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Cuba’s countryside has been stabilized – despite insufficient rainfall and recurring drought in eastern areas – through the introduction of agroecological techniques.

Largely due to necessity, agroecological methods have been introduced into Cuba’s rural communities. However, while acknowledging necessity, it is important to note that the appropriation of substantial government resources, state supported research, and fundamental policy shifts at the highest levels of government have supported the movement.

Agroecology

The collapse of trade with the Soviet Bloc required Cuba to adopt an alternative approach to agricultural production. Methods were introduced that emphasized an input substitution approach, relying heavily on locally produced biopesticides and biofertilizers to make up for a lack of imported inputs.

The Cuban interpretation of agroecology goes well beyond the use of low-input technologies to minimize dependency on external inputs. The emphasis is on the design of complex agrosystems that take advantage of ecological interactions, and synergisms between biotic and abiotic compounds which enable soil fertility enhancement, biological pest control, and higher productivity to be achieved through internal processes.

Today, hundreds of Cuban farms are managed using the concepts of agroecology which include:

  • increased recycling of nutrients and biomass within the system;
  • addition of organic matter to improve soil quality and activate soil biology;
  • soil and water conservation to minimize resource losses;
  • diversification of agrosystems in time and place, including the integration of crops and livestock;
  • optimization of biological interactions and synergisms among functional components of biodiversity to provide key ecological services;
  • and integration of farm components to increase biological efficiencies and preserve the productive capacity of the agroecosystem.

The diversification of agroecosystems is a key strategy. Cubans have used a variety of techniques:

  • crop rotations
  • green manures
  • polycultures
  • agroforestry
  • crop-livestock integration.

The challenge is to discover the most efficient crop, tree, and animal combinations that match the environmental potential of each area. This process is dependent on the application of agroecological concepts and principles including:

  • the optimization of local resources and promotion of within-farm synergisms through plant-animal combinations;
  • reliance on the ecological services of biodiversity in order to minimize the use of external inputs, whether organic or conventional;
  • matching cropping systems with existing soil and climatic potential;
  • conservation and use of crop and non-crop biodiversity within and around farms to maximize utilization of biological and genetic resources;
  • reliance on the knowledge and wisdom of local farmers as a key input;
  • and promotion of participatory methods in research and in the extension and implementation process.

A good example of the above is the UBPC, Maniabo, a worker-owned cooperative enterprise that allowed us to see the principles of agroecology in practice.

(The discussion on agroecology relied on information presented in two chapters of the Food First Book Sustainable Agriculture and Resistance: “The Principles and Strategy of Agroecology in Cuba” and “Lessons of Cuban Resistance.“)

Site Visit: UBPC Maniabo

I visited UBPC Maniabo as a member of a Food First/Global Exchange research delegation.

Maniabo is a Basic Unit of Cooperative Production (UBPC) located in the municipality of Las Tunas. Its 248 workers, including 42 women, are former state farm workers, each earning between 600-700 Cuban pesos monthly, a high salary by Cuban standards. The facility was founded on December 17, 1993 and, since its inception, it has had high levels of productivity.

Maniabo’s first priority is milk production. With a total area of 1,369 hectares, it has 1,549 cows that produced a total of 1,440,700 liters of milk in 2003. The milk is picked up twice daily as there is no onsite refrigeration.

Aside from milk, the site is characterized by diversified production. During 2003, in addition to milk from cows, it produced livestock, eggs, various vegetable crops, and worm compost. Red beans are raised as a monocrop, with the growing area rotated to a different crop yearly. And, while the main focus of the farm is dairy, the farmers try to grow as much of their own food as possible.

The cooperative is particularly proud of its pedestal technology, an intensive rotational pasture system. This technology increases the surface area for cattle grazing by integrating grazing areas and legume cultivation. Because the grasses reseed, resowing is not necessary.

Because of prolonged insufficient rainfall in Las Tunas province, both bermuda grass and high producing legumes require intensive irrigation. The area is irrigated for three hours every seven days all year round. Gravity driven rainwater catchment technology is employed as is scientific methodology designed to measure the amount of food and water given each cow relative to the amount of milk produced.
Farm workers are also proud of their worm composting production. Cow manure is used to feed the earthworms. The resultant compost is mixed into the soil or used as top dressing on the farm, but the worm humus also provides additional income through sales to tobacco and vegetable farmers in the area. There is also high demand for the product from urban agriculture producers in the city. The compost is sold in both Cuban and convertible pesos, selling for about $14.00 US dollars.
Conclusion: Integrated production provides a more rational use of natural resources and is more effective in reducing external dependencies than other agricultural techniques.

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CUBAN AGRICULTURE: A TRANSFORMATION

by Lisa Reynolds Wolfe

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End of the Cold War and Collapse of the Soviet Bloc

Over the course of the 1990s, the Cuban countryside was transformed. 

The end of the Cold War meant the total collapse of Cuba’s principal trade agreements with the Soviet Bloc.

At roughly the same time that Cuba was coping with this crisis, the United States tightened its economic blockade against the island.

  • In 1992, the Torricelli bill was approved, barring shipments of food and medical supplies by overseas subsidiaries of US companies.
  • In 1996, the Helms-Burton Act restricted foreign investment in Cuba.

The Soviets Opt Out

As early as the late 1980s, the introduction of glasnost and perestroika in the Soviet Union – along with the democratization of Eastern Europe – led to Soviet unwillingness and (eventually) inability to fulfill trade obligations.

Because Cuba’s economy was so intertwined with that of the Soviet Union, the impact of change could not be gradual. Rather, it was a shock that permeated every household in Cuba.

The absence of oil imports, especially, threatened the viability of the country’s industrial, transportation, and agricultural infrastructures.

Cuba: An Oil Driven Country

Under agreements with the former Soviet Union, Cuba had been an oil driven country, insensitive to energy conservation or efficiency. In fact, 98 percent of all Cuba’s petroleum had come from the Soviet bloc.

In 1988, for example, 12-13 million tons of Soviet oil were imported and, of this total, the Cubans were able to re-export two million tons onto the world market.

In 1989, Cuba was forced to cut the re-exports in half and, by 1990, oil exports were cut entirely since only 10 of the 13 million tons promised by the Soviets had been received.

By the end of 1991, oil imports had fallen still more. Cuba received only 6 million of a promised 13 million tons and, by this time, the shortfall in oil and associated factors began to severely impact the nation’s economy.

The Soviet Union: Cuba’s Export and Import Partner

While oil was critical, other losses were also important since 85 percent of all exchanges (including agriculture) were with the Soviets.

In terms of exports, 66 percent of all sugar and 98 percent of the country’s citrus fruits had been exported to the Soviet Bloc.

As for imports, aside from oil, 66 percent of the country’s food, 86 percent of all raw material, and 80 percent of machinery and spare parts came from Soviet dominated trading partners.

Consequently, when Soviet support was withdrawn, factory closures became common, food scarcity was widespread, and an already inadequate technology base began eroding.

A Survival Economy

In early 1990, a survival economy was put in place.

Food became increasingly scarce. This was not surprising since, as mentioned, 66 percent of all the island’s food had been brought in from the Soviet bloc.

In 1989 alone, 51 percent of all calories and 57 percent of all proteins had been imported.

In early 1990, 100,000 tons of wheat normally obtained through barter arrangements failed to arrive and the government was required to use scarce hard currency to import grain from Canada.

Bread rations were cut from 200 grams to 180 grams per person per day, and the price of a 400 gram loaf of bread in Havana jumped from 30 to 35 cents.

At the same time, the price of eggs nearly doubled, increasing from 8 to 15 cents.

Tens of thousands of tons of citrus fruits that were to be exported were diverted to domestic shelves at the expense of hard currency earnings.

By early 1992, the price of many foods – potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, beets, and bananas – had doubled as pressure mounted for the state to reduce its subsidies.

Overall, food consumption was said to show a decrease of 20 percent in calories and 27 percent in protein between 1989 and 1992.

Clearly the Cuban population could not sustain life at such a minimal level indefinitely.

Three Priorities

Cuba’s leadership was determined not to sacrifice the social and redistributional gains of the Cuban revolution. They, therefore, decided to go beyond the survival economy to a second stage which would, if successful, allow the government to better living and working conditions.

The strategy was to concentrate on the three priorities which the government felt could sustain the country and, at the same time, continue the advances of the past thirty years. These priorities were:

  • agriculture
  • the acquisition of hard currency through tourism and biotechnology
  • continued Defense of the Revolution.

New Methodologies for Agriculture

So far as agriculture was concerned, two methodologies, in tandem, worked to stabilize both urban and rural areas.

Rural-urban migration and food security in both rural and urban environments were positively affected.

The innovations were:

  • an organically based urban agriculture
  • the introduction of agroecological techniques in the countryside.

What Happened?

Here are some findings from the first years of the twenty-first century. The findings will be discussed in detail in the future posts that will make up this series.

FINDING #1: Cuba’s countryside has been stabilized – despite insufficient rainfall and recurring drought in eastern areas – through the introduction of agroecological techniques.

FINDING #2: Because of the introduction of urban agriculture nationwide, urban residents no longer are forced to rely primarily on rural areas for fresh produce.

FINDING #3: Small farmers working on privately owned farms and in cooperatives have made major contributions to the successful implementation of agroecology in the countryside.

FINDING #4: The introduction of a diversified market-based system for food distribution has spurred increased productivity among agricultural workers.

FINDING #5: While agroecological techniques may hold great promise for rural areas in countries other than Cuba, their successful implementation in other locales is not assured.

Many Cubans now view farming quite differently than they did before the food crisis of the early 1990s. But we’ll need to further update the findings to see if they’ve had staying power as the century has progressed.

Photograph by Lisa Reynolds Wolfe

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