man it's in the high 40s.

CURWOOD: They don't seem to have too much in the way of material goods here. They - the father has a religious object, it looks like some kind of a Buddha.

MENZEL: Right. His Buddhist idols were his favorite possessions, and everyone we asked in this village said the same thing; they would pick the same thing.

CURWOOD: Mostly they have vessels for holding things here.

MENZEL: Right. These are ceremonial water cups.

CURWOOD: In the background we have the rest of their possessions, a few rugs and a few more vessels.

MENZEL: Right; they really don't have much furniture. They have a few cabinets, and the rest of it is pretty much hand-made items, tools. They've got animals, pigs, goats, chickens, and they harvest wheat and rice by hand.

CURWOOD: Peter, I'm noticing that throughout this book you have keys to the people in the pictures. And in each and every case, the number one person is the dad. Is there a reason for this?

MENZEL: Right. Well, there's a Chinese proverb that says that man is the head of the family and woman is the neck that turns the head.

CURWOOD: Do you think all these families were comfortable with you listing dad as number one?

MENZEL: I think the dads in all these families are very comfortable with us listing dad as number one.

CURWOOD: Who's happier here? The ones from the poorer countries that have the simpler lifestyles, or those from the more advanced industrial countries?

MENZEL: There actually isn't that much difference between affluent and less affluent, because they are average families. They don't really lack too much. The spirituality that comes out of some of the poorer families more than makes up for their lack of material possessions. And I think that's what we can learn from the whole project, the whole book, is looking at different cultures and finding out what we can adapt to our own daily lives to make them a little bit more meaningful.

CURWOOD: Thank you very much.

MENZEL: You're welcome. Thank you.

CURWOOD: Peter Menzel's book is called Material World: A Global Family Portrait, published by Sierra Club Books.

Back to top

(Music up and under: Madonna's "Material Girl")

CURWOOD: Much of the world's environment has been changed to give us more material goods. Has it been worth it? What's your answer? Call us at 1-800-218-9988. Again, that's 1-800-218-9988. Or e-mail us: LOE@NPR.ORG. That's LOE@NPR.ORG. Our postal address is Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. Transcripts and tapes are $10.

Living on Earth Profile # 12: Eugene Odum, the Godfather of Ecology

CURWOOD: The science of ecology has been around for a long time, but the holistic ecosystem approach taught today only recently began to make its way into the academy. If there is one man who was key to making that change, it may be Eugene Odum. Odum popularized the notion of ecology in a book 40 years ago, and later applied the concept in founding the Institute of Ecology of the University of Georgia. That's where Mary Kay Mitchell of member station WUGA found him, and prepared this installment in our series of profiles of 25 environmental pioneers.

MITCHELL: Students, faculty, and visiting scientists mingle in the vine-covered courtyard of the Institute of Ecology for their monthly informal discussion. These people come from all over the world to work and study at the Institute, built the same year as the first Earth Day in 1970. The Institute is the inspiration of its Director Emeritus, Eugene Odum. At the age of 81, he is still active. Today, he's making arrangements over the telephone for a conference on politics and the environment.

ODUM: And so we've actually been in correspondence trying to get representatives, people from both Coverdell and Newt Gingrich here because Gingrich actually was here some years ago and talked with us about the environment.

MITCHELL: Odum is working hard these days to convince politicians of the importance of connecting environmental concerns with all other public policy issues. He first began to notice such interrelationships as a young scientist studying birds, when he had a breakthrough revelation.

ODUM: So you realize that you can't understand the physiology of any one organism, or any one group of organisms like birds, without going on to the physiology of the system they live in. So you go from functions, like blood circulating and heart pumping, to the salt marsh with the tides being the parts, and the flow of the water being the circulatory system.

MITCHELL: Odum's colleagues initially ridiculed this holistic approach. They were used to teaching animal ecology and plant ecology separately. In response, Odum wrote a pivotal book in 1953 called Fundamentals of Ecology. According to ecological historian Robert McIntosh of Notre Dame, it started a revolution in the way ecology was taught.

McINTOSH: He certainly was pushing the re-conception of ecology to make it essentially much more inclusive than it traditionally was. He at one point made the point that ecology was emerging as what he called a new integrative discipline. It transcended biology. He wanted to include all human considerations, human society.

MITCHELL: The book quickly became the seminal ecology textbook, translated into several languages.

McINTOSH: His book dominated the market.

MITCHELL: Frank Golley, Professor of Ecology at the University of Georgia.

GOLLEY: I would say without exaggeration, I think, that in America at least, most of the ecologists of the next generation were trained using his book.

MITCHELL: Odum's work showed the next generation of ecologists how human activities were affecting life support systems and how their discipline could help preserve and ensure a high quality of life for humans and other species.

JACKSON: Odum has long been a strong inspiration for the type of research that we've been doing here at the Land.

MITCHELL: That's the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, run by Wes Jackson. The Institute is an international leader in developing sustainable agricultural practices, which serve as a model for living in harmony with natural ecosystems.

JACKSON: The rules, or the principles, or the guidelines that are derived from understanding natural ecosystems and how they work -- to a large extent, the bedrock for that has been laid by Odum and his students.

MITCHELL: Odum created that legacy by putting the philosophy of his book into action. In order to prove the importance of ecology as an integrative discipline, he established the Institute of Ecology to cut across the usual academic boundaries. Today, the Institute hosts the largest number of practicing ecologists in the country, and Odum's contributions have been recognized internationally with numerous top science awards.

So what's next for the innovator? In addition to a full schedule of lectures and conferences, he's writing a new book to share his message with the general public.

ODUM: The environment is part of everything. The reason we have so much violence is because the environment is getting bad, you see. Solving our human problems now depends more and more on understanding and dealing with the environmental predicaments. In the political arena and the economic arena, you see, these people are environmentally illiterate.

MITCHELL: So Dr. Eugene Odum's goal now is to teach the world. For Living on Earth, I'm Mary Kay Mitchell in Athens, Georgia.

Back to top

CURWOOD: A correction now. In a recent story on a plan to allow oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, we incorrectly stated the projected federal revenues. The correct estimate is between $1.5 billion over 7 years. Our apologies for the error.

CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth. Our associate producer is Kim Motylewski. Our production team includes Peter Thomson, Deborah Stavro, George Homsy Constantine von Hoffman, Jan Nunley, and Julia Madeson. We had help from Catherine Gill, Jessika Bella Mura, David Dunlap, Susan Shepherd, Liz Lempert and Bob Emro. Our engineers in the WBUR studio are Keith Sheilds and Frank DeAngelis. Special thanks to Jan Pipik and Jeff Martini. Michael Aharon composed our theme.

Living On Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, and is recorded at the studios of WBUR, Boston and Harvard University. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

ANNOUNCER: Living on Earth is made possible with major funding provided by the National Science Foundation for coverage of science and the environment; and all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt - whether supporting worthwhile causes or producing healthy foods, Stonyfield's goal is to make you feel good inside. Support also comes from the W. Alton Jones Foundation and the Bullit Foundation.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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