Cuba, a Spanish speaking Caribbean island, is a very unique place. Its history and heritage is distinct compared to surrounding nations. This is remarkably so in the way Cubans grow their food.
Back in 2008 I attended an interesting presentation in London by Roberto Pérez Rivero, who works with the Fundación Antonio Núñez Jiménez, a Cuban NGO that focuses on culture and the environment. So, I would like to share with you key learning from his talk that you can keep in mind when you one day travel to Cuba.
When Cuba was a Spanish colony, agriculture was dominated by the relationship between landowners and slaves. The landowners’ material and political power pushed massive deforestation and social exclusion of the majority poor in Cuba from 1812 onwards. This led to a post-colonial plantation agricultural system that continued after Cuba’s independence from Spain in 1898 (and from the USA in 1902). The only change was that slaves became free to choose where to live and with whom to work. Landowners maintained a grip of the larger part of profit from the production and sale of food.
It was after the Cuban Revolution of 1959 that the vast majority of the people gained significant land and food production rights. 56 acres were allocated per family. Farmers could manage the risk of growing food. Government-assisted agriculturalists helped to boost productivity, variety and the distribution of food in the nation. The Green Revolution followed, where agricultural innovations such as machinery and fertilizers arrived from other countries, mostly the USSR (Soviet Union).
The USSR collapsed in the late 1980s, which created an instant shock in Cuba’s ability to feed itself. With a lot of other countries, including the USA, having already imposed economic and political sanctions on Cuba since its revolution, food independence and sustainability of local natural resources became an imperative.
Cuba suffered but the nation started searching inwards for solutions. Since there was not much food coming from the countryside, people chose to develop urban agriculture. There was a shift from state ownership to cooperative ownership of farms. There were also reforestation incentives that increased Cuban forest cover by 10%.
The return to a cooperative system opened the society to new methods and also a restoration of old methods that worked well. For example, cattle turned out to be better than tractors in some instances because their hooves do not compact the soil as tractor wheels do and their manure contributed to a highly productive and less polluting farming plot. Sugar production wastewater was diverted to use for soil fertilisation and irrigation purposes instead of polluting water resources. Mr. Rivero estimated that 2 tonnes per hectare of organic matter was added to the land in the place of oil-based fertilizers. Such bio-preparations returned the balance of food production to nature.
Cuba was one of the first innovators of Organopónicos, a local term to describe urban organic gardens. Permaculture, where the rhythm of natural ecosystems govern agriculture, helped drive a collective solution to the food security problems from the rural areas into the urban areas. Individuals could use space in local urban areas to grow food. Until 1994 food was grown for subsistence. After 1994 food became more and more for the market and therefore as supplementary income for families. The permaculturalist became more preferred than the conventional agronomist.
From the 2000s onwards, Cuba became more open to foreign investment and tourism, and land redistribution to individuals began. However, the dictates of the global market could not break-up the community-oriented innovation that disseminated fast without patents or for-profit prioritisation. Mr Rivera finally encouraged everyone to see for themselves. Already the Word Wildlife Fund (WWF), in a report, had rated Cuba as the only country in the world to raise living standards through ecological and sustainable development. There is also a very inspiring documentary film that he recommended called the ‘’Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil’’.
(Source of image: http://caosycosasdecuba.blogspot.co.ke/2011/05/venta-de-viandas-en-cuba.html)