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Alison Singer – Worldwatch Institute –

What does a truly sustainable country look like?  How do you measure true sustainability in a country? One way has been to compare how well a country achieves human needs, and at what ecological cost. WWF Global arrives at this by comparing two measures: the United Nation’s Human Development Index and the Ecological Footprint measure. To be sustainable, a country must first get a Human Development Index score of over 0.08–a number the UN deems the lowest threshold for a high level of human development (i.e. meeting the needs of the present). The country must also have an ecological footprint of less than 1.8 hectares per person, the global average limit for not undermining the earth’s ability to regenerate (i.e. meeting the needs of the future).

According to that calculus, in 2007 only one country in the world could be listed as sustainable: Peru, with a Human Development Index of 0.086 and an ecological footprint of 1.5 hectares. Cuba had been in that sustainability sweet spot the year before, but had just missed the ecological footprint cut-off. Ecuador and Columbia, as well, hovered on the edge of sustainability.

Of course, sustainability is easier for a country blessed with abundant natural resources. Approximately 50 percent of Peru is covered by lush rainforest, providing ample timber and water resources. While much of Peru’s rainforests are conserved, there is a high level of both legal and illegal deforestation due to illegal squatting, road expansion, mining, and petroleum drilling. Though Peru struggles with wealth inequity and environmental degradation, it recognizes that moving towards sustainable prosperity requires government intervention. Peru’s Environment Minister hopes to virtually eliminate deforestation using international aid in addition to Peru’s own resources. Peru’s Prime Minister has vowed to not allow environmental pollution, and the government demands environmental impact assessment for mining operations. However, it appears that much of Peru’s sustainability is due to natural resources and a decent level of equity that ensures a basic level of development for most. Of course, there are also a variety of organizations working to protect Peru’s natural resources and thus create a truly sustainable country.

Cuba found itself in this sustainability sweet spot for a very different set of reasons. Cuba’s agricultural system depended to a large degree on exporting sugar to the Soviet Union—a very resource intensive and fragile farming strategy. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba was forced to fend for itself, and in doing so promoted organic farming and land conservation. In fact, Cuba is one of the few nations that has actually seen an increase in forest cover. Of course Cuba didn’t have much choice—thanks to the US trade embargo—but one could argue that at this point nobody has a choice, thanks to the rapid breakdown of Earth’s ecosystems services, including climate regulation.

When faced with crisis, Cuba responded with massive agricultural reforms focusing on local, sustainable and organic agriculture (as the below documentary describes). The government turned over half of the state-held farmland to the people in the form of cooperatives. Farmers were permitted to sell excess yield at farmers’ markets, leading to higher incomes and affordable pricing. Citizens were allowed to take over vacant lots as long as they were used for food production. The Asociacion Cubana de Agricultura Organica was created to promote organic farming techniques, such as crop rotation, composting, and green manure, and encourage knowledge-sharing. Around 75 percent of Cuba’s agriculture is now organic.

The problem is that most governments are either too deeply in denial or captured by interests to take such bold steps. Hence, the odds of other countries joining the sustainability sweet spot—where both high levels of development and low ecological impact—are extremely low. But with committed efforts it is possible, and there are signs of such efforts emerging, particularly in the agricultural sector. Examples abound from places as diverse as New York City, Egypt, and Chinaof more sustainable way of growing, transporting, and consuming food. And while local and national governments support sustainable measures to varying degrees, many of these developments are being implemented through community organizations. Scaling these up will demand deeper government intervention, which we can only hope will grow more common, and not just after major ecological disturbances demand it.

A rural mountain farm (photo courtesy of Peter Griffin via public domain photos)