Signs Of The Times

Encouragement found in unexpected places

One of the articles in Creating A Future We Can Live With (IC#40)
Originally published in Spring 1995 on page 20
Copyright (c)1995, 1997 by Context Institute

There are plenty of signs that things are going very badly in the world, but there are also encouraging signs coming from some unexpected places. With the two former superpowers turning their backs on Cuba, that country may become the world’s first example of a successful post-petroleum economy.

Brazil has mobilized itself around a simple but universal theme – no one should go hungry. The success of the campaign has shown Brazilians that they are capable of far-reaching action based on an ethical precept.

Holland has set itself one of the world’s most ambitious sustainability goals, and in Cairo, women established their right to have a say in global discourse.

These are just a few of the signs that there is reason for hope!

Will Cuba Go Green?

by Stephen Zunes

Cuba has been faced with serious economic problems during the past five years. Much of its travails are due to the cessation of the generous trade terms and foreign aid the country once received from the Soviet Bloc, as well the tightening in 1992 of the US economic embargo, which was originally imposed in 1961.

Unable to obtain fuel, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, motor vehicles, and other items on which they depended, the Cubans faced a potential catastrophe. The response, in the words of Peter Rosset of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, is "the largest conversion from conventional agriculture to organic or semi-organic farming that the world has ever known."

Despite an 80 percent drop in the availability of chemical pesticides and a 50 percent drop in petroleum for agriculture from 1989 levels, Cuban farmers interviewed during my visit in October report that they have actually increased the quantity and quality of crop yields at lower costs and with fewer health and environmental side effects. Fungi, nematodes, wasps, and ants have all been harvested for pest control. Much of this biological pest control has been developed in cottage industries led by scientists in this poor but highly-educated society.

Arnaldo Coro, a leading Cuban scientist, recalled that Cuban entomologists "threw a big party" when they learned the government was ending the import of most pesticides and herbicides. "Finally," he exclaimed, "our discoveries were being implemented!"

I visited a vermicompost production center in Pinar del Rio that produced more than 100,000 tons of vermicompost in the past year. Dozens of concrete troughs are used for rearing worms mixed with manure in the shade of large mango trees. Within three months the mixture is ready for application. Unlike chemical fertilizers, it leaves no unhealthy residue in the plants, and the nitrogen content is higher.

In addition, Cuba is moving away from the mono-culture model – based on exports of sugar and tobacco – to growing more food crops, particularly soy beans, to support the country’s burgeoning soy industry. There are now more than 30,000 community gardens in Havana alone, and more than one million across the country, as food production has become a priority.

This has not been enough to make up for the end of food imports from the Eastern Bloc, so some serious food shortages remain. However, despite some periodic vitamin deficiencies, many Cubans are now healthier because of their increased consumption of organic vegetables and decreased consumption of red meat. Farmworkers especially report a dramatic improvement in health, due to their reduced exposure to pesticides and herbicides.

Green Energy

The shortage of fuel also led to a switch to renewable energy sources. Construction of the country’s nuclear power plant has been suspended. Windmills, solar panels, and bio-mass generators are springing up all over; 70 percent of the country’s sugar mills are now powered by waste from the cane. Solar ovens and other appropriate technologies are now commonplace in rural areas.

A bicycle revolution has swept Cuba. Millions of Cubans now travel under their own power. The World Bank reports that Cuba’s "process of de-motorization of its transport system through the massive introduction of non-motorized vehicles [is] unprecedented in the history of transportation." Hundreds of miles of traffic lanes, paths, and entire roads are now reserved for bicycles.

Havana is the most bicycle-friendly city I have pedalled through, with well-marked bicycle lanes and the relatively small numbers of motorists quite respectful. The number of cars in the city has been reduced by two-thirds and the number of bicycles is 40 times what it was just four years ago. One million bicycles have been imported from China for Havana alone, while five bicycle factories are being completed across the country.


While many countries have been destroying their rain forests, Cuba has made a conscious effort to expand its wooded areas through large-scale reforestation programs that include the planting of a rich variety of native species. Forested areas have grown by more than one-third since the 1959 revolution. So successful is this effort of reclaiming the natural vegetation that a mountainous region in the eastern part of Pinar del Rio Province – which was an over-grazed wasteland just 30 years ago – has recently been declared by UNESCO as an international biospheric reserve.

One of the by-products of the reforestation efforts is that Cuba is now a leading bio-technology center for medicines derived from tropical plants. There has been a dramatic increase in the use of herbal medicines and a return to some proven folk remedies.

Cuban Minister of Tourism Osman Cienfuegos, a world-renowned environmental architect, has made the preservation of scenic and environmentally-sensitive areas a priority in the development of new resorts for the million European and Canadian tourists who visit each year.

There is surprisingly little debate about its strong environmental direction, in part because Cuba has no powerful corporate sector to oppose it. It also seems to be the only choice. According to Rene Capote of the Ecology Institute of the Academy of Sciences, "If we lose our natural resources, we have nothing. If we are not able to protect nature, we will not be able to have a sustainable economy. It’s just common sense."

As a result of these innovations, Cuba was one of only two countries in the world to receive an "A-plus" rating at the Rio Earth Summit on its sustainable development practices.


As people grow less reliant on centralized sources for energy and agricultural inputs and more reliant on local sources, this once totalitarian system has partially democratized. Most state farms have become cooperatives run by the farmers themselves, and an increasing degree of political control now rests with democratically-elected local administrations. Though the Cuban government is still authoritarian in many respects, the trend towards decentralization has brought new life to a country that had stagnated for years under a rigid, hierarchical state bureaucracy.

Most of Cuba’s ecological innovations were made more out of necessity than by design. However, the Cubans we talked to believe that many of these changes are here to stay, even if the availability of fossil fuels and chemical agents improved.

"We will never go back," one farmer told me. "I’m sorry it took us so long to figure this out." Indeed, as a number of Cuban scientists pointed out, sooner or later all countries will have to make the transition to a more environmentally sustainable economy.

"The revolution and the US embargo freed us from having to follow the US model of development," says Raoul Guiterrez, who works for a tour agency. "Unfortunately, we ended up following the Soviet model, which didn’t work either. Now, we have been forced to do what we should have done from the beginning – find a Cuban model, sensitive to our country’s cultural, economic, and environmental needs."

Stephen Zunes is an associate scholar at the Institute for Global Security Studies in Seattle. He and photographer Clemens Kalischer, of Image Photos in Stockbridge, MA, participated (separately) in eco-tours of Cuba sponsored by Global Exchange, 415/255-7296.

For more information on Cuba’s transformation, read Food First’s book, The Greening of the Revolution: Cuba’s experiment with organic agriculture, by Peter Rosset and Medea Benjamin. Order by calling 1/800-274-7826.

A Woman’s Place

An interview with Bella Abzug, by Kathryn True

Missing from the reporting about last year’s population conference in Cairo was what may have been the biggest story of all: a further shift in the foundation of global discourse. This shift, which began at the Earth Summit in Rio indicates that we have moved beyond the time when the international agenda was set by nation-states, with others scrambling to make changes around the edges. At Cairo, the population policies were largely shaped by women from around the world, who worked together to develop consensus positions.

Coordinating this effort was the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), an international network that strives to involve women in policy-making on international affairs and in formulating peaceful solutions to world problems. IC associate editor Kathryn True talked to the head of WEDO, Bella Abzug, about how this happened and what it means for the future development of the global agenda.

Kathryn: What kind of a voice did women have in the development of issues at the Cairo conference on population and development?

Bella: We managed to move the agenda very significantly. Well in advance of Cairo, we established a Women’s Caucus that met simultaneously with all of the UN meetings and then tried to secure the documents in time to be able to respond to them to influence the policy. In between UN preparatory meetings, a writing task force sought input from others and tried to make improvements to the policies the govenments were formulating. Our task forces included many organizations and individuals from all over the world interested in influencing changes.

At the population conference itself, the first document was a concept paper prepared by the Secretary General. We responded to the paper with our revisions, which we distributed to the UN Secretariat and to the government delegations attending the meeting.

Kathryn: What was the Women’s Caucus trying to accomplish in terms of population issues?

Bella: We wanted the final document to reflect what the realities are. We wanted to go beyond family planning – which is still a tremendous need – to include women’s empowerment, reproductive health, sexual rights, sexual health, and the improvement of women’s status and economic conditions.

Of course, there are very few women who are sent as delegates for their countries and we have very few women generally in leadership in the United Nations, so we thought it was very important for women to have a voice and a presence.

You’re not going to achieve any real changes in population unless women can read, unless women can understand, unless they can bring themselves out of poverty, unless they have economic security and some political decision-making power at the same time.

Kathryn: In what ways do women’s ideas make a difference in these forums?

Bella: I think that women make a difference because they come into decision making with a much cleaner slate. They don’t own the oil wells and the uranium mines and the defense plants, and they’re not committed to the policies of the past that have failed. They have a tendency to look at problems very broadly to see how they affect themselves and their families.

Kathryn: How were women coming together from so many different regions of the world able to be so effective?

Bella: Women have a common need, so we have no trouble coming to consensus among ourselves. Women know about how they’re being discriminated against, women know about their lack of status, they know they are the poorest and the most illiterate. Women know who they are and they want to effectuate policies that are going to change their conditions.

Kathryn: How has your work changed the role of nongovernmental organizations at global meetings?

Bella: There has been an opening of access to the NGO community since the Rio Conference (The 1992 Earth Summit: International Conference on the Environment and Development). The Women’s Caucus developed the process that allows NGOs to get access to international conferences, and we developed the policy-making process that was used at Cairo, which has now become almost institutionalized.

There is beginning to be an openness to the role that NGOs are playing and there is a lot of respect for the work that has been done by the Women’s Caucus. They know we’re serious.

You can get more information about WEDO by writing their New York office at 845 Third Avenue, 15th Floor, New York, NY 10022. E-mail:

Low Country, High Hopes

by Alan AtKisson

Recyclable buildings. Bicycle express lanes. State-of-the-art co-housing. Curbside collection of kitchen compost. Voluntary agreements between government and industry to reduce toxic emissions by up to 90 percent.

Something very exciting is happening in this tiny, wealthy European country of 15 million people. Sustainable development has become a central organizing principle for Dutch society, and a dizzying array of government policies, industry initiatives, and citizen-based efforts are working to turn the concept into a reality. Their goal: to achieve sustainability in one generation (25 years) without sacrificing the vitality of the economy and the Dutch quality of life.

The blueprint for all this activity goes under a rather dull name: the National Environmental Policy Plan, or NEPP for short (NMP in Dutch). Its international nickname is the "Dutch Green Plan." Whatever you call it, the plan is an inspiration and a model for other nations (and some US states) that are seeking to reconcile environmental realities with economic wants and needs.

Essentially a complex package of legislation, the NEPP resulted from a lengthy round of studies and proposals that were publicly debated in the late 1980s. In part, the Dutch were responding to the recommendations of the Brundtland Commission’s classic study, Our Common Future (1987). But in larger measure, they were simply acting on the evidence of their own senses.

"The Earth is slowly dying."

In 1988 the Dutch watched as 17,000 seals – about 60 percent of the population in the North Sea – died of viral infections. The epidemic was probably caused by high levels of pollution, which depressed the seals’ immune system.

Then in early December, the government released a report, "Concern for Tomorrow," which documented just how badly polluted the Netherlands was. Finally Queen Beatrix, in her annual Christmas message, warned her subjects that "the Earth is slowly dying."

These highly publicized events galvanized the nation. The following year, the environment topped the nation’s polls as people’s number-one concern, and the first NEPP was enacted. It has since been twice reviewed and strengthened by the Dutch parliament.

Setting a Goal

Here’s how it works: Environmental problems are grouped by "themes" ranging from acidification to climate change. They even include nuisance problems like noise and unpleasant odor – the Dutch have millions of pigs and big problems with manure. The government sets firm objectives and targets for environmental improvement within each theme, and identifies the specific "target groups" – from industries to consumers – who are responsible for achieving the targets. Then it deploys an array of policy instruments: financial incentives, regulations, and mechanisms for voluntary action and citizen involvement.

Finally, a separate government institute issues an annual assessment of key environmental indicators, noting whether the policy initiatives are meeting their targets. Mostly the Dutch are on track, but when they’re not, they’re honest about it.

A major fringe benefit of the NEPP is the way it fosters innovation. A centerpiece of the plan is the development of voluntary "covenants" by industry groups that obligate entire industrial sectors to meet emissions or conservation goals by whatever means they find most effective (a departure from "command-and-control" regulation, which specify specific technologies or practices). Industry associations then bring pressure to bear on any company not conforming to the new standards. Industry, of course, has to innovate to meet these new efficiency and emission standards; many Dutch economists expect this innovation will make Dutch businesses more competitive abroad.

At the same time, demonstration projects modeling the latest in sustainable design and planning have sprung up all over the country, partly with government support. The town of Houten now boasts a "bicycle freeway," complete with on- ramps and overpasses. Residents of Utrecht put their kitchen scraps in a brown bucket to be picked up for composting once a week. And the new City Hall in Delft was built for eventual disassembly and recycling – 150 years from now.

Still, reaching consumers (and small- to medium-sized businesses) has proven a challenge to Dutch planners. To help promote awareness of the new realities, the Environment Ministry has run nightly television ads airing just before the popular eight o’clock news. The ads are funny, occasionally frenetic, and designed to appeal to the MTV generation. Do they work?

Evidence gathered by PBS producer John de Graaf and CNN’s Jack Hamann suggests they’re beginning to. De Graaf and Hamann recently completed filming a documentary called "Green Plans," which spotlights both the Netherlands and New Zealand. They asked a 19-year-old Dutch construction worker and body-builder how he felt about paying 200 guilders in environmental taxes when he purchased his car (the money funds its eventual disassembly for recycling). Unprompted, the young man answered, "I want to pay more. It’s better for the environment, for the children, for their children." (Watch for the documentary to air on PBS on Earth Day.)

Paying 200 guilders more for a car may be a step in the right direction, but it’s hardly sustainability, and the Dutch know it. "Managing the implementation of policy will not be sufficient in itself to achieve sustainable development," says the official text of NEPP 2. "It will also be necessary to change to patterns of consumption and production which best contribute to sustainable development." In fact, to stay within the limits of what the Netherlands can sustain, one independent report recently concluded that the Dutch will have to reduce their consumption of material resources and fossil energy by approximately 80 percent. Can they do it, and still maintain their high quality of life? No nation in the world is trying harder to find out.

Alan AtKisson is former executive editor of IC and now consults with government and business on sustainable development issues. This article is based on a longer report on the Netherlands, "A Very Green Country," to be published in early 1995. For information call AtKisson & Associates, Inc., at (206) 784-5773.

The Politics of Hope

by Herbert (Betinho) DeSouza

I have to confess that I am very surprised by what is happening in Brazil with the Campaign Against Hunger. I think a process that began from the 1960s prepared the way for this Campaign. We have in Brazil a growing democratic movement that is penetrating the minds of people.

When the military dictatorship was established and people saw the power of the authoritarian state, they began reacting. The first movement was the human rights campaign against suffering. The second was the fight for political amnesty. This was followed by direct elections and a fight for a new constitution. Then we had direct elections and the Brazilian people elected a crazy man for president. Ferdinand Collor De Mello was not only corrupt, he was crazy. The fantastic thing is that the people went onto the streets and created an ethical movement for the impeachment of this man.

Everyone said this impeachment couldn’t be done; Brazil is a country of military coups, not of impeachment. But we did impeach Collor, and that is when the Campaign Against Hunger was born. After the impeachment we sat down with lots of organizations of civil society in Brazil and we asked: Do you see what happened? People were able to mobilize around ethical issues. We value honesty, solidarity, and democracy.

Next we said, democracy and misery are not compatible. If you want to have a democratic country, then you have to fight misery. This was a big change. In the past, we tolerated poverty and misery. We tried to explain poverty as a result of Brazilian history and national environment. But now we decided to fight against poverty and misery with all our means, as an absolute priority. That is how the Campaign began.

Citizen Action

The first step was that the Movement for Ethics in Politics, which had headed up the effort to impeach President Collor, decided to create the Citizen Action Against Hunger, Misery and For Life. We appealed directly to the people: let us fight misery and hunger because there are 32 million living in misery.

We said to people, if you want to end hunger and misery, start doing something; organize in committees and decide what to do. We won’t tell you what to do. Whatever you decide to do is good because it is against hunger and against misery. We used the phrase: "Hunger can’t wait. Hunger is in a hurry."

We appealed to the individual, and that is new for us because we had always believed that we have to call up unions, associations, churches, and institutions. Citizens were abstract in our mind; people were abstract. But in the Campaign we called people, alone or together.

This was a fantastic risk because people could have just said, "You’re crazy! Hunger is a problem for the government, for the church, for the NGOs, for you who want to change the world. But it is not my business."

Yet the response was absolutely fantastic! Two polls conducted in December 1993 and July 1994 showed the following: 90 percent of the Brazilian population support the campaign and 30 percent have participated in some way in the campaign – in Brazil that means 30 million people! Eleven percent of the participating population is organized in committees. That means 3 million people organized themselves!

The committees are organized by the people themselves, independent of political parties, churches, and any kind of political control. It is the most autonomous movement we could organize.

Food Against Hunger; Jobs Against Misery

The emphasis of this Campaign in the first years was food because people were starving. There was a fantastic movement of giving food to people in a completely decentralized way. We had eight or 10 programs in which public lands were used by the committees to produce tons of rice: one of the first examples in Brazil of public enterprises being used for the good of the people. For instance, one public plantation produced 280 tons of rice in its first six months.

Then these committees began to look at the activities related to fighting hunger – education, work with kids and the elderly, housing, sanitation, everything that is related to hunger and misery.

When the first year passed, we realized we couldn’t continue to give food away indefinitely. We decided to work on jobs. The question was how to create jobs, how to establish priorities for solving the economic problem and at the same time, supporting the activities of civil society?

The committees said, "We can do that," and they produced jobs. Some committees gathered money and used it to create 100 minimum wage jobs. They employed people in public activities related to their neighborhoods.

Further, they are working with entrepreneurs, the small entrepreneurs who create the jobs in Brazil. In Brazil, for every 10 jobs, six are created by small employers, in what we call micro-enterprise.

The President Gets On Board

The Campaign Against Hunger also brought together government and representatives of civil society. This collaboration led to one of the most surprising things in my life. At a full meeting of all the ministers of the Brazilian government to which I was invited, President Itamar said: "I declare that the fight against hunger and misery is the absolute priority of my government. Second, I declare this country is in a state of emergency. Third, I call on society to participate in this social campaign, to mobilize society. Finally, I will create a National Council of Food Security."

I was shocked, first, because this was the proposal that I had given to him the day before, and second, that was everything that a government could do in terms of igniting this campaign.

The president is committed but the government is going in a very different direction. For instance, the economic policy of the government is not centered on the fight against misery and poverty or on the creation of jobs, despite the President’s important declaration.

A Democratic Wave

We are now in this phase of the Campaign Against Hunger and Misery and For Life. The churches, universities, and some of the unions are involved. The characteristics of this campaign are autonomy, decentralization, independence, and non-partisanship, because we think that citizens should be organized by themselves and develop their own ideas and initiatives.

People want to do something about all the divisions that exist in our society. We have proof of that. Research shows that we have all kinds in our committees – all social classes, all ages, and all races. In this movement everyone is called to be together against hunger and misery.

Did we alleviate poverty? I cannot answer that. I know that thousands of tons of food were donated and that there were thousands of initiatives all over the country. But we don’t have statistics. What I do know is that there is a movement of solidarity, a new democratic process among the people, and that is most important.

In fact, we are calling people to social and political change. In order to end poverty and misery we need to change radically Brazilian society. Brazil is a producer of hunger and misery for the majority, and wealth and goods for 10 percent of the population. We have the chance to change, but we have to do it now, because the world is more and more organized in terms of social apartheid.

We are part of a democratic wave, a democratic movement that is passing through all societies. Governments, most intellectuals, and most institutions are not aware of this, but it is happening in front of our eyes. We are part of a democratic process in which people are doing things that are absolutely surprising.

The Brazilian Campaign is part of a world movement, with local differences and specific character. But the differences are not so important. The crucial thing is that we are going in the same direction, as a democratic wave that is changing society.

Betinho is a leader of Brazil’s anti-hunger campaign, and previously helped lead the move to impeach President Fernando Collor de Mello. Before the 1964 military coup, he was an agrarian reform consultant for then-President Joao Goulart. He consulted with Chilean President Salvador Allende until the 1973 coup there. He then lectured at the National University of Mexico and later founded the Latin American Research Unit in Canada.

This article is adapted from a keynote address delivered at a "Hunger Summit," organized by World Hunger Year and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, with the cooperation of IBASE, the Brazilian Institute for Social and Economic Analysis.

Special thanks to Peter Mann, the international coordinator of World Hunger Year, for providing the transcript, the accompanying photo, and the additional information below. For more information, contact World Hunger Year at 505 8th Avenue, 21st floor, New York, NY 10018-6582, tel. 212/629-8850 or IBASE, Rua Vicente de Souza 29, Botafogo 22251-070, Rio de Janeiro, FJ, Brazil, e-mail:

The Making of a Campaign

by Peter Mann

What characteristics make Brazil’s campaign against hunger a transformative one?

Citizen action: At a time when individuals were used to being passive and leaving social action to their party, union, or church, the Brazilian hunger campaign called them to assume their identity as citizens.

As citizens, in thousands of local initiatives, they organize for action, and in so doing, discover their own power to break the cycle of poverty. In Rio, for example, 7,000 cyclists "pedaled against hunger" and collected 16 tons of food.

Breaking social apartheid: In a country where social apartheid is becoming the norm and fear and insecurity is spreading, the Campaign has created a connection of the heart between the middle class and the poor. Middle-class citizens in Sao Paulo joined their shanty-town neighbors and organized food distribution networks in the slums. The comfortable get to know where the hungry are, where the food is, and how to get it to the hungry. Most of all, they get to know hungry people personally.

The poor help each other: At a tough Rio de Janeiro jail, prisoners contribute food to the campaign by going without a meal every week. They send cooking oil, flour, rice, and beans in solidarity with the poor people outside.

Creating jobs: Committees create projects that allow families in extreme misery to generate their own income. Projects include bakeries, small vegetable gardens, micro-enterprises, and paper recycling and production.

Contacting media: Media play a key activist role in the campaign, not just reporting about it, but actively supporting it. Publicity agencies pooled efforts to donate advertising. Commercials show Brazil’s "two worlds" – luxury, side by side with misery. A Brazilian soap opera developed a story line on the campaign. When a major Sao Paulo newspaper backed the campaign, hundreds of committees sprang up in the city.

Involving the giants: Even giant institutions – the government, the banks, the media, even the military – have helped the campaign to get food and distribute it. But what happens when the campaign has to fight the giants – tackling land reform, freedom of information, concentrated economic and political power?

I asked Betinho this question. He said: "I trust the people. When people experience their own democratic power, they can change any institution!"

Peter Mann is international coordinator of World Hunger Year. See above for more information.

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