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Hitting the Green in Cuba–Again

In a somewhat distressing development, the New York Times reports that the Cuban golf industry will soon be back in business after a 50-year hiatus that started when Fidel Castro first came to power.

At that time, the communist revolutionaries saw golf courses “as the epitome of bourgeois excess,” as the Times puts it. Castro even had shots of himself in full fatigues taken on the putting green to make fun of his bourgeois American counterpart, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

A young Castro hits the green. Source: Particular Cuba News.

There is still a good contingent of people who object to golf primarily on class warfare grounds (as the ever-colorful Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez put it, in the face of slums and housing shortages, why should countries devote precious land to golf courses “just so some little group of the bourgeois and the petit bourgeois can go and play golf?”).

But these days golf critics are as likely to object to the sport’s massive and seemingly pointless resource footprint as they are to its socio-economic significance.

As Cord Jefferson of GOOD magazine recently wrote, “unlike, say, power plants, which use a ton of water in the name of keeping cities alive, golf courses eat up vast amounts of resources simply to provide wealthy people with a leisure activity . . . with golf as it is, we all lose.”

Golf’s ecological and resource footprint is particularly egregious in arid and semi-arid regions with dwindling water supplies such as Phoenix, Las Vegas and Palm Springs. While there has been some movement toward a “greener” approach to the maintaining the green by using recycled water and cutting pesticides, most golf courses still use first-pass, high-value drinking water to keep the turf verdant—often in places where the natural color of the surrounding landscape is brown.

Watering the green in the desert city of Palm Springs. Source: JoeinSouthernCA via Flickr.

But hyper-arid landscapes are the not the only place where golf’s water-hogging behavior is being questioned. As Cynthia Barnett, author of Mirage: Florida and the Vanishing Water of the Eastern U.S. told NPR in 2007, “Florida’s groundwater has been overallocated — not just in South Florida, but all over the state.” Probably not coincidentally, Florida has more golf courses than any other state, according to Cord Jefferson.

With some 54 inches of rain per year, Cuba’s normal climate is anything but arid. But for the past two years, the country has suffered from its worst drought in half a century, and reservoirs are at a fifth of their normal levels, forcing the government to circulate water to residents via truck.

As one resident, Enrique Olivera Gonzalez, told the BBC, “As there is no water, you can’t wash your clothes, cook, or clean your house.” In this context, the Cuban government’s decision to allow developers to build four luxury golf resorts at a cost of more than $1.5 billion seems ill timed at best.

Varadero Golf Club in Cuba. Source: Travel for Passion.

Beyond the sheer volume of water it takes to keep golf courses green is the issue of the pollution cost of artificially maintaining such vast amounts of green with fertilizers and pesticides. Amazingly, lawn turf (of which golf greens are a part) is America’s biggest crop, and the average lawn owner uses far greater inputs per acre than the average farmer.

That said, some recent studies have called into question the belief that turf has an outsized role in water pollution. In particular, a study released in September of 2010 by the Iowa Policy Project suggested that industrial farming of corn and soybeans was a far bigger contributor to water pollution in Iowa than lawns and golf-courses.

But the Cuban story puts a twist even on that observation. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuban agriculture was heavily industrialized along the old Soviet model of large state farms, reliant on large inputs of fertilizers and pesticide and mechanization. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, fossil-fuel imports dwindled, and the nation was forced to make radical changes to its food production system.

Combining techniques of urban farming, permaculture and organic agriculture, the nation was able to survive the collapse of its agricultural system and become an example for many (especially in the peak oil world) who were looking for more ecologically sustainable and resilient food-production models. According to the Cuban ministry of agriculture, by 2002, 90 percent of Havana’s fresh produce came from local urban farms and gardens. In that context, the return of golf-course culture to Cuba has an added irony and poignancy.

"Organoponico" or urban farms provide fresh produce in Havana. Source: SeanD on GIY.

Of course, from the perspective of the Cuban government, it must be hard to turn down the windfall they will receive from the golf-courses; it could even be argued that that money will be put to good use upgrading water infrastructure for everyone else. But I still can’t help wondering – isn’t there another way?

Columbia Water Center demonstrates research-based solutions to global freshwater scarcity and climate-related water risks.  Follow Columbia Water Center on Facebook and Twitter

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