Learning from Cuba’s Footprint

Target ONE EARTH – Living Within Our Footprint and What we can Learn from Cuba

Robyn Francis reports on her visit to Cuba to experience ‘first hand’ the only nation on earth living within its ecological footprint. We can live better with less – Cuba shows us how…


 Learning from Cuba’s Footprint 

by Robyn Francis

Cuba provides important food for thought for everyone enjoying ‘western’ affluence to meet the challenge of radical and rapid reduction of consumption and waste–as this is ultimately what drives climate change and resource depletion. Cuba’s capacity to survive collapse gives hope and inspiration as we grapple with the need to embrace radical changes for the great transition to a low-consumption conserver society.

This is an edited transcript of Robyn Francis’ Key Note presentation at the Climate Emergency Conference, Adelaide, October 2008. The article contains a selection of slides from the accompanying visual presentation.


This presentation shares observations from a 40-day exchange visit to Cuba, Apr 28-Jun 6, 2008, visiting 40 permaculture and related projects throughout Cuba. The visit was funded by the Cuba-Australia Permaculture Exchange) CAPE, a project of Erda Institute in Australia and my Cuban host organisation was the Foundation for Nature & humanity, based in Havana.

The 2007 State of the Planet report from the World Wildlife Fund identified Cuba as the only nation on earth living within its ecological footprint and at the same time achieving a high standard in the United Nations Human Development Index. I was curious to see and experience ‘first hand’ a society living within its ecological footprint . Hence this presentation is titled Target One Earth – living within our footprint, what we can learn from Cuba.

What does an ecological footprint mean?

To explain what living within our footprint means is best demonstrated by example: If everyone—all 6.7 billion people on earth– lived like the average Cuban we could sustain our current global population with the resources of one planet earth, whereas If everyone lived like an Australian we’d need 3.7 planets, or like an American we’d need more than 5 planets – this is clearly not sustainable.

We are living well beyond our planetary means and facing planetary bankruptcy.

Learning to live within our ecological footprint is the only sustainable solution to the converging impacts of climate change, peak oil and the myriad of resource peaks, threshholds and tipping points we have either passed or are immanent: peak water, peak speculation, peak phosphate, peak lead, copper and other minerals, peak fisheries, topsoil and forests, peak food, peak consumption, debt and development.

The hard fact is that in the past 50 years as a species we have consumed more resources that in the entire history of the human race. We see here a series of graphs from New Scientist with J-curves rapidly rising since the 1950’s, indicating global growth & consumption trends.

Planet Earth is rapidly reaching a critical tipping point, we cannot simply consume and discard the planet that supports us and all living beings.

To live within its footprint, Australia as a nation needs to reduce consumption by 70%. Living within our Ecological Footprint is the only realistic sustainable target we can set as responsible citizens of planet earth.

 Much of this target can be achieved by simply eliminating waste, reducing consumption and living a more simple, natural lifestyle.

Cuba’s Footprint

When we look closely at Cuba’s footprint we find it arises from a unique set of circumstances: Socialist ideology (putting people before profits); a comprehensive national security system which ensures essential needs are met; capacity for state regulation; the impact of 50 years US blockade/sanctions; and Cuba’s response to the Special Period when the USSR collapsed in the early 90’s.

I think it important to note that Cuba hasn’t consciously chosen to live within its global footprint, circumstance forced them to adapt rapidly to find ways to survive and meet the challenges of living with a severely restricted resource base on a small island, and to do so without the debilitating poverty and inequity usually associated with other so-called ‘Third World’ nations.

Cuba’s footprint history also needs to be taken into account. Following the revolution in 1959, Cuba’s quality of life was steadily improving until the impact of the 1970’s fuel crisis when there was a sudden dip, but by the late ‘80’s was heading towards a 2-earth footprint when the USSR collapsed and we see the big crash of the initial years of the special period, followed by long road to recovery resulting in attaining close to a one earth footprint by 2007.

So how does Cuba do it?

The key factors I have identified and will briefly explore in this presentation are

• Security for essential needs: heath, food, housing, education

• De-centralisation of essential services

• Transport solutions – surviving with limited fuel supplies

• Simple lifestyle, frugality

• Dual currency and consumption restraints

• “Energy Revolution” and

• Generosity of Spirit – from the government sharing resources with poor nations (40,000 Cuban doctors & health workers in the third world), down to individuals helping out their neighbours.

Security of essential needs

Health Security Free national health care system with a focus on preventative medicine, pharmaceuticals are subsidised and prices capped. Cuba enjoys one of the worlds Highest doctor to population ratio and Ist-World levels of life expectancy & infant mortality rates

Food Security • all Cubans receive monthly rations for staple foods, fresh produce markets provide organic fruit and vegetables, food prices are capped, and Cuba is now considered a global leader in urban food production (NB Cuba still depends on food imports)

Housing • Cuba boasts 85% home ownership • Rent is capped @ 10% of income • Realty speculation is illegal –it’s interesting to see a country with no real estate agents—houses can be swapped/exchanged but not sold for profit • while housing is crowded, there’s no homelessness in Cuba and one frequently finds 3-4 generations living in a house

Education • Education is free for all Cubans, from pre-school to tertiary, with over 97% literacy. Cuba has produced more scientists than any other Latin American nation.

Decentralisation of Essential Services

A key feature of Cuba’s sustainability arises from its response to the Special Period of rapid and radical decentralisation: establishing local service nodes with produce market, ration store, ‘dollar’ shop, bakery, butcher and banking facilities so people could walk to meet essential needs. Likewise there was decentralisation of health services and education.

Cuba’s response with Food Production is particularly notable, with urban and peri-urban agriculture now providing around 60% of vegetables near where people live, energy required for transport and storage is dramatically reduced. The collapse of the USSR and loss of agricultural fertilisers and chemicals meant Cuba had to transform virtually overnight from export-oriented fossil fuel intensive agro-chemical based monocultures to small-scale organic production to feed its people. The government instigated sweeping land reforms and encouraged small farms and farming cooperatives.

While Cuba is self reliant in fruit and vegetables, it still needs to import over 50% of its rice plus beans and meat. The government is committed to achieving 100% food security through domestic production as a priority.

I visited many inspiring examples of urban food production including Lisettes Permaculture gardens in Palma Soriano, which provides a whole neighbourhood with fresh organic vegetables throughout the year. Access to land is also no obstacle for some, such as Nelson’s rooftop garden and rabbit farm in Havana which produces 364 rabbits a year fed mainly on food scraps from neighbours, dehydrated to store as dry feed supplemented by weeds gathered from open space.

Transport Solutions

Transport was a huge challenge with the sudden loss of fuel supplies, petrol and diesel. Cuba had to immediately reduce fossil-fuel dependence and the need for people to commute. The decentralisation of services and urban food production were critical survival strategies, and rebuilding a public transport system using available resources. Creative and diverse solutions at the grassroots for transport include many forms of animal power, pedal power and people power. The government imported a million bicycles from China. Wheels are in short supply so even old ball bearings are used to create hand carts for street vendors.

Taxis, there’s lots of taxis in Cuba… All sorts of taxis from bicycle and motor rickshaws to horse carts and vintage cars – take your pick, though some motorised ones do have a habit of breaking down before reaching your destination. Animal carts also provide important fertiliser for urban agriculture.

One of the most notable things in Cuba is the low volume of traffic and the number of people walking. I don’t think I’ve ever walked as much in 40 days as I did while in Cuba. Curiously I saw lots of people walking but never saw anyone jogging –or a single gym for that matter…


Energy Revolution


The Energy Revolution was one of Fidel Castro’s last legacies to the nation in 2005. With a focus on energy savings and conservation, in the first 2 years it saved over $1billion USD worth of energy. Key strategies include distributing free energy saving light bulbs and energy efficient appliances such as rice cookers and fridges. Micro-grid generators provide back-up electricity for essential services such as hospitals, bakeries and food storage – these were a key to post disaster survival following the devastating hurricanes in the summer of 2008. Cuba has transformed its national electricity grid to interconnected decentralised generation plants and is introducing renewable energy generation (solar and wind) where possible, and solar panels for remote rural schools.




Frugality & Consumption


Cuba is a society of enforced frugality to ensure limited resources meet essential needs of the entire population Wages are capped at AUD $20-$35 per month, however everyone receives free health and education, subsidised electricity, telephone, gas and water, and receives monthly rations of rice, beans, milk for infants, and other items such as 1 bar of soap.

Disposal income is virtually non-existent (except for those receiving financial support from relatives living overseas or working in tourism) and the availability and range of consumer goods, tools, appliances and processed foods is seriously restricted and the purchase costs prohibitive for most Cubans. This is probably one of the greatest ‘culture-shocks’ for westerners visiting Cuba.


Life is simple in Cuba, simple food, no junk and a conspicuous absence of stuff. Everything that can be is recycled, windows are simple wooden shutters, glass is a luxury item. Yet what Cuban’s lack in material goods they certainly make up for as a society rich in conviviality and sense of community.

Cuba’s dual currency is an interesting phenomenon. Cubans receive their wages in National Pesos, which are used for paying rent, utility services, bread, fresh foods and public transport. And then there’s the Convertible Currency (CUC’s) roughly equivalent to the US dollar and exchanged for 23 national pesos. The convertible currency is required for purchasing processed and imported foods, appliances and luxury goods like alcohol, imported soap, shampoo and toothpaste.

It’s difficult for us to comprehend the severity of consumption restraints in Cuba so I’ve created the following scenario to help appreciate the comparative purchase power. If we regarded the average Cuban wage of $20 CUC/month as equivalent to $1000/month in Australia (average pension income) then with costs adjusted in relationship to wages we (Australian’s) would be paying

      $40 packet of spaghetti

      $50 a can of beer (or 1 days wage)

      $65 bar of toilet soap

      $107 1 liter UHT milk

      $250   700ml bottle of Olive oil (or 1 weeks wages)

      $200-$345 bottle of wine

      $5000 a wheel barrow (yes, that’s 5 month’s wages!!!)

… I think if we were paying prices like these our consumption patterns would change radically.

However these resource constraints do give rise to a lot of ingenuity and innovation, there’s very little waste, the lifespan of products is extended well beyond what would be considered possible in our western world. It makes our consume-and-discard society appear for what is—exceptionally greedy, wasteful, inhumane and unjust.


Disaster preparedness and response


Disaster preparedness and response is another great lesson from Cuba – after surviving the blockade and special period it faces a new crisis recovering from the greatest natural disaster to hit this small Caribbean nation the combined impact of the 2 devastating hurricanes Gustav and Ike in 10 days in August-September 2008. 1 million people evacuated in less than 24 hours, over half a million houses severely damaged or destroyed, 80% of crops decimated and billions of dollars in infrastructure damage to public buildings, roads, bridges, electricity and water supplies. All this with no loss of life during Gustav (which caused 600 deaths in neighbouring Haiti), but during hurricane Ike Cuba mourned 7 deaths, 5 due to people choosing not to evacuate.

Climate change is increasing the severity & frequency of natural disasters globally and particularly in developing nations where the poorest are being hit worse and hardest. Cuba has much to teach us about disaster preparedness and post disaster relief. Cuba’s reconstruction and repair program is naturally impeded by restricted access to materials and tools, a situation not helped by the blockade.




Cuba certainly is not perfect, it has many challenges to attain ecological sustainability, however, for a small nation operating with the constraints imposed by the world, it can boast being one of the earth’s most equitable societies with a relatively low negative impact on the environment.

Lessons we can take on board from Cuba’s experience, in terms of living within our footprint as we face an uncertain future, include the importance of ensuring security for essential needs; decentralisation of essential needs and services (i.e. human scale); of developing localised and organic food production systems; and serious constraints on consumption.

About Robyn Francis

International permaculture educator, designer, presentor and author, Robyn Francis has been working on the cutting edge of sustainable design and ecological lifestyle for over 25 years. In 2007 Francis founded the Cuba-Australia Permaculture Exchange (CAPE) which now has a formal partnership with the ANJ Foundation of Nature and Humanity in Havana, Cuba.

About this presentation

This presentation, complete with visual images, was first delivered as a Key Note presentation at the Climate Emergency Conference, Adelaide, October 2008. The presentation has since been delivered in Lismore, Nimbin and Taiwan, and an updated version presented during Robyn Francis’ 2009 USA tour at RDI Bolinas, Quail Springs, Santa Barbara, Tonasket, Bellingham and Orcas Island.

The presentation at Santa Barbara can be viewed on Youtube:

Robyn Francis (1) Target One Earth

Robyn Francis (2) Target One Earth

Robyn Francis (3) Target One Earth

Robyn Francis (4) Target One Earth


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