Environment in Cuba Essay

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Under repressive colonial Spanish control, the slave population of Cuba fueled the coffee and sugar plantations of the colonial period, creating massive human and environmental damage. Spanish hegemony ended during the Spanish American War (1898), leaving the United States in effective indirect control of the island nation, which lived under a series of dictators until the revolution in 1959. Under Fidel Castro during the period since, the economy of the island came to depend on support from the Soviet Union, whose collapse led to the subsequent withdrawal of several billions of dollars in annual subsidies from the Cuban treasury. The following recession in the early 1990s was exacerbated by an ongoing economic embargo by the United States.

The developmental situation of Cuba is complex. While Cuba has a per capita income of only $3,300, resulting in an income ranking of 157th among 232 counties, its health and human development conditions are relatively high by global standards and extremely high compared to other Caribbean nations. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Human Development Reports rank Cuba 52nd of 232 countries on overall quality-of-life issues, and access to health and education is higher than anywhere else in the region.

Located 93 miles (150 kilometers) south of Key West, Florida, Cuba is bordered by the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, resulting in a coastline 2,316 miles (3,735 kilometers) long. The Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, covering an 18-mile (29-kilometer) area, is located at the southeastern section of the island. While it is geographically part of Cuba, it is leased by the United States. Cuba has limited access to freshwater sources. The tropical climate is moderated by trade winds. The dry season, which lasts from November to April, is followed by a six-month rainy season.

The terrain of Cuba is generally flat with rolling plains except in the mountainous southeast. Droughts are frequent in Cuba, and the island experiences hurricanes on an average of one every two years. Generally occurring from August to November, many hurricanes leave massive environmental damage behind. Cuba’s rich natural resources include cobalt, nickel, iron ore, chromium, copper, salt, timber, silica, and petroleum. Over a third of the land is arable, and 21.2 percent of the workforce is engaged in agriculture.

The major environmental issues in Cuba are air, water, and soil pollution, deforestation, and the loss of biodiversity. Extensive soil degradation is partially the result of both past and present irresponsible waste control practices of the sugar industry. The poor air quality is largely a byproduct of liquid industrial waste such as torula yeast, which is toxic. When such contamination reaches streams, it is transported out to sea.

Pollution and Other Problems

Agriculture and other industries also contribute to pollution on the island. The cement industry emits dust and smoke; chemical and metallurgical industries produce acid steams, smoke, and soot; and mining companies release dust into the air and byproducts into the water. Consequently, Cuba’s bays are polluted, and beaches and coastal areas have eroded. Salinization also causes major difficulties in low-lying coastal areas.

In 2006, a Yale University study ranked Cuba 41st of 132 countries on environmental performance, well above its income group and slightly above its geographic group. The lowest ranks were assigned in the fields of air quality and sustainable energy. Over three-fourths of the Cuban people live in urban areas, and the country generates 0.1 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions despite the fact that there are only 16 passenger cars per 1,000 people on the island. The state protects 69.1 percent of Cuban land. Of 31 endemic animal species, 11 are endangered, and 18 of 86 endemic bird species are in the same precarious situation.

Responsibilty for the Environment

In 1976, the Cuban constitution assigned the responsibility for the environment to both the state and the population. Since that time, specific environmental efforts have included the establishment of the National Commission for Environmental Protection and the Rational Use of Natural Resources (1977), the creation of similar agencies in provinces and municipalities in 1980, the Environmental Protection and Rational Use of Natural Resources Act (1981), and the National Protection System (1990). An extensive system of national parks and protected areas was created to promote biological diversity. In 1993, Cuba’s National Program on Environment and Development established 214 objectives and 816 actions designed to protect the environment and promote rational use of natural resources. The following year, the Ministry of Science, Technology, and the Environment was created to implement environmental policy. Laws were revised again in 1997. Unfortunately, enforcement is difficult, and the protective institution is considered ineffectual by many environmentalists.

Cuba has expressed commitment to the global environment by participating in the following international agreements: Antarctic Treaty, Biodiversity, Climate Change, Kyoto Protocol, Desertification, Endangered Species, Environmental Modification, Hazardous Wastes, Law of the Sea, Marine Dumping, Ozone Layer Protection, Ship Pollution, and Wetlands. The government has signed but not ratified the Marine Life Conservation agreement.


  1. Fidel Castro, Tomorrow Is Too Late: Development and the Environmental Crisis in the Third World (Ocean Press, 1993);
  2. Sergio Diaz-Briquets and Jorge Perez-Lopez, Conquering Nature: The Environmental Legacy of Socialism in Cuba (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999);
  3. Franklin W. Knight and Teresita Martinez-Vergne, , Contemporary Caribbean Cultures and Societies in a Global Context (University of North Carolina Press, 2005);
  4. Mark Kurlansky, A Continent of Islands: Search for the Caribbean Destiny (Addison-Wesley, 1992).

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