People First: Cuba’s State Plan to Confront Climate Change

In 2017, the Cuban government approved the State Plan to Confront Climate Change, known in Cuba as Tarea Vida (Life Task). With a projection up to the year 2100, Tarea Vida is the world’s only truly long-term state plan to address climate change. Despite being responsible for 0.08% of global CO2 emissions, like other Small Island Developing States (SIDS), Cuba is already disproportionately hard-hit by the effects of climate change. Tarea Vida builds on decades of environmental protection regulation, the promotion of sustainable development and scientific investigations into climate change since the 1990s.

In May 2023, I interviewed Professor Jorge Alfredo Carballo Concepción, a political economist in the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO) at the University of Havana, about Tarea Vida. Carballo Concepción is actively involved in shaping the process of popular consultation and community participation and education, key aspects of Tarea Vida. His work evaluates the socio-economic impacts of climate change.

Helen Yaffe: In 1976, Cuba became one of the first countries in the world to include environmental issues in its constitution and to issue environmental laws. Since 2006, Cuba has been identified in several international reports as a world leader in achieving sustainable development. To what extent has the socialist character of the state facilitated these achievements and commitments?

Jorge Alfredo Carballo Concepción: There is a direct relationship, as it is about integrating and connecting the pillars of sustainability: economic, social and environmental. The Cuban experience of building socialism from a position of underdevelopment, with our specific history, nature, and culture, is centred on raising the quality of peoples’ lives, with special attention given to themes of ethics, solidarity, raising the educational level. The Cuban state promotes rational consumption and recognises this as a source of resources for Cuba. Another element is the planned social regulation of the economy, which makes it possible to consciously internalise the climate issue as of paramount importance. And this is connected with the economic and social sectors, with the healthcare system, education, sports, and so on. That is to say that, without thinking that it is perfect, the way in which Cuba understands the relationship between nature, resources, people, ecosystems, is a direct result of the existence of the socialist state.

We can mention the innumerable research centres in Cuba, which are a product of the revolutionary state’s efforts to develop in this field. If we look at it in terms of legal instruments, I could tell you that the two laws drafted in Cuba in 2022, the Natural Resources and Environment Law and the Natural and Cultural Heritage Law, represent a systematisation of all the science produced in Cuba, especially since the 1970s. They are two comprehensive, participatory, inclusive instruments of great scientific rigor, which are ultimately a reflection of the socialist state’s interest in the theme.

HY: In 2017 the Cuban state approved Tarea Vida. Can you explain how Tarea Vida evolved from earlier actions to protect the natural environment and studies on climate change undertaken since the 1990s in Cuba?

JACC: Tarea Vida is the product of Cuban science and the work of thousands of people over decades. The sustained increase in cyclonic activity in our geographical area, together with the scientific verification of the rise in sea level, beyond expectations, the increase in soil salinity, the scarcity of water in areas of the country, among others, led the Cuban government to convert much of the accumulative scientific knowledge that had been produced on environmental issues into policy instruments. That is Tarea Vida: science transformed into social practice. However, Tarea Vida is not an abstract entity, it has life, you must update it constantly, you must correct aspects and, most importantly, that can only be done by placing environmental issues and existing legal instruments on the public agenda in Cuba, in academic debate, and in coordination with the social sciences. I think it is a good instrument to share with the world, from a proactive, collaborative perspective, because we also have a lot to learn from other countries’ experiences.

HY: In Cuba, experts from different areas work together with local authorities and communities on implementing Tarea Vida. Can you say something about the important role of social scientists in climate change policy?

JACC: Social scientists have an essential role and, at the same time, a formidable challenge. Firstly, they must generate synergies and a positive work environment with colleagues from the natural sciences so that we function as a team, like a great family. This is an essential first step to achieve the proposed goals, although there is growing understanding of the importance of the social sciences in environmental issues. Secondly, there are two essential lines that must also be worked on, concerning work with decision-makers and with people in communities. This is key because they are the fundamental agents of change: the people who decide processes, actions and policies; and the people in the communities, especially the most vulnerable ones, each with their own life stories and particular symbolisms. In this scenario, social scientists have tools to achieve a dialogic, participatory, inclusive process. So, we have a key role!

HY: What is the specific focus of work by yourself and colleagues at FLACSO on the issue of confronting climate change?

JACC: Firstly, we at FLACSO have established that our strength is in teamwork. We need diverse methodological and scientific perspectives to move forward. That is why we are a small group of colleagues from diverse backgrounds, including geography, sociology, psychology, international relations, economics, and more. Our specific work is to provide some methodological solutions in the form of proposals, based on the instruments and techniques of our specialties, for ‘Ecosystem Based Adaptation’ (EBA) and mitigation projects underway in our country. We work hard on social and environmental safeguards, the coordination between key actors, evaluation and the gender plan, and permanent consultation with the protagonists of the projects. The ‘gender plan’ refers to the coordinated actions established to eliminate or reduce gender gaps which are revealed through a project or investigation. We have also provided a methodology for calculating the beneficiaries of our adaptation and mitigation projects and, linked to that, a program to create and strengthen the capacities of communities, decision-makers and economic actors to adapt, as well as a methodology for the evaluation of livelihoods in communities. That would be our modest contribution to Tarea Vida.

HY: Can you provide concrete examples of the kind of community consultations that FLACSO is involved in and other mechanisms to secure community participation? 

JACC: We work permanently to ensure the prominence of people in the communities, as well as focusing on people in the most vulnerable situations, whatever that may be. One of the key ways to achieve these objectives is through public consultation, an instrument that we use continuously. We have a public consultation methodology, and we update it constantly. To this end, we develop diverse resources for investigation, to learn about the specific situations in which processes take place at the local and community level. Listening to peoples’ life stories is key. There are many lessons from social practice, and empiricism, that are presented to us in our activities. Understanding the daily lives of people, their problems, and their aspirations is really important. In Cuba, the state makes a serious effort, and has a real interest, in promoting this type of methodological strategy, which is very participatory, inclusive and fair.

HY: Can you explain the centrality of Tarea Vida to Cuba’s development plans and the ongoing process of decentralising budgets and decision-making to municipalities and local communities?

JACC: In my view, Tarea Vida is a fundamental instrument for addressing the development process in Cuba. We are in a process of decentralising a group of public policy decisions, which gives regional governments greater autonomy and responsibility. This is a challenge in itself. We come from a tradition of very centralised decision-making, so this involves a slow process of learning for people. Incorporating the climate change perspective, and its expression in Cuba with Tarea Vida, is also a challenge. On the positive side, all sectors of economic activity, science, defence, and so on, have specific tasks that respond to Tarea Vidawithin their own strategies. That is a great strength. We hope that increasing financial resources can be dedicated to Tarea Vida, based on the knowledge acquired and the needs identified, as well as financial sources acquired in the territories, using all the tools that the social sciences have available. Achieving this requires greater participation of the population in local and municipal decisions, greater control over resources and decision making.

Definitely, at the level of policy design, it is right to give Tarea Vida prominence in the development strategies of the territories, because it gives integrity to the process. The implementation of this process is complex, and we know it proceeds at different speeds, highly syncopated, according to specific situations in each territory. The government should set its sights on achieving progress as ‘rhythmically’ as possible.

HY: What would you identify as the most important and/or unique aspects of Tarea Vida in comparison with international responses to climate change mitigation and adaptation?

JACC: Cuba has assumed as its own international commitments to confront climate change, strongly debated, and in disadvantageous conditions because it is a small country. We are committed to international efforts and take them very seriously. However, we also have our own strengths and Tarea Vida, which has emerged from an enormous scientific effort over the last 40 years, is the clearest example. There is the will of the Cuban state and government to put this issue permanently on Cuba’s agenda, and that is also unique.But the greatest advantage we have is the organised structure of Cuban society, where everyone has a specific role within Tarea Vida, although we need to strengthen actions to communicate this process, more and better. The coordination within the United Nations system is also very important for our climate effort, not only in terms of financial flows but in learning, connecting to other experiences, in the possibility of showing the international community what we do. But what I consider most important is the high educational level of our population which means that, relatively quickly, we can raise their perception of risk, provide them with new ways of understanding climate change, as well as learning from their experiences and life lessons, which are very helpful.

HY: What are the main obstacles faced by the Cuban state in the implementation of Tarea Vida?

JACC: There are some challenges that I have mentioned already which, if not addressed correctly, could become serious obstacles to confronting climate change; the need to change mentality, greater participation, better use of scarce financial resources, and so on. But the greatest obstacle is undoubtedly the US blockade, which restricts our access to more environmentally friendly technologies for the industrial sector. That applies to multiple sectors: transport, energy, agriculture, among others. This is not only about the issue of mitigation, but also regarding the fluid and constant exchange with US experts on these issues. The US administration insist on disregarding Cuba’s contribution, which although modest, has scientific and methodological strength; it is respected by the entire international scientific community, including in the United States.

*This interview is published in Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 294, June/July 2023.

Helen Yaffe is a Senior Lecturer in Economic and Social History at the University of Glasgow, specialising in Cuban and Latin American development. She is the author of We Are Cuba! How a Revolutionary People have survived in a Post-Soviet World (Yale, 2020) and Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) and has co-produced the documentaries Cuba’s Life Task: Combatting Climate Change (Dani Films, 2021) and Cuba & COVID 19 Public Health, Science and Solidarity (Dani Films, 2020).