Dr. Helen Yaffe's new documentary presents a cautiously hopeful perspective highlighting Cuba's leadership on the subject.
cubas life task helen yaffe Tarea Vida

For this lay person, a film about climate change can create a stress response to nail bite given the inherent tension between the scope of the problem (for simplicity’s sake, let’s just call it “planet annihilation”) and the solution (usually a lofty, unenforceable or varied one – akin to getting a chorus of countries to sing from the same song sheet – with the resulting babel).

But a new documentary film shown during the recent COP26 international climate change conference in Glasgow produced by Dr. Helen Yaffe, a Lecturer in Economic and Social History at the University of Glasgow and a long-time Cuba researcher, presents a cautiously hopeful perspective that highlights Cuba’s leadership on the subject in Cuba’s Life Task: Combatting Climate Change.

Packed with perspectives from leading Cuban experts and Cuban citizens, this 55 minute film walks the viewer through Cuba’s climate history – from Hurricane Flora in 1963 to Hurricane Irma in 2017… 

Packed with perspectives from leading Cuban experts and Cuban citizens, this 55 minute film walks the viewer through Cuba’s climate history – from Hurricane Flora in 1963 to Hurricane Irma in 2017 – and poses the question: “What can we do to prepare for the damaging effects of climate change?’ Turns out, Cuba’s done quite a bit already. 

cubas life task helen yaffe Tarea Vida

That might be because as a small island developing nation (SIDS) that produces 0.1% of the global CO2 emissions, Cuba disproportionately feels the effects of climate change through extreme weather, air pollution, water scarcity, heat waves, deforestation, hurricanes, and rising sea levels. It is estimated that up to 10% of Cuban territory could be submerged by the end of the century, wiping out coastal towns, polluting water supplies, destroying agricultural lands and forcing one million people to relocate.

It’s the film’s poignant truth that has me rooting not just for Cuba but for all countries to boldly identify their Life Task when it comes to climate change.

While Cuba shares this harrowing climate scenario with most of the world’s SIDS, the island’s response is both unique and little known. This documentary shows how Cuba is using environmental science, natural solutions and community participation in its Tarea Vida (Life Task) 100-year plan for adaptation and mitigation. 

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From the early days of the Revolution, the environment has been on Cuba’s mind. In 1959, it was considered a duty of the state and society to care about the environment. In 1976, Cuba was among the first first countries in the world to include environment references in its constitution. At the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Fidel Castro put the world’s economic problems into a socio-economic context linking environmental issues to capitalist development and excessive consumption. In 1994, despite the strain of the “Special Period” and underscoring the importance of the topic, the country’s new constitution introduced the concept of ‘sustainable development’ and created CITMA, the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment. In 2019, the Cuban constitution’s Article 75 established the right to enjoy a healthy and balanced environment as a human right.

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But it has been Tarea Vida,  approved by the Cuban government in 2017 as the State Plan to Confront Climate Change, that has brought the conversation of climate change to nearly every level of Cuban society. It’s a plan of actions carried out by the state’s administration and institution for the adaptation and mitigation of climate change in line with the country’s needs – including a shift to renewable energy sources and legal enforcement of environmental protections.  According to Maritza Garcia Garcia, President of the Environment Agency, Tarea Vida’s 100 year “state plan is unique and I don’t think there are many others like it in the world. All Cuban state institutions must respond with plans for short, medium, long and longer term lengths.” 

cubas life task helen yaffe Tarea Vida
Photo: Helen Yaffe

The umbrella document is a living process with five strategic areas and eleven tasks instituted through provinces and municipalities with the intention of bringing climate change under institutional watch. And not a moment too soon. “Today in Cuba, the country’s climate is undergoing a complete transition from a humid tropical climate toward a subhumid climate, in which the patterns of rain, availability of water, soil conditions, and temperatures will be different. We will have to feed ourselves differently, build differently, dress differently. It is very complex,” explains Orlando Rey Santos, Advisor to the Minister of CITMA.

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In the case of disaster, the National Defense Council (in every neighborhood) relies on a disaster recovery process that provides basic food distribution, checks electrical installations, executes evacuation plans and has complete knowledge of where the vulnerable individuals and compromised buildings are. Relocating people in high risk, vulnerable areas is considered a state priority and is funded by the state. Resources for repairing are limited and it’s here when a familiar challenge is exposed – the US embargo.  According to the film’s experts and everyday citizens, the embargo is responsible for why Cuba can’t move faster in its pursuit of environmental solutions, to its limits on accessing global capital, to Cuban scientists’ inability to access the newest technologies, to why Cuba remains reliant on bilateral co-operation and the UN system.

cubas life task helen yaffe Tarea Vida
Photo: Helen Yaffe

Despite these challenges Cuba has done well- and this is where others could take note. In addition to tangible achievements such as the relocation of 11% of the most vulnerable coastal homes, the recovery of over 380km of mangroves, reforestation programs that have raised forest cover to 30 person, Cuba has excelled in using social sciences for engagement. Experts believe that scientific knowledge must be put into an accessible language for people to understand, to leverage the knowledge of people in their local space and communities. (Cuba’s Institute of Radio and TV is a channel used widely to help spread the education and knowledge of the climate crisis.) Equally, Cuba seems to have learned – and is a willing to share – a few valuable lessons:  1) how to summon the political will to address climate change, 2) how to communicate to translate (scientific) results with the population and 3) how to engage the next generation of children 4) and to close the loop, how to keep the results connected to the people. 

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It’s the film’s poignant truth that has me rooting not just for Cuba but for all countries to boldly identify their Life Task when it comes to climate change.  “If Cuba achieves sustainable development but the rest of the world does not, we (Cuba) are going to die anyway. The world must move to sustainable development, not (just) Cuba. We have to move forward together.  So we would like the mentality of the rest of the world to change to want what is truly best for the development of humanity.” 

Related Post: Cuba’s Jardines de la Reina Wins Top Conservation Award

We have to move forward together.  And it’s okay – sometimes even preferable – if the little island leads.  

WATCH: Cuba’s Life Task: Combatting Climate Change

To learn more about Cuba’s approach to climate change, don’t miss Cuba’s Life Task: Combatting Climate Change above, beginning January 11th, 2022. It is available with subtitles in multiple languages.

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Mayra Padilla is living the first generation Cuban American experience. Born in NJ to Cuban parents and now residing in San Francisco, she has a talent for bridging cultures. From language to food to culture to music to travel, she loves being an ambassador to help foster understanding between cultures and after several trips to the Cuba, has been a bridge of re-connection within her own US and Cuban families.  Mayra helps build and market global brands such as Levi's, Charles Schwab, General Mills, Kraft General Foods. As a photographer, her work has taken her to Sri Lanka, Morocco, and Miami to help non-profits tell their story and amplify their mission. She also volunteers with Upwardly Global and the International Rescue Committee, two organizations whose mission it is to help immigrants and refugees find employment and acclimate to life in America. She is currently working on the launch of a national pilot program to teach financial literacy to immigrant teens. Fun fact: always on the prowl for really good Cuban food, she has been known to get in the car, play her Cuban tunes and drive several hours to LA for a really good plate of carne puerco!

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  • Communist countries are the world’s worst polluters, and Cuba is no different, in spite of what this obvious propaganda film might depict. Check out the Almendares River in Havana and try to tell me Cuba is a leader in climate change initiatives, if you can hold your breath that long. Inspect the water in Cienfuegos Bay and tell me Cuba cares about protecting the environment. It’s a dumping ground for waste from the failed nuclear plant that was attempted to be built in that city. Do your homework Ms. Padilla to avoid being duped in the future.

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