This past week-end, i got back from a much needed vacation in Cuba. While there, I reflected a lot upon the feasibility of being green in a developing, socialist no less, nation.
Often in the developed world, we equate being “green” with “green” products. It’s true that making the switch from conventional to “green” or eco-friendly products is definitely a step in the right direction, but I think we’ve lost track of the essential meaning. A green lifestyle should be about reducing consumption, not the buying of new “green” products. Check out the story of stuff if this doesn’t make sense.
It’s easy to be ethnocentric and judge other peoples cultures. Immediately upon arriving in Varadero, I was quick to judge the resort I was at for not recycling (shampoo bottles, pop cans, wine & rum bottles etc.) and bus drivers that would idle for half an hour at rest stops.
However, upon reflection, the Cubans did much more than I have seen Canadians do in a long time which probably impacts the environment even more. They live a lifestyle that we have long forgotten about. A lifestyle that embodies the basics of no waste, albeit for economic reasons.
- Energy saver light bulbs – Every park I visited including outdoor restaurants, had energy saver light bulbs. Honestly, this was the last thing I would have expected, but definitely pleasantly surprising. How they get there though is another question. Are they importing from another country, and if so, does that impact the environment more or less than the reduction in energy to light up the parks?
- Emphasis on seasonal foods – At the hotel buffet, one of the bowls was labelled seasonal fruits. I said to my friend, “When was the last time in Canada we ever saw that at a buffet?”. The answer was never. Even in the dead of winter, we still find strawberries imported from California and berries imported from Chile. Eating seasonally means we can eat locally which reduces food miles. We need to return to seasonal eating, which even has health benefits as seasonal foods contain the vitamins and minerals we need to ward off seasonal sicknesses.
- Emphasis on locally produced food- As repetitive as it got, we were always served cabbage, tomatoes and cucumbers for vegetables for example. Why? Because this is what they grow. They live off the food that they produce locally. I wish we would do that. You could even say their livestock is free range as it runs around on their street. I don’t eat meat but I would much rather livestock living outdoors then cooped up in cages, buildings or factory farms. However, one of the restaurants we ate at was so local that we saw them tying up pigs for slaughter for the next tour bus that was arriving. That was hard to watch and hear, but a fact of meat eating life I guess. At least these pigs weren’t transported long distances for slaughter before being transferred to grocery stores, (food miles) everything happened on location.
- Oxen used in agriculture – Now don’t get me wrong, as the animal rights activist I am, I’m vary weary of “working” animals. I hate seeing cows and oxen with rope through their noses and wood tied to their heads to connect them to other oxen. This said, the environmental impact is nil compared to the modern day machinery we use which consumes vast amounts of fossil fuels and pollutes the air. Also, since they’re only producing for local means, they don’t need GMO’s or crazy amounts of machinery to produce massive amounts of food for export.
- Horse-drawn carriages, bikes and scooters used for transportation – Again, I’m weary of horse-drawn carriages and don’t like seeing tourists go for rides in them around town. I’m never convinced that the horses are treated that well. However, they were better fed than the ones I saw in Egypt. None the less, using them combined with bikes is an excellent means of transportation that contributes to no air pollution. And scooters are definitely a way of “reducing” their consumption of fossil fuels imported from Venezuela compared to using cars.
- Bus drivers respected the speed limit which reduces exhaust and air pollution – A simple gesture but driving the speed limit reduces air pollution.
- Repair and reuse old cars from the ’50’s – I swear this is one of the most charming aspects of Cuba. It’s a total flash back to the 50’s, but they, much like other developing nations, take the old cars of richer nations, repair the motors and reuse them over and over.
- No wasted food at hotels – All the leftover food at the buffet was given to the employees to take home after. Granted, Canadians would snub their noses up at this but hey, if no one has touched the food, then why not package it and take it home? It’s better than throwing it out, no? If not for the employees, could we at least donate the leftover restaurant food to homeless shelters? Just so we’re clear, I’m not talking about the scraps on peoples plates but simply the cooked food that was never served.
- Minimal to no chemical pesticides used on crops – So technically, from what I was told, sugarcane for example, is grown totally naturally without the additional of chemicals. Thus, I believe it is fair to say that Cuban rum is organic! Another reason to love pina coladas and mojitos!
Now don’t get me wrong, I know very well that every point mentioned above is due to economics, you often see this in poorer countries simply as they don’t have the means to afford richer methods. If they were richer, they’d want the same luxuries that us developed nations have come to consider a right as opposed to a privilege such as strawberries during the winter, non-local food brands transported across the country and large SUV’s to drive 1km instead of taking a bike.
Eco-surprise in a small colonial town of Trinidad, Cuba:
Right before this past Christmas I blogged about Escama studio purses made from recycled beer can pull-tabs. Much to my surprise, I found these exact kinds of purses in a market in Trinidad, Cuba. Here they’re made from the local Cristal beer cans. The local ladies put this waste to use by making these cute purses. I bought one for 8 pesos ($9 US/CAD).
Another cool surprise:
The night before leaving, I was running around town frantically looking for thongs, that’s right, I still refuse to call them flip flops. As it turns out, the Ipanema ‘”flip flops” that I bought, incidentally designed by Gisele Bundchen, are actually eco-friendly and ethical.
The sales clerk in the store told me they were made from the sap of a tree in Brazil. To be honest, I didn’t find anything about this on their website. But I did learn that they are made from recycled PVC in an environmentally sound way, vegan, recyclable at the end of use, and they have strong human rights laws to protect their workers in Brazil. Sounds like a good sustainable business that I like to support when I do actually have to purchase something!
In conclusion, there are drastic changes that must be made in developing nations. But how does one go about bringing environmental change to these places when clearly they have more important issues to worry about?
Cuba is a special case. Since they are a socialist country (contrary to popular belief they are not actually communist) and all companies are owned by the government, what’s their incentive to have their companies listen to foreign complaints about sustainability? One company won’t necessarily benefit over another for making improvements. I suppose I could write my complaints, mainly about the lack of recycling or idling tour buses to their tourism bureau as a threat to their tourism industry would be the biggest motivator to change.
If this was any other island in the Caribbean, where some sort of capitalistic system was in place, the practice of competition between other hotels or tour companies would be a reason to change in response to consumer demands. As far as Cuba’s concerned, I wonder if they even have the infrastructure in place to create recycling facilities, but stopping the tour buses from idling is simple.
I am not a political science or economics expert and my thoughts may be quite naive in the matter but I do know that doing nothing, does just that. So as naive and optimistic as I might be, I have written to both the Cuban Tourist board in Canada and Tours Mont Royal the tour operator that I booked my trip through, bringing my two main environmental complaints to their attention.
Be assured that should i hear back from them on this matter, I will put it in a follow-up post.
Do any of you have thoughts on how developing nations can make the switch to environmental sustainability?