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La revolucion energetica: Cuba's energy revolution

By Laurie Guevara-Stone, photos by Mario Alberto Arrastia Avila

April 2, 2009 -- A new revolution is sweeping the island of Cuba, which is making massive progress on energy efficiency and renewable generation. Indeed, such is the success of the two-year old program on this small island of 11 million people, that many other countries could learn from its efforts to be energy independent and curb climate change.

Just a few years ago Cuba's energy situation was bleak. The country had 11 large, and quite inefficient, thermoelectric plants generating electricity for the entire island. Most of the plants were 25 years old and only functioning 60% of the time. There were frequent blackouts, especially during peak demand periods. There was also a high percentage of transmission losses along the electrical distribution grid. To add to the energy crisis, most Cuban households had inefficient appliances, 75% of the population was cooking with kerosene, and the residential electricity charges did not encourage conservation. In 2004 the eastern side of Cuba was hit by two hurricanes in a short period of time, affecting transmission lines and leaving 1 million people without electricity for 10 days. All of this in the face of the overarching drivers of peak oil and climate change, made Cubans realise they had to make energy more of a priority. Thus, in 2006, began what Cubans call la revolución energética -– the energy revolution .

Cuba’s recent energy revolution has helped it become a true model of sustainable development. The 2006 Living Planet report assesses sustainable development by using the United Nation’s Development Program’s (UNDP) Human Development Index (HDI) and the ecological footprint. The HDI is calculated from life expectancy, literacy and education, and per capita GDP. The UNDP considers an HDI value of more than 0.8 to be high human development. An ecological footprint, which is a measure of demand on the biosphere, lower than 1.8 global hectares per head denotes sustainability. The only country in the world that meets both of the above criteria is Cuba. ``Cuba has reached a good level of development according to United Nations’ criteria, thanks to its high literacy level and very high life expectancy'', explains Jonathan Loh, one of the authors of the report, adding: ``While the ecological footprint is not large since it is a country with low energy consumption.''

The statistics are impressive, the country is currently consuming 34% of the kerosene, 40% of the liquefied petroleum gas(LPG) and 80% of the petroluem (gasoline) it used to consume before the implementation of the energy revolution a mere two years earlier. Cuba's per capita energy consumption is now at a level one-eighth of that in the US, while access to health services, education levels, and life expectancy are still some of the top ranking in the world, as Table 1 below shows.

 

Small budget, big results

How does a country with a per capita GDP one-tenth that of the US, have the resources to carry out such a radical change in energy consumption, without sacrificing their high social indicators in health and education?

To understand Cuba's energy revolution one must understand some of the history of energy production and consumption in Cuba. Prior to the 1959 Cuban Revolution, 56% of the country was electrified. With the socialist revolution came a push to electrify even the remotest communities. By 1989, 95% of the country was electrified –- mostly with cheap oil traded for sugar with the Soviet Union. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 caused the bottom to fall out of the Cuban economy. Having to buy oil on the world market meant that cheap electricity was a thing of the past. Food, petrol and oil all became scarce as the US made matters worse by tightening its economic blockade. Both the 1992 Cuba Democracy Act and Helms-Burton law passed in 1996, target foreign investment in Cuba, seeking to undermine Cuba's international access to capital, and making much needed resources hard to come by.

The years following the Soviet collapse and the intensifying of the blockade were known as the ``Special Period'' because Cubans had to tighten their belts and learn how to produce basic requirements such as food, medicines and energy, both locally and sustainably.

In 1993, a National Energy Sources Development Program (Programa de desarrollo de las Fuentes Nacionales de Energia) was implemented to reduce Cuba's energy imports and obtain maximum benefits from domestic energy sources. The document proposed that the first national source of energy should be efficiency.

After the National Energy Sources Development Program was adopted, Cuba embarked on a drive to save energy and use more renewable sources of energy. All rural schools, health clinics and social centres in the country, not previously connected to the grid, were electrified with solar energy, and today 2364 of the solar electric systems on the island are on rural schools. Making lights, computers and educational television programs accessible to every schoolchild in the country; this program won Cuba the Global 500 award from the United Nations in 2001.

However, despite all their efforts, 10 years after the program was implemented, Cuba still had an energy crisis on its hands. So in 2006 the energy revolution took some of the most drastic steps any country has taken to date.

A five-point plan

Cuba's energy revolution has five main aspects: energy efficiency and conservation; increasing the availability and reliability of the national electric grid; incorporating more renewable energy technologies into their energy portfolio; increasing the exploration and production of local oil and gas; and international co-operation.

Understanding that the first step in an energy revolution is not to look for more ways of generating energy, but to decrease energy demand, Cuba began a program to change over to energy efficient appliances. As then-President Fidel Castro explained in a May 2006 address to the Cuban Electric Utility company (UNE): ``We are not waiting for fuel to fall from the sky, because we have discovered, fortunately, something much more important –- energy conservation, which is like finding a great oil deposit.''

The program to allow people to switch their incandescent bulbs to more efficient compact fluorescents, free of charge, was met with complete success. In six months more than 9 million incandescent light bulbs. As there were already many compact fluorescents installed, this meant that close to 100% of the bulbs used in the whole country had been changed to compact fluorescents –- making Cuba the first country in the world to completely eliminate inefficient tungsten filament lighting. Furthermore, millions of energy efficient appliances were sold to Cuban consumers, including almost 2 million refrigerators, over 1 million fans, 182,000 air conditioners and 260,000 water pumps.

At the same time, efficient electrical cooking appliances were introduced. Almost 3.5 million rice cookers and more than 3 million pressure cookers were sold to families in the push to have people switch from kerosene to cooking with electricity.

And one of the best ways Cuba managed to encourage conservation was its new residential electrical tariff structure. Prior to 2006, Cuba's highly subsidised electricity was sold very cheaply, which did not encourage conservation. The new tariff structure allows people consuming less than 100 kWh per month to stay at the current extremely low rate of only 0.09 pesos/kWh (0.38 US cents/kWh). But for every increase of 50 kWh per month the rate skyrockets. And consumers using over 300 kWh per month must pay 1.30 pesos/kWh (5.4 US cents/kWh). In terms of US dollars, this is still significantly less than consumers pay in the United States, but it is over four times what large energy users were paying previously.

Cuba also embarked on energy savings measures in the state sector. All water pumps in tall buildings and aqueducts were changed to efficient pumps. The 40 W fluorescent tubes used in many government offices will be changed to 32 W bulbs with electronic ballasts, and inefficient refrigerators and air conditioners have been replaced with more efficient models.

Power to the people

A revolution cannot truly be called revolutionary without the support of the masses. Cuba's energy revolution is no exception. In order to involve the general populace in the effort to save energy, an ambitious energy education initiative was put into place. The Programa de Ahorro de Energia por la Ministro de Educacion (PAEME) is a national energy program implemented by the ministry of education in 1997. Its objective is to teach students, workers, families and communities about energy-saving measures and renewable sources of energy.

In schools, the energy theme is present in many different disciplines. Students learn about energy issues not just in physics but in economic classes, environmental courses and health curricula as well. (See also http://www.solarenergy.org/resources/docs/SolarToday_Education.pdf.)

PAEME has also held energy festivals for the past three years, educating thousands of Cubans about efficiency and conservation. The festivals are targeted towards students and are filled with young children expressing their thoughts on energy savings through songs, poetry and theatre. It starts in each Cuban school where the children with the best energy efficiency projects go on to the festival at the municipality level. Then the best move on to the provincial level, and from there on to the national level. ``UNE decided that the festival is not a typical competition, but something like an energy efficiency carnival, with the most outstanding students of the country'', explains Teresa Palenzuela, a specialist with UNE. In the national festival, where the public lines up for blocks to enter, the students exchange experiences and share knowledge without declaring any winners.

In order to get the word out to even more of the population, the mass media was employed. For instance, you never see advertising for commercial products on Cuban highways, instead scattered across the country are dozens of billboards promoting energy conservation. There is also a weekly television show dedicated to energy issues, and articles appear weekly in national newspapers espousing renewable energy, efficiency and conservation. In 2007 alone there were more than 8000 articles and TV spots dedicated to energy efficiency issues.

Fair distribution

Despite these efforts, saving energy was not enough, and in 2005 blackouts were still common. Furthermore, Cuba had a very old and inefficient electrical distribution grid to deal with. The Cuban government realised that one of the best ways to provide for energy security was to move towards decentralised energy, and thus it began the move towards distributed generation. Employing this concept means less vulnerability to natural disasters or foreign invasions which might affect electricity to a whole section of the country. The strategy also diversifies energy sources, while making it easier to ultimately change to alternative sources of energy in the future, such as those produced more locally and sustainably.

In 2006, Cuba installed 1854 diesel and fuel oil micro-electrical plants across the country, representing more than 3000 MW of decentralised power in 110 municipalities. This virtually eliminated the blackouts that plagued Cuba in 2004. In fact, in the years 2004 and 2005 there were more than 400 days of blackouts greater than 100 MW that lasted at least an hour. In 2006 and 2007, there were three, all of which were in 2006. This is a better rate than in most industrialised countries.

In addition to the new plants, they also installed more than 4000 emergency back-up systems in critical areas like hospitals, food production centres, schools and other sites key to Cuba's economy. This represents 500 MW of emergency back-up power.

Furthermore, Cuba embarked on an impressive plan to fix its existing electrical transmission network. It upgraded more than 120,000 electrical posts, over 1 million utility service entrances, almost 3000 kilometres of cable and half a million electrical meters. The overall effect of this program meant that in 2005, while the country needed an average of 280 grams of oil to generate one kWh of electricity, in 2007 this figure had fallen to 271 grams of oil per kWh. While this might seem like a small saving, it translates to thousands of tonnes of imported oil annually. In 2006–2007 Cuba saved over 961,000 tonnes of imported oil through its energy saving measures.

Incorporating more renewables

Although incorporating renewable sources of energy into the energy mix has been a priority since the early 1990s, the past two years have seen even more growth. Currently 100 wind measuring stations are being installed in 11 different provinces of the country and two new wind farms have been built, bringing the total wind energy installed in the country to 7.23 MW. Also in development is the country’s first grid-connected 100 kW solar electric plant.

Furthermore, 180 micro-hydro systems, harnessing energy from water in streams and rivers, are installed around Cuba, 31 of which are grid connected. And the number of independent solar electric systems in rural areas of the country has risen to more than 8000, with a plan in place to use solar panels and other renewable technologies to electrify the remaining 100,000 houses that don't yet have access to electricity. This year will also see the addition of 300 biogas plants, which are using animal waste to create cooking fuel.

Sugar, Cuba's main export crop, also produces electricity. In sugarcane factories around the country the bagasse, which is the residue left over after the cane is processed, is burned and turned into useable energy to power the plant and to feed the electrical grid. Sugarcane biomass facilities currently have an installed capacity of 478.5 MW.

Cuba is also making progress on liquid biofuels such as ethanol. Usually involving the use of food crops like corn, the official stance on biofuels is that ``Cuba does not support the idea of converting food into fuels, while more than 800 million people suffer hunger''. Nevertheless, there are some liquid biofuel pilot projects. The best example is the cultivation of Jatropha Carcus, which produces a non-edible oil, and which thus does not compete with human food production.

In 2007 a national group aimed at supporting and promoting the accelerated development and penetration of renewable sources of energy and energy efficiency was created. The 14 commissions of this group, covering all types of renewable sources of energy and efficiency, have a government mandate to study better ways to introduce renewable energies into the country.

`Doctors of the Soul' help the energy revolution

The island has exported its energy revolution to other countries as well, in the framework of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), an alternative to the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). ALBA emphasises the fight against poverty and social exclusion. For instance, after Cuba worked with Venezuela on an energy-conservation campaign, Venezuela reported savings of 2000 MW of power. Cuban scientists and technicians have also provided and installed over 1 MW of solar electric panels in Venezuela, Bolivia, Honduras, South Africa, Mali and Lesotho.

To carry out their ambitious energy conservation plan, Cuba relied on its small army of trabajadores sociales or social workers. Formed in 2000, Cuba's social workers are made up of youths who have the task of bringing social justice to the island in many different spheres, including labour, education, culture, sports and the environment. Along with working with people with disabilities, the elderly and people convicted of crimes, the latest job of the social workers is to help carry out the energy revolution. Since 2006, 13,000 social workers have visited homes, businesses and factories around the island replacing light bulbs, teaching people how to use their new electric cooking appliances and spreading information on saving energy. The social workers also worked with the ministry of agriculture to help save energy in the sugarcane harvest, and work in the transportation sector to achieve more efficiency in the national bus system.

The social workers attend a school where they receive classes in politics, social communication, energy and sustainable development, with the objective of creating values and convictions which should characterise a social worker. They are also taught to replace light bulbs and to explain the need for saving energy.

Furthermore, under ALBA, the social workers also travel to other countries to help implement energy saving programs –- such as in Haiti where they visited over 93,000 houses and installed more than 2 million energy efficient light bulbs. Similar to Cuba’s medical program, which has more than 20,000 doctors working abroad to help with health crises, the social workers are travelling around the world to help in the energy crisis. Fidel Castro, who founded the program, refers to the social workers as ``Doctors of the Soul''.

``We need a global energy revolution '', says Mario Alberto Arrastia Avila, an energy expert with Cubaenergia, an energy information centre in Cuba. ``But in order for this to happen we also need a revolution in consciousness. Cuba has undertaken its own path towards a new energy paradigm, applying concepts like distributed generation, efficiency, education, energy solidarity and the gradual solarisation of the country.’

The rest of the world should follow Cuba's lead, for only a true global energy revolution will allow us to seriously confront the dire environmental problems that the world now faces.

[Laurie Guevara-Stone is the international program manager at Solar Energy International, based in Colorado, USA. Email: laurie [at] solarenergy.org. This article first appeared in the March-April 2009 issue of Renewable Energy World and has been posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with the author's permission.]

Comments

Re: La revolucion energetica: Cuba's energy revolution | Links

This is very good and inspiring article. My question, how do they
mobilise all this technology? Is there any articles or reports about how
Cuba with limited resources finance the 'energy revolution'?

Re: La revolucion energetica: Cuba's energy revolution | Links

Torry,

Thank you for your interest in the article about the Cuban Energy Revolution. The Cuban government financed the entire energy revolution, from subsidizing the new efficient appliances (the compact fluorescent lights were all free) to upgrading the electrical grid. Although they have few resources, they prioritize their needs differently than many countries. They subsidize things they feel are basic human rights like food, energy, education, and health care. For example, during the special period when the bottom fell out of their economy, they cut spending to the military by 60% so that they could divert the funds to people's basic needs. Also, they realize that investing in the energy infrastructure, renewable energy, and efficient appliances will save them money and cut their oil imports in the future. They do receive economic aid from Venezuela, and highly subsidized oil from them (Cuba pays for a large part of the oil by sending doctors to help in Venezuela), and Russia gave Cuba a $350 million credit package, which was partly used to upgrade the energy and transportation systems. A large part of their income now comes from tourism, which helps finance many of the programs they are doing.

Laurie Stone
International Program Manager
Solar Energy International
PO Box 715
Carbondale, CO 81623
(970) 963-8855, fax:(970) 963-8866
www.solarenergy.org

IMHO

Not all bio fuels use agricultural land. However, in the case of Jatropha Carcus, stating that it is not taking up agricultural land may not be accurate. If land grows this non-edible oil, it *could* grow instead. Also, the payback for energy input into getting oil, that is burned to make power, has some serious energy efficiency limitations.

Cuba is making do with a very bad situation. I wrote this:

There is a tendency on the left to glorify Cuba's response to a
situation that it found itself in and not to address the problem itself,
which is energy starvation. To the point that this becomes the 'answer'
for other countries. I've seen this sort of thing on blogs and other
arenas for left discussion. I praise Cuba as well for it's response. But
the 'response' itself is not the answer, or final answer, to it's energy
crisis. It's a lot more complex than that.

I knew that much of Cuba's oil fired generation was switching over to
diesel, hadn't realized it was in the form of diesel generators. Again,
Cuba is doing what it has to do in order to survive. One person writes this,
however, as if the 1854 diesel and fuel oil micro-electrical plants is
somehow a 'good thing'. I think not, at least not necessarily. The
pollution caused by diesel generators will now be spread about island
instead of emanating from from the larger 2 dozen or so older oil fired
boilers that traditionally powered Cuba's grid. And...in fact...still
do. The efficiency, *mechanically*, of the small diesel generators is
not as good as larger, modern units burning the same fuel. So the Cubans
in once sense are going to take a hit on overall efficiency as measured
against the amount of fuel used to produce a given amount of
electricity. Also, the issue of growth and the natural increase of per
capita energy use as standards of living rise is not going away.
But...these smaller generators can be scaled up in use and installation
a LOT easier than bigger units so this gives the Cubans flexibility.

The Cubans decided, correctly as I see it, that it's cheaper to build
the diesel-electric generators than to string up more transmission lines
from these old central power stations. Diesel is more expensive than oil
(essentially oil in the older units are simply unrefined, but filtered,
crude oil) but burns cleaner and more efficiently than the fuel oil.
Diesel of course has it's own issues, including a different kind of
deadly particulate and, of course, because it's a distillate, costs
more. They import most of it but the PDVSA of Venezuela is going to
upgrade some of Cuba's oil refineries to produce it and, will build a
brand new oil refinery that can actually produce both diesel and
gasoline from Venezuela's tar-sand/heavy crude.

There are large rural areas where the national electric grid doesn't
reach. Grids are very, very expensive. So, Cuba has a rural
electrification program and the "micro-generators" fits in well.
Eventually, in the future, it can all be tied together in a hybrid form
of both small and large grids, integrated with large and small
generators, giving Cuba a grid not unlike that of Israel, which has a
powerful, yet decentralized, energy grid based on small-generator usage.

Cuba DOES have a lot of domestic oil now and it will start using it's
off shore oil for part of it's domestic consumption. I expect over the
next 5 to 10 years importing oil from Venezuela will no longer be
necessary. If their refineries are tuned for Venezuelan heavy crude, and
Cuba's offshore oil is light-sweet crude (which it is) then I can see
Cuba's national oil company working with PDVSA to export Cuba's own oil
while continuing use Venezuela's.

In 2001 Cuba issued a "final" notice on it's attempt to build the
Juragua Nuclear Power Plant in Cienfuegos that it would be canceled. To
my knowledge there has been no attempt to again revive the project. The
US objected from the get-go to the construction of the plant for safety
reasons (and some of them seemed to be legitimate concerns). The plant
was not the Chernobyl type reactor but still had many issues. Bulgaria
was forced to close two of the same type of these Russian reactors as a
criteria for joining the European Union.

There is some 'chatter' about approaching South African and/or China for
use of their pebble bed modular reactors but nothing serious.

David

Cuba's Energy Revolution

This is really inspirational! The rest of the world should be following Cuba's fantastic example.

Viva Cuba!

IPS: Cuba's transport crisis coming to end

TRANSPORT-CUBA: Nearly There

By Dalia Acosta

(http://www.ipsnews.net/print.asp?idnews=46139)

HAVANA, Mar 17 (IPS) - Cuba's transport crisis finally appears to be coming to an end, after three years of substantial investments and reforms, although future economic growth could pose new challenges.

"A few months ago, I used to have to leave two hours ahead of time in order to make sure I would be punctual. Now I know that I will never have to wait more than 30 minutes for a bus," Mara Flores, who lives in a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Havana, 45 minutes by car from the city centre, told IPS.

Like many people in the Cuban capital, Flores uses the government-subsidised public transport system to get to work. Last year the number of routes connecting outlying neighbourhoods to the areas where economic activity is concentrated were doubled, after Chinese and Russian buses arrived on the streets.

Today there are 16 bus routes plying between the centre and the suburbs, and one which connects the outlying areas. In addition there are minor routes between these major arteries.

The optimum frequency would be one bus every 10 to 12 minutes on the routes between the outskirts and the centre. The problem here is no longer the number of vehicles available, but logistics and getting buses to run on schedule.

According to the National Statistics Office (ONE), passenger transport expanded by 16.5 percent and freight carriage by 12.3 percent in 2008. The use of other means of transport, ranging from bicycles to private vehicles, grew by 2.9 percent.

In contrast, ONE statistics indicate that passenger transport fell by 58 percent over the 1990-2005 period, a cutback that hit big cities like Havana or Santiago de Cuba the worst, as well as the highway network connecting the country's provinces.

In order to tackle the problem, the government invested millions of dollars to buy new or second-hand vehicles, especially from Russia and China. About 2,700 of these buses were already in service on the island by the end of 2008, according to official sources.

"If the annual growth rate of passenger transport remains at the level attained between 1998 and 2007 (14 percent a year), it will take five more years to reestablish the level of service existing in 1989," said an expert source quoted in Economics Press Service, a publication of the IPS bureau in Cuba.

But deploying an adequate transport fleet is not the only problem. The authorities have tried to improve working conditions for bus drivers and other transport workers by increasing wages and providing uniforms and training in modern technology. However, the Havana city government has had to resort to bringing in drivers from other provinces to cover the shortfall.

"The low level of training of transportation personnel is one of the main causes of the staff shortage that is limiting the effectiveness of the programme," the expert source, who recommended that the education sector should "begin to emphasise the expansion of this type of education," was quoted as saying.

The collapse of the Cuban economy after the demise of the Soviet Union and its East European socialist allies in the early 1990s severely affected the island's capability to move goods around the country. Railway freight alone declined from 13 million tonnes to five million tonnes at its lowest point, while one-half of all haulage trucks were decommissioned.

The transport recovery programme, worth two billion dollars, got under way in 2005 and is due to end in 2010. According to declarations in the Cuban press from Transportation Minister Jorge Luis Sierra, the rehabilitation plan includes a major restructuring as well as the purchase of vehicles and equipment.

Expert sources say that in 2005 the armed forces directed a special operation known as Operación Emergente which reorganised transport of goods from the ports to their final destination, with the aim of avoiding idle freight capacity in trucks and other vehicles, reducing wear and tear and cutting down on fuel consumption.

Global positioning system (GPS) devices were introduced in trucks in an effort to discourage private use of the vehicles, a practice common in this country where making unauthorised use of state resources tends to be seen as a short cut to solving personal problems, rather than as a crime.

Cuba has devoted 500 million dollars to revitalising the railway system. The funds were used to buy 550 freight wagons and 200 carriages from Iran and 100 engines from China, as well as purchasing materials and setting up local factories to carry out repairs on the railway lines.

The government has also earmarked some 400 million dollars to repair bridges and highways, among them the Autopista Nacional (National Freeway), which was only half-finished when the Havana-Moscow alliance broke up in the early 1990s.

Another 300 million dollars are to be invested in the port terminals. During the worst years of the so-called "special period" – the euphemistic name given to the crisis - early last decade, it could take 80 days to unload a cargo ship, while the number of harbour tugs and lighters supplying food and water to the ships fell drastically.

The economic crisis also devastated the national merchant fleet, which had been one of the largest in Latin America until the late 1980s. This forced the island to depend on foreign ships, which under the provisions of the U.S. Helms-Burton Act are forbidden to enter U.S. ports for six months after docking in Cuba.

The Act, named for the legislators who introduced it to Congress, Jesse Helms and Dan Burton, entered into force in 1996. It provides for retaliatory action against any non-U.S. company that trades with Cuba, tightening the embargo imposed by Washington on Havana in the 1960s.

Such restrictions create delays in the arrival of new equipment to Cuban shores. For instance, the Iranian railway stock may have to wait up to five months for embarkation until a ship can be found that is willing to take on the risks of the long crossing and of being blacklisted by Washington.

"One of the most important challenges to the transport rehabilitation programme (for freight as well as for passengers) is the fact that certain kinds of demand are likely to grow in the medium term," the Economics Press Service article predicts.

The government hopes for a six percent growth rate in GDP this year, compared to 4.3 percent in 2008.

Transportation services, while still recovering from their huge setback, must cope with the expected economic surge, "particularly the higher agricultural, livestock and industrial production," the expert source said. (END/2009)

Guardian: Cuba's other revolution is green, not red

In Copenhagen they are debating how to end deforestation, but in Cuba's Pinar del Río they were replanting 50 years ago, creating lush, unspoilt valleys
Typical bungalows in Las Terrazas, Sierra del Rosario Nature and Biosphere Reserve, Cuba

Cuban hills ... typical bungalows in Las Terrazas, Sierra del Rosario Nature and Biosphere Reserve, Pinar del Rio. Photograph: John Harden/Robert Harding/Rex Features

Birds and butterflies are swooping above us and, as our taxi reaches the summit of this forest road just 40 minutes from the heat and noise of Havana, the view opens to an undulating landscape painted every shade of green. Before Castro these hills were dusty yellow and brown scrub.

If Copenhagen needs a model, this is the most eloquent I know, a visionary example of reforestation and the long term benefits it brings. While the rest of the world is ripping up forests in the name of minerals and wood, Cuba has been replanting its tropical forests in the name of jobs, the environment and a lush holiday destination for decades. This policy has worked so well that in 1984 Unesco gave biosphere status to 26,686 hectares of forest in the western region of Pinar del Río, where I am heading to stay at Las Terrazas, 50km from Havana.

Our journey has taken us along an empty motorway, past plains with grazing cattle and sugar cane fields. Few Cubans can afford the petrol to make trips out here. Those who live here survive on smallholdings down dirt tracks that wind into the forest or in villages where the main employment comes from tourism at Las Terrazas.

We reach our destination, Las Terrazas valley, and drive across a lake studded with water lilies. Clouds of turkeys and chickens scatter in front of us and, above us, orange and blue shuttered apartments for local people curve around the hillside. Hotel Moka, and a host of restaurants, bars and attractions, are dotted discreetly around the community.

We check in and walk 40 minutes along a hilly track in search of a river to wash away the dust and heat of Havana. Steps lead from the track down to a river cascading from the hills into a series of natural pools. Above, sunlight trickles through bamboos, the orange-red blooms of hibiscus trees, teaks, royal palms and a tree covered in curly red seed pods. We plunge into the cool, clear water. Grey and red bromeliads and tiny orchids stud the trees above us. A large kingfisher swoops onto a rock a couple of metres away. Eagles circle overhead.

This is Castro's Eden, a paradise he dreamt up soon after the revolution in 1959, when he ordered a reforestation programme. Back then this place was grassland. Now it looks much like it must have done before European settlers cleared the forest for coffee and cattle. When Columbus arrived here in 1492 the island was 90% forest. By the time Castro came to power the figure had dropped to 11%. Now forest covers about a quarter of the island.

Later, we walk though the forest with curator Fidel Hernandez, who lives at Las Terrazas.

"The climate is cooler and the people are gentler than the rest of Cuba," he says, leading us through the cultivated edges of the forest past grapefruit trees, red ginger and Cuba's national flower, the mariposa. We walk uphill along one of the steep tracks that crisscross the area. Guides lead parties through the forest but it's OK to walk independently and the snakes, Fidel says, are not poisonous.

"Las Terrazas was made to create better conditions for the peasants here who were very poor. They had no water or electricity or medicine and so it was decided to build this community and give the people the work of replanting the forest. Between 1983 and 1990 we planted 8 million trees over 5,000 hectares. Now we have more than 500 plant species, 117 bird species, and 13 bat species, from tiny ones weighing four to five grams to fishing bats with a wingspan of 17cm."

Thanks to reforestation, Las Terrazas has become a tourist attraction. When the eastern bloc, Cuba's main trading partner, collapsed in 1989, the country was thrown into crisis as food and cash supplies dried up almost overnight. Tourism became crucial to the island's survival.

The Moka hotel appeared along with nine cafes and restaurants. We walk to one of them, Bamboo, upstream beside a river. We have a late lunch of classic black beans and rice, chicken and tinned vegetable "salad", a souvenir of Soviet-sponsored Cuba. I had heard a lot about Cuba's terrible food but most of the food at Las Terrazas is fine, although not always cheap. Main courses range from around £3-£10.

A Cuban carrying palm baskets of oranges passes our table. I offer money and point to one of the baskets but the orange seller looks baffled. In Havana there's pressure on tourists to buy CDs, cigars, food and souvenirs, but here we are offered nothing except conversation. Las Terrazas is pressure free.

In fact it is unpressured to the point of frustration, because Las Terrazas doesn't mention or sign many of its glorious attractions. It is a charmingly naive mix of being geared up for tourism and unaware of how to market itself.

By chance we find several beautiful mountain pools, complete with lifeguards and bars. These natural pools are picture postcard perfect and they are open to everyone. But, like the motorway, they are often empty. We come across one while trying to find the ecology centre. The centre – a small room with a few posters about the climate, creatures and flora of the forest – is closed so we join young Cubans partying along to deafening music on a lake with a floating trampoline.

In Cuba partying is second nature. While in Havana a car stopped outside our hotel at around midnight, pumped up the music and attracted dancing locals like moths to a lamp. The same thing happens when we visit Las Terrazas' Boat House restaurant.

The banging music is not as welcome at the homestay where we sleep (not a lot) for the first two nights at Las Terrazas. The homestay is a sort of B&B without the breakfast. It is thatched with royal palm and has balcony views over the valley on one side and a courtyard garden of roses and staghorn fern on the other. As the tropical night plunges us into dark, the crickets start . . . along with some of the loudest music I have ever heard. Next door parties all night, every night if the comments in the visitors' book are anything to go by.

We return to the peace of Hotel Moka across the valley. It is relatively luxurious although it sometimes runs out of hot water. Given our budget we should have booked into one of the permanent campsites or thatched huts a mile or so from the hotel – both have water and electricity.

And I should have worked on my fitness. The steep, precarious concrete steps between the home stay, the community and the hotel are reminding my calf muscles that they need more exercise.

We take another calf-aching walk to find the 900m zip wire "canopy ride". We can't find the ride but we find plenty of interest as we walk through the community: an old man roasting coffee, his wife making guava membrillo (quince). A group of handsome fighting cocks tethered in a garden. A family celebrating a birthday who invite us to share marshmallow-topped rum cake. And a handful of other tourists.

Visitors here are mixed. Older people come for the peace and the wildlife coach tours. Young ones are outdoor enthusiasts who want challenging forest walks, horse rides, canyoning, swimming and thigh-pounding bike rides.

We head up the valley past turkeys, ponies, dogs, cats, children and chickens to the spartan community museum. There are pictures of the area before reforestation plus a skeleton, three pieces of coffee machinery, some palm figures and a mood board about a local artist.

Art of all kinds gets state funding and respect in Cuba. At Las Terrazas it is supported by tourism as hotel manager, Lionel Guitierrez, explains through local guide and interpreter Emilio Jorge Arias: "100% of the profit from the hotel goes to the state and 35% from the outlying activities, rides and restaurants. The rest of the money goes to the community for repairing houses and encouraging art and music. Over 90% of the people who live here work here in the hotel or the forest."

The standard of living here is now far higher than many other areas as Emilio explains: "100% of the people have electricity here plus drinking water and gas to cook on; 80% have a telephone. In a nearby community of about 3,000 people there is one telephone."

There is a waiting list to live here and plans to build another hotel and community to provide jobs and income and satisfy the insatiable demand for beds at Moka.

I wish I could persuade Copenhagen's decision makers to book some of those beds and have a look round this pioneering community. And I wish that the world leaders who are flogging their forests instead of transforming them into places like Las Terrazas would come here too. It is an eloquent political statement: an exquisite destination providing a future for the Cuban people.

Getting there
A seven-night trip to Cuba, including three nights in Havana and three nights in Las Terrazas, guided tours in Havana and international flights and transfers costs from £1,350pp with Audley Travel (01993 838 685).
Where to stay
Hotel Moka Las Terrazas has double rooms from €59 per night.

• Jane Owen is a writer and broadcaster working to raise awareness about deforestation and the Baka pygmies of sub-Saharan Africa.

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