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

Cuba: The "Special Period"

Air Date: Week of

Reporter Martha Honey provides an overview of how economic necessity has increased national self-reliance in medicine, agriculture and transportation on isolated Cuba.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. This week we continue with our examination of Cuba's ecological response to its economic crisis and isolation. Cuba has more doctors and scientists per capita than just about any of the other Latin American nations, and it's enlisted them in the search for ways to make do with less imported goods and with local sustainable techniques. Martha Honey has the second of our series of reports.

(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 an 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 along 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.



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