Sustainable Agriculture, Cuban Style

I’ve always wanted to go to Cuba; like many in in my generation, the courage, audacity, and creativity of this small country so near the U.S. colossus has always been an inspiration. The first anti-imperialist political posters I ever saw came folded up in copies of the Tricontinental Review from Havana. I raised money to send people to cut cane on the Venceremos (we will overcome) work Brigades and to take school buses through the blockade with Pastors for Peace. Finally in the fall of 2009, my partner Scott and I signed up for a sustainable agriculture/urban farming Reality Tour with the political tour group Global Exchange, and arranged to stay another ten days on our own.

We were prepared to love Cuba, to embrace its strengths and forgive its faults (and there are plenty of both, more of the first, but plenty of the second). Cuba kept its social welfare system intact all the way through the hard years after the collapse of the soviet union, so education remains free all the way through university, there is free comprehensive medical care, there is a food ration that provides about half of a family’s basic necessities, there is a crowded and overburdened but functioning system of public transportation. On the other hand, as Cubans will be quick to tell you, there is too much bureaucracy, the lines are too long, and money is short

What we didn’t expect to find is how much Cuba can teach the world about fostering sustainable societies in the face of the crises that are heading our way in a warmer, thirstier post peak oil world. Cuban economists, engineers, ecologists and agronomists have been thinking about these problems for 50 years. And Cuban agricultural, energy, and trade policy has been shaped by twenty years of practice.

Three aspects of the Cuban strategy for sustainable development stand out: first, they have begun to promote decentralized co-operative production and control to engage people in the outcome of their labors; second, they rely on science, organization, human and animal power, not capital and equipment; and third, they aspire to nothing less than finally to break with Cuba’s colonial relationship to the world market and engage the global economy on new terms.

Decentralization. Agriculture is the best-known example of Cuba’s innovations in forms of collective but decentralized production and control. Beginning in the 1960s, Cuban scientists and economists debated how to transform the Cuban economy and agriculture to support the social transformations. Ecologists made the case for integrated pest management and organic fertilizers, and some economists urged decentralization as an incentive to be more productive. But once the U.S. broke relations and Cuba turned to the socialist bloc in the 1960s, Cuba once again had one dominant external trading partner, the Soviet Union, and Cuban policy makers accepted the Soviet model, including state-controlled industrial agriculture. The Cuban economy became even more dependent on exporting sugar and nickel. Food imports actually grew. Cubans had more material goods, but they were not developing a sustainable or self-sufficient economy.

Then in 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed, and Cuba was stranded. Oil imports dropped by 50%; chemicals and fertilizer for the big state farms disappeared. Cuban sugar and nickel were thrown back on to the world market. The US tightened its embargo, hoping to starve the Cuban people into abandoning their socialist government. There were food shortages; unlike nations subject to the dictates of global financial institutions, no one starved, but everyone was hungry. Cuba called it the “special period.” When we asked Cubans when it ended, they told us with a laugh and a shrug that it had quit being special, that they had become expert at crises. The electrical system is much more stable than in the worst of the special period, people once again have refrigerators, there are some new buses on Havana’s busy streets, and people on the street look very healthy, partly because they walk so much.

In the 1990s, the Cuban government realized that they had to find ways to increase the food supply as quickly as possible. And the ecologists, soil scientists, and economists who had been pushing to decentralize agriculture got heard. The Ministry of Agriculture tore up its front lawn and put in a garden as an example. Big institutions – schools, hospitals, big workplaces, government offices – began to grow some of their own food; these plots are called autoconsumos. In a year, almost half of the state farms were transformed into family holdings or co-ops run by the people who work in them. By the mid 1990s Cuba had established a network of organic gardens, some of them the size of small farms, in and near the population centers.

These gardens range from people’s patios and back yards, to the autoconsumos, to urban gardens called organoponicos, to big co-ops like Alamar in the eastern suburbs of Havana and the Antonio Maceo frutal 20 miles to the south. The forms of land tenure vary: most tobacco is farmed on family farms; sugar, rice, and tubers are still mostly grown on state farms; the fruit and vegetable farms are mostly producer co-ops.

It is the co-ops that are implementing the organizational and scientific reforms that have transformed Cuban agriculture. The typical arrangement is a contract to provide a stated amount of produce that is distributed to schools, hospitals, etc. If the co-op produces more, they are free to sell it on the open market, and to keep most of the profit to share among themselves however they decide, usually some combination of seniority and productivity.

Everywhere we visited, the farmers had something to say about the importance of worker control of the process. Miguel Salcines Lopez, director of the Alamar co-op, says that the single biggest challenge to increasing their phenomenal productivity still further is the human factor. He explains that farming has not been an honored occupation in Cuba, which has been associated with hard plantation-style labor forced on men. Promoting a sense of ownership among Alamar’s 150 plus members is a matter of meetings, shared responsibilities, material incentives – the average wage at Alamar is about 950 Cuban pesos a month, three times the national average – and benefits like free hair cuts for both men and women, work clothes, low interest loans, and a six hour work day.

At the Antonio Maceo frutal, a medium-sized orchard south of Havana, the director explained their decisions to intercrop vegetables between the rows of fruit trees: the vegetables give them a rapid return for their work, while the fruit trees take longer to mature; if hurricanes damage the trees, the vegetables may survive, and if floods damage the vegetables, the trees may be fine. Most important, intercropping means they can keep the 45 members of their co-op working all year, which then makes it realistic to expect greater participation and a higher technical level from people. They have concentrated on accelerating the productivity of their fruit trees, including developing new hybrids, like a dwarf guava that bears in six months instead of the usual 24. Their members make about five times the average wage and are recognized as a model for other co-ops, providing technical and organizational advice to groups that want to start similar projects .
The 44th st organoponico in Havana is much smaller, 8 members that produce and sell on half a city block, but they are similarly committed to what they are doing by a combination of material incentives and social norms. When we were there, they were debating whether people would be willing to pay enough for broccoli which takes longer to mature than the leaf vegetables, to make it worth planting. The members work out the production schedule together, set the prices. They have been going since 1992 and are a community gathering place as well as a production site.

Decentralized food production, and particularly the urban organoponicos, means that not only is food organic, but little or no gasoline is required to produce crops or to get crops to market. We waited in line with people from the neighborhood who had walked or ridden their bicycles to buy the freshly harvested vegetables directly from the gardens near them.

Science and people instead of capital and machinery. Cubans are short on capital and petroleum-based resources; but they are long on science and the organization of people’s energy. Cubans are very well educated; Cuban biotechnology, medical and agricultural research is recognized around the world. A cluster of 30 scientific research institutes. Cuban agriculture brings together science and organization with human and animal power to address the loss of capital, petroleum and manufactured goods. Cuban agriculture is more than 80% organic, and fruits and vegetables are grown in or near the cities: 90% of the vegetables eaten by habaneros are raised in or near Havana. As soon as the results of organic agriculture started coming in – increased productivity, higher wages, reduced pollution – Cuban realized that this was not just a stop gap solution but a way to finally promote sustainability in a Cuba that had been subordinated to the constraints of various imperialisms for five hundred years.

No fuel for the tractors? They use oxen, which do not compress the fragile Cuban soil, and they add the manure to vegetable waste to feed the most impressive worm beds we have ever seen. No chemicals to control pests? They implemented the fundamental principles of intensive organic gardening. The urban gardens are built in raised beds on top of the underlying soil, or in some cases, concrete. The soil comes from the countryside, and is amended with worm compost. The principles of companion planting are used everywhere. Sorghum or corn is planted around the edge of the garden as a trap plant; Roberto Perez Sanchez, director of the 44th street garden, says the trap plants “entertain the insects.” Bees hum around the basil, marigold and amaranth blooming at the end of the beds, planted to repel other insects. Garlic and onions border the beds to further repel insects. And the gardens make biological controls such as Bt and trichoderma for pest management without toxins. Co-op members establish the planting schedule and prices, consult their highly prized technical manual (a joint product of the Cubans and the UN), and do it all with a wheelbarrow, a couple of shovels, a hoe made from a piece of pipe, and a trowel that used to be a kitchen knife.

Cuba’s farmers are not romantics; they see what they are doing as a way forward, not a way back to some mythical past way of doing things. In fact, Cuban agriculture was never organic or sustainable before.

A visitor can see the Cuban approach in action in the urban agricultural extension centers called consultorios that support home gardens. Consultorios sell seeds, worm compost, biological controls, ornamental plants, give people flyers that explain organic gardening methods, diagnose pest damage, even make house calls to help people set up their home gardens. They are another decentralized enterprise whose members make a good living helping people grow their own food.

Energy conservation and policy. Public campaigns urge people to turn out the lights to conserve energy; at the same time Cubans are working on generating energy through solar and wind power. We visited a solar energy research and development group that took us up to their roof to show us the prototype of a solar hot water heater that they believe they can make much cheaper than the ones they now get from China. Solar water heating yields a much faster return on investment than panels, and seem to be fairly common on hotels and large enterprises. They even dream of being able to make plastic for the heating tubes from sugar cane waste. Cuban utilities use price rationing to encourage families and enterprises to conserve energy, with steeply higher rates above the basic level of use. The fruit ranch we visited south of Havana is planning to trap methane from their pigs and use it for fuel.

Parity in the global economy. Cubans are determined to meet the global economy on new terms. Ever since the Spanish stumbled onto the island, Cubans have been subject to the world market. Cuba has had a classic extractive economy, with half the agricultural land owned by the United Fruit Company at the time of the revolution. After the revolution, Cuba nationalized land and drove out the mafia with its drugs, prostitution and gambling. The old style of tourism dried up. One of the decisions taken during the special period was to turn to tourism for hard currency, which is now a bigger source of foreign exchange than sugar. Cuba tries to promote tourism while minimizing the unsavory consequences. They promote ecotourism, have a wonderful ecovillage, Las Terrazas, as well as protected environments for endangered species like the Cuban crocodile. They promote political tourism like the Global Exchange Reality Tours. And people come from all over the world for medical treatment, usually paid for by their governments, but available on a cash basis as well, with patients from rich countries paying twice as much as those from poor ones.

They export medical services, doctors for solidarity in Angola during their struggle against South African terrorists, but also to Venezuela, where 25,000 Cuban doctors have built a new medical system in the communities, which Venezuela pays for in oil. Four hundred Cuban doctors were already working in Haiti and training Haitian doctors when the devastating quake struck in January 2010. The medical school in Cuba trains foreign students on full scholarship to be doctors who go back to their home countries to practice medicine. Over 100 US citizens are in medical school in Cuba. Cuba offered to send a fully equipped field hospital and doctors to New Orleans after the Katrina disaster, but were refused by the US government, which did almost nothing for residents stranded and starving.

And Cuba is deeply involved in ALBA, the Venezuela-initiated regional market based in Latin America, not in the U.S.

Cuba’s footprint = one earth. In spite of right-wing resistance and political posturing, there is a growing understanding that the survival of society on this planet depends on developing sustainable ways of living. One organization, the Global Footprint Network, has developed a measure they call an Ecological Footprint to measure “how much land and water area a human population requires to produce the resource it consumes and to absorb its wastes, using prevailing technology.” They have paired this measure with the UN’s Human Development Index, which measures a country’s average achievements in the areas of health, knowledge, and standard of living, and graphed the results. Cuba is the only country in the world that has both a high HDI and a sustainable ecological footprint. For more on this measure of sustainability, see
Bringing it all back home. The obstacles to sustainable development in the U.S. are massive. Land use, including agricultural production, is ruled by the relentless drive for profit. Corporate agriculture controls [what %] of all agricultural output in the U.S., while urban farms and gardens don’t even register on the scale as yet. And even urban farming could become a for-profit enterprise. Fortune magazine in January 2010 featured an article on a Detroit financier who smells money in urban agriculture and is thinking of investing tens of millions of dollars in a land grab to run for-profit urban farms on Detroit’s vacant land.

On the other hand, community activists from Oakland to Detroit to Vermont are organizing urban farms as part of a strategy of environmental justice and community empowerment, and it will be a topic at the US Social Forum in Detroit in late June as activists converge under the slogan “Another world is possible; another US is necessary.” Whether urban farming is a resource for profit or community power depends on what we are able to make happen in the next while.

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