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

November 4, 1994

Air Date: November 4, 1994


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. (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 and what these images reveal about people in developed versus less-developed nations. (05:30)

Three Smart Little Piggies / Ruth Page

Commentator Ruth Page updates the three home-building pigs in the children's fairy tale with wonderment at houses currently being built of straw, rubber tires and even compressed trash. (02:35)

Listener Letters

Listeners tell us via electronic mail what they think about last week's program on sustainable agriculture in Cuba. (02:37)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright (c) 1994 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
NEWSCASTER: Jill Kaufman
REPORTERS: Colin Fogarty, Betsy Bayha, Martha Honey
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.

Ecology is one answer to the economic isolation and squeeze in Cuba, and herbal medicine is part of the green response.

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, we talked with a photo-journalist who took a look 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: We'll also consider straw houses, and what the 3 little pigs could have done to keep out the wolf on Living on Earth. First news.

Environmental News

KAUFMAN: I'm Jill Kaufman with this summary of environmental news. As the United States prepares an economic recovery package for Haiti, US development officials say a true picture of the environmental devastation on the island is emerging. The US Agency for International Development says barely 1% of Haiti remains suitable for agriculture, and less than half the population has access to clean water. In addition, the nation's poverty, combined with the fuel embargo, forced citizens to strip bare nearly all of Haiti's forests. An official with US AID says part of the $375 million aid program will go to environmental restoration. Thousands of Haitians have already been hired to clean streets and plant trees, and he says experts are preparing a plan to promote sustainable agriculture. He also described a women-oriented business program modeled after one in Kenya that will pay women to plant trees and provide them with family planning information.

An Oregon dam responsible for killing thousands of Northwest salmon and steelhead is slated to be torn down. State water officials voted to remove the Savage Rapids Dam to help farmers, but as Oregon Public Broadcasting's Colin Fogarty reports, those economic concerns should end up helping the fish as well.

FOGARTY: The 73-year-old Savage Rapids Dam on the Rogue River prevents 26,000 salmon and steelhead from returning upriver to spawn. It currently provides irrigation water for about 7,000 farmers in southern Oregon. The idea of removing the dam came up when those farmers asked for more water rights. The state's water resources commission found that replacing the dam with more efficient river pumps would be cheaper than repairing it and would leave more water for salmon. Commissioner Nancy Leonard says the Savage Rapids Dam situation is unique, and likely will not create momentum to tear down other Northwest dams.

LEONARD: This has been a questionable dam for many, many years. And the question of its removal has been up in the air for many, many years. And I'm not aware of another one that has quite that kind of status at this time.

FOGERTY: Federal fish biologists say removing the dam could add more than 100,000 salmon and steelhead to Northwest ocean and river fisheries. The plan calls for the Savage Rapids Dam to be torn down by the year 2001. For Living on Earth I'm Colin Fogarty in Portland.

KAUFMAN: A San Francisco-based environmental group has sued the Federal Government, saying it's failed to investigate charges that Mexico is illegally trafficking in endangered sea turtles. Betsy Bayha of KQED has the story.

BAYHA: The lawsuit asks the Federal Commerce and Interior Departments to investigate charges that Mexico continues to kill endangered sea turtles in violation of international treaties. Mexico agreed to stop killing sea turtles in 1990, but activists from the Earth Island Institute say they have evidence showing that Mexico continues the sea turtle slaughter. Populations of the ancient turtles have dwindled from a high of more than 50,000 to less than 1,000 of some species today. Earth Island's Donna Bernardi says the organization notified Federal officials about the problem more than a year ago. They've gotten no response.

BERNARDI: It was their duty at that time to at least answer our reply or investigate. We never got any answer. They aren't even bothering to talk to us about it.

BAYHA: Bernardi says she suspects the delay may have to do with the recently passed North American Free Trade Agreement and the reluctance of US officials to offend their new trading partner. Federal officials had not yet seen the lawsuit and were unable to comment. For Living on Earth, I'm Betsy Bayha in San Francisco.

KAUFMAN: Opening another front in its battle against air pollution, the EPA has proposed regulations to reduce emissions from motor boat engines. Under the new standards, gasoline engines are expected to produce 75% fewer hydrocarbons, while nitrogen oxide emissions from diesel engines would drop by a third. The new rules could add 15% to the price of an outboard motor, but the EPA says the more efficient engines will lower operating costs.

Many people embrace environmental ideals in the hope of cleaning their air, land, or water, but there are some people touting environmentalism as a way to promote ethnic cleansing. A recent CNN report found Ku Klux Klan activists in Florida helping out with local road and beach clean-up efforts. A former Grand Dragon of the Florida Klan, John Baumgardner, says one reason for this involvement is recruitment.

BAUMGARDNER: When we got involved in environmental issues, we did it as individuals, in an effort to, like I said, to outreach to people. To find activists who are willing to listen to our agenda.

KAUFMAN: And he says the agenda is to rid the environment of non-whites, gays, and immigrants of all kinds.

BAUMGARDNER: Assimilation is a form of pollution.

KAUFMAN: Sierra Club's president calls the Klan's green campaign damaging to environmentalism and says it makes it even more difficult for groups like his to address the controversial issue of population.

That's this summary of environmental news. I'm Jill Kaufman.

Back to top

(Theme music up and under)

Cuba: The "Special Period"

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.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

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, can you look past the obvious differences and tell me what you found were the common desires of these typical 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.

MANZEL: 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.

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

Three Smart Little Piggies

CURWOOD: Conventional wisdom can be misleading, especially when it comes to material goods, says commentator Ruth Page. Consider for instance the fairy tale of the Three Little Pigs.

PAGE: That little pig who built his house of straw wasn't so dumb after all; he just didn't finish it off properly, and so allowed its destruction by wolf breath. In Nebraska's Sand Hills Region, where there are no trees, early settlers built with straw. And today their descendants are doing the same.

Sierra Magazine says the builders use waste straw that would otherwise be burned. They stack straw bells in staggered rows, like bricks, on an ordinary concrete foundation. They cover the straw walls with plaster, stucco, or cement. The homes are environmentally sound, they have enormous insulating capacity, and no expert knowledge is needed to build them. A recent Newsweek mentioned a straw and stucco home in Alabama that cost only $15,000, a terrific cost saving that also helps the environment. Hooray for the first little pig!

In some areas homes are being built from old tires. They're solid, secure, and marvelously insulated. You just stack your tires, fill them with earth, cover them with cement, and in you go. I wonder how property tax assessors deal with those.

Architect Michael Reynolds of Taos, New Mexico, builds tire homes that he calls earth ships. They're attractive and you'd never guess their building blocks were the tires off our old pickup trucks. Tire walls can be up to 4 feet thick. During the day they absorb the sun's heat. During the chill Southwestern nights they release it. Sierra claims the combination of thick walls, thick windows, and correct orientation to the sun reduce heating and cooling needs close to zero. As in Bermuda, the house roofs are designed to catch rainwater for the family's use, and photovoltaic cells provide electricity. Photovoltaics aren't cheap, but presumably if you built your house of trash you can afford that expense in order to protect the environment from the damage of burning coal, wood, or gas.

Years ago I read that in Japan, home and office trash was compressed into solid building blocks, a brilliant way to avoid landfilling or burning. Nice to see we Americans are not laggards in the trash recycling arena.

The Three Little Pigs need an update; they could all outwit the wolf nowadays. One straw and mud house; one used tire house; and one compressed trash house. The frustrated wolf would then be tenderly airlifted by World Wildlife to a northern forest where he could howl and hunt with others of his kind.

CURWOOD: Commentator Ruth Page lives in Burlington, Vermont, and comes to us from Vermont Public Radio.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

Listener Letters

CURWOOD: And now it's time to hear from you, our listeners. Our report last week on Cuba's bold gamble with organic agriculture, including biological pest controls and a return to the plow and oxen, brought a number of listener comments by e-mail.

Chris Bobbit wrote from Indiana to thank us for having the nerve to say something good about Cuba. "I suppose you'll get lots of flack," writes Mr. Bobbit. "Maybe it's time the US learned a thing or two. It's high time people give credit where credit is due, and organic farming is an imperative for our long-term survival."

And there was this from Steve Sohn in Brooklyn, New York, who listens to WNYC. "I teach politics and government, and the manner in which we are doing everything short of another blockade to discomfort Fidel Castro cannot help but make me think of how we became involved in Latin American politics on the side of United Fruit. Instead of recognizing the steps taken in the direction of earth-friendly agriculture, we are trying to bring Cuba's accomplishment to naught. We should be encouraging this remarkable experiment by helping these people eat while they await the fruition of their project."

But there was also this. Jack Aubert, a listener to WETA in Washington, wrote, "To depict Cuba's forced return to primitive agricultural methods as a virtue is somewhere on the order of praising walking to work as good for your health because you broke the car. I'm willing to admit that given the right circumstances, like good soil, sufficient water, hard work, and planning, you can grow food effectively in a labor-intensive way without relying on machinery or industrial inputs. But we would all be a lot poorer. Because more people would have to be tending smaller plots of land, the yield per person would be down. Do we want to aspire to more manual labor, fewer conveniences, less variety and less leisure time? Cuba is the last place you would want to experiment with these techniques," Mr. Aubert continues. "Without an organically functioning economy, true prices and usable money, nothing will work properly, and it will be impossible to tell if the work they are doing is useful or simply occupational therapy." Thank you, Mr. Aubert, and all of you who write and call. Your comments are always welcome here at Living on Earth.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our director and producer was Deborah Stavro. Our crew includes Peter Thomson, George Homsy, Kim Motylewski, Julia Madeson, Jan Nunley, David Dunlap, Jonathan Medwed, and Heather Corson. Our WBUR engineers are Keith Shields and Mark Navin. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon.

Living on Earth is a production of the World Media Foundation, and recorded at WBUR, Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

ANNOUNCER: Living On Earth is made possible with major funding provided by the W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to protect the global environment; the Pew Charitable Trusts; the National Science Foundation; and all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt - whether supporting worthwhile causes or producing healthy foods, Stonyfield's goal is to make you feel good inside. Additional contributors include Jennifer and Ted Stanley and the NPR News and Information Fund.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


This Week's Books


Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

Living on Earth
62 Calef Highway, Suite 212
Lee, NH 03861
Telephone: 617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth