Cuba: Rebuilding after the hurricanes, sustainably

Hurricane Gustav hits Cuba

Professor Fernando Martirena is from the Centre of Investigation into Structures and Materials (CIDEM) research institute at the University of Santa Clara, Cuba. He visited Australia in November 2008 to speak at a number of meetings organised by the Australian Green Development Forum. In 2007, Martirena's team won the World Habitat Award from the Building and Social Housing Foundation, an independent research organisation that promotes sustainable development and innovation in housing. Trent Hawkins caught up with Martirena, to find out how the CIDEM is helping to build houses in Cuba using sustainable building materials.

The US economic blockade forced the Cuban government to rely almost entirely on the Soviet Union for trade. With the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba lost half its oil imports and much of its food imports leading to a major food crisis.

The economic crisis also had a major impact in areas such as housing and construction. Eighty-six per cent of Cuba's raw materials came from the USSR, and 80% of its machinery. Furthermore, construction was based on the large-scale mechanised production of prefabricated building materials that were driven long distances.

Before the Soviet Union’s collapse, “we had energy and access to credit”, Martirena said. “Now we don’t have energy and have run out of money, so we had to look for solutions. Our solution was to make local development in a local context without dependence on external resources.
Martirena’s research institute, which previously focused on things like satellite technology, redirected its work towards solving the immediate problems thrown up by the “Special Period”, as the period following the collapse of the
Soviet Union is referred to.

CIDEM was able to develop a number of “eco-materials” for use in small-scale, local production of housing. Eco-materials developed included a cement using a binder made from the ashes of sugar cane straw, called “lime pozzalana cement”, which only creates approximately half CO2 emissions of normal cement production.
Also developed were light, but strong micro-concrete roofing tiles; low-energy fired clay bricks using bio-waste products as fuel; and laminated bamboo sheeting.

Martirena explained that the first key element in CIDEM’s approach was in relation to ``embodied energy'’’ (the energy required in production). “In the embodied energy, transportation plays a major role especially in Cuba. Cuba is a very slender island, 1100 kilometres long and 60 kilometres wide, and sometimes the industrial centres are at the very tips of the island. We might produce tiles in Santiago de Cuba and send them by road to far away, travelling something like 1000 kilometres.

“So what we are doing is, first, keeping transport to a minimum, by working locally in a decentralised manner. Second, which will become increasingly important in the near future, we are also encouraging the use of recycled waste in different ways. So we try to recycle waste and by doing that, and this is the third point, we try to preserve the environment.

“We preserve the environment by reducing CO2 emissions [in production] and also by preserving the forests... Basically our approach is bottom up. Some 15 years ago we went into communities that needed building materials and had no other choices. International donors, especially development agencies, were interested what we could develop in eco-materials. So we experimented with technology, but at same time we were building houses and  contributing to the communities.

“Rather than creating a new bodies we rely on existing community structures and complement them by providing our technology. We train people and they organise the production. It's a partnership with local governments because they don’t have money to pay us, but they have access to resources. So through the international donor community we get the funds to pay for machinery. We set up a workshop in the area and the local government provides all the materials we need to produce.’’

``It is organised in a very decentralised way. Each family has a contract with the municipalities... Because they don't have much money, they need to get loans, so we work with banks and we teach them how to apply for a loan. The loans have a very low interest rate, only 2-3% a year. With this credit they can build their houses.”

Martirena explained that the scheme began in just four municipalities, and spread to 26 municipalities, but after the recent hurricanes which devastated parts of the island, around half of Cuba’s 168 municipalities ``are looking to use our approach”.

Martirena also discussed the expansion of organic urban agriculture in Cuba.

“Rather than talking about housing, at the municipal level I like to talk about development. And development integrates everything. When you give someone a house, you have to give them a job, otherwise they will move from that place. But you also have to secure food for them. So organic agriculture is important. It's the same for health and education, everything is integrated. In Cuba, we don’t separate housing from the local development strategy in the municipalities. We have a holistic approach for development. This is why the municipalities are the core of our approach.’’


Martirena's research team was called in to respond to the crisis caused by hurricanes Gustav, Ike and Paloma.

Thanks to Cuba's renowned hurricane response system, only seven people died from the hurricanes. However it has suffered $10 billion in damage and totally or partially destroyed more than a half a million homes.

Before the storms, there was already a housing deficit of 600,000 homes. Martinera said the Cuban government has helped as best it can, but lacks the resources needed to properly rebuild.

“It's really complicated because, on the one side, it has to make decisions that bring quick results. However the quick answers to the problem aren’t necessarily the best answers. The government has distributed 2 million square metres of corrugated roof, the same type that was blown away during the hurricanes. [While it is solving the immediate problems] with the next hurricane, you will have the same problem again.’’

“In Cuba we have to build houses that are hurricane safe, but again this is very complicated. You have to have a very heavy roof that won't be blown away in a hurricane. The only way to have a heavy roof is to have a flat slab, and a complete slab requires Portland cement, aggregate, steel, which is all very, very expensive. When you are talking about the massive amount of housing Cuba requires, you would need three times the production capacity of Cuba to build them. We have no way of meeting the cost.’’

Martirena added that ``in the aftermath of disaster, you need urgent action. There is a lot of chaos, people don’t know what to do. They are afraid, their houses collapsed, the whole system has collapsed, nothing works, there is no electricity, phones, nothing. In the eight most effected municipalities, we set up fully operating workshops, in less than three weeks. This was a record... Now the government has seen our scheme and now it has realised that it too can very quickly disseminate the technology across the country.’’


Martirena described how the revolution in 1959 paved the way for the cooperation and solidarity that has enabled Cuba's sustainable community-orientated approach.

“You go to the hurricane-affected regions and witness people who have lost everything and you see them helping others. This is a result of a society where you try not to see others as your enemy but as your friend. It's very beautiful... You can see this in Cuba, especially in the frightening situations when you have a natural disaster.

“The goal and the dream of the Cuban Revolution was to create the so called new man, as Che Guevara said. [While we may have failed to create a `new man’] we ... have been able to create a people that has far more solidarity than any other country in the world.’’

 ``Contrary to what people say, our political system works. People in Latin America may have the right to vote, they can go out into the streets and say `I hate oppression’, but at the same time when they go to the hospital they have to pay, when they go to school they have to pay and they cannot afford to do that. In Cuba you have free education, you have free health care, you have freedoms. I'm not a member of the Communist Party, I choose not to be and I don’t have any hassles.

“You cannot forget the US embargo, we are a besieged country and everything depends on how this can change in the future. I hope that the new US government will listen to the many countries pushing for it to drop the embargo. If this happens it would bring a tremendous change to the economy.’’

[A shorter version of this article appeared in the December 3, 2008, edition of Green Left Weekly.]