How climate change threatens Cuba's iconic cigar trade - and what this means for the island

With world leaders set to meet in Dubai for the COP28 summit, ITV News US Correspondent Dan Rivers reports how tobacco, a bellwether crop for climate change, is damaging Cuba's already struggling economy

There is nothing more redolent of Cuba than its cigars.

Smoked almost constantly by its most famous son, Fidel Castro, they are not only an important export for the island nation, but also a potent symbol of national pride.

But now the prized tobacco plants which are used to make brands like Romeo y Julieta, Montecristo and Cohiba are facing ever more challenging growing conditions because of climate change.

Tobacco plants are an extremely sensitive crop, which need reliable temperatures and rainfall. However, in recent years, Cuba’s weather has been capricious with heat, drought and then damaging storms and deluges bedevilling the work of Cuba’s farmers.

Most tobacco crops are now grown under netting covers to help mitigate the worst of the fluctuations but families who have worked the soil for generations growing tobacco say things are changing fast.

Tobacco plants are an extremely sensitive crop and need reliable temperatures and rainfall to survive. Credit: AP

You might think if tobacco is struggling maybe that’s a good thing given the link to cancer. But it is important to understand that tobacco is seen as a bellwether crop, a natural early warning system for climate change.

Already other food crops are being hit by the same temperature rise which is making tobacco more difficult to produce.

The black bean harvest, a food staple of on many Cuban dinner plates, has collapsed with yields down 50%. It’s caused a spike in prices which have risen seven fold, making life difficult for ordinary families. Combined with a six decade long economic blockade by the United States, the Cuban economy is facing extreme challenges.

I spoke with the Cuban government’s main climate advisor who is attending COP this week. Orlando Rey Santos paints a grim picture of the future Cuba is facing. Rising sea levels are threatening to inundate coastal areas which will force some communities to have to relocate inland, which Orlando Rey Santos describes as being "traumatic".

Orlando Rey Santos - Cuba's climate advisor told us as an island, the country faces 'complicated' and unique climate issues.

But worse still - much of the low-lying fertile land near the coast may also be contaminated with salt water. Combine that with rising temperatures, potatoes and rice crops may also be increasingly jeopardised.

Unlike many other vulnerable countries, Cuba is cut off from much of the international funding and support on which other nations can draw. The tangible effects are already being felt.

Cuba already has a food security problem. The Cuban government is beginning to look at new crop varieties and changing agricultural practices to try and cope with what may here see as inevitable further hardship. Orlando Rey Santos is emphatic about what is already happening here: "It’s beyond any doubt."

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