This is the third post in our series on Cuban Agriculture.
Revamping Cuban Agriculture
In 1990 (as in 1960), the government’s first obligation was to feed the Cuban people. Since agriculture had been centered around state enterprises designed on the oil-driven Soviet model, a revamping of the country’s agricultural system was necessary in order to make up for the absence of the petroleum-based products previously used in agriculture.
Throughout the 1960s, there had been an effort to ruralize Cuba’s urban areas and urbanize the countryside in order to make cities more self-sufficient in food production. This strategy was abandoned – especially in Havana – when the capital regained renewed importance during the decade of the 1970s.
With expanded Soviet patronage and an ample supply of oil, agriculture was increasingly mechanized and petroleum reliant. Even the provision of adequate quantities of fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, and seeds was a function of the Cuban relationship with the Soviet bloc. As one Cuban noted, “we traded sugar for everything else.”
Small Units of Production
In 1990, when the regime began to lay out an agricultural strategy based on smaller units of production, the new tactics began to impact Havana almost immediately.
Seventeen organiponics (organic farms) were developed in which manure and animal traction were used in the cultivation process.
Idle lands in the metropolitan area were brought under cultivation at the community level, and land associated with the workplace was also farmed.
All these changes were a concerted attempt to alleviate the transportation costs that were required to bring food produced in the provinces to Havana.
The program also sought to divert workers displaced in other sectors to the agricultural sector. For instance, thousands of state employees in the construction and agricultural ministries were reassigned to state farms in 1991 and early 1992.
Efforts were moderately successful and, by March 1992, there were significant increases in the availability of vegetables and some fruits in Havana where “over 20,000 residents were mobilized to harvest and supplement distribution.”
While early attempts at agricultural diversification (sugar cane versus all other crops) and cultivation for self-consumption were said to be encouraging, they were not sufficient to ensure that every urban resident had an adequate food supply. Consequently, in 1994, the government allowed the implementation of radical measures by revolutionary standards, re-introducing private farmers’ markets that would enable producers to sell their goods at whatever price the market would bear.
By early 1995, a wide variety of high quality food products began to circulate on the private market as producers responded to the stimulus. In fact, many products which hadn’t been seen for decades were suddenly available for those who could afford to purchase them, most often a privileged group made up of those individuals with links to the dollar economy.
The urban agriculture that I’ve observed on multiple research trips falls into a variety of distinct production systems.
- Organiponics and Intensive Vegetable Gardening: These two systems have been the most important methods used in past years. Organiponics are generally located in areas with infertile soils or with production constraints. They are often built on artificial surfaces in raised beds filled with a mixture of organic matter substrate and soil. The intensive vegetable garden, on the other hand, is developed on parcels of relatively good soil without using raised beds. Organic matter is applied directly during preparation for planting.
- Small Plots, Patios, and Popular Gardens: Here, the area cultivated is very small and is determined by how much useful or arable space exists between buildings, houses, and streets, or in a patio, or a state-owned urban space that can be converted to gardens. At this point, there are over 104,000 parcels and patios under production, covering an area of more than 3,600 hectares. These areas produce more than organiponics and intensive gardens combined.
The small plots, patios, and popular gardens have had positive impact. They have made it possible to feed the urban population, spurring development of an urban culture favorable to agriculture and eliminating the abandoned spaces which in the past may have been breeding grounds for disease vectors and rodents. Also of importance, they have provided socially useful and productive employment opportunities.
(The above discussion on production systems in urban agriculture relies heavily on the chapter “The Growth of Urban Agriculture” in the Food First book Sustainable Agriculture and Resistance. Each type of production activity was observed on research trips.)
Reducing Food Insecurity
Urban agriculture enhances the quality and sufficiency of food for the urban farmer and his family, providing supplemental income as well. It reduces food insecurity by increasing access to fresh, nutrient rich foods among populations suffering from food insecurity. This is accomplished both through self-provisioning and by using what is grown to increase income. In addition, urban agriculture provides employment and income opportunities for the urban population – including migrants from the countryside– and an improved urban environment overall.
Site Visit: As I observed on my site visit to the home of Basillo Bernal Mayea (Bebo) in Sancti Spiritus, small backyard and patio gardens now make significant contributions to household and regional food supplies. In addition to supplying his family’s food requirements, Bebo has an organic “juice bar” on his front porch which generates additional income for the family. He also hosts a weekly radio program on permaculture.
Self-Provisioning at Factories, Offices, and Businesses: Urban areas in Cuba host hundreds of workers’ cafeterias associated with the workplace. The facilities require large quantities of agricultural products. Many of them have organized agricultural production in areas bordering, or close to, their facilities. In Havana alone, there are more than 300 such farms in production. Large quantities of vegetables, root crops, grains, and fruits, as well as meat, milk, fish, eggs, and herbs are produced.
Suburban Farms: This form of agricultural production is characterized by intensive cultivation, efficiency of water use, and the maximum reduction of agrotoxins. Suburban farms have reached an important level in the past few years, especially in the cities of Havana, Santa Clara, Sancti Spiritus, Camaguey, and Santiago de Cuba. They were quite visible from the windows of my bus as I passed by.
Shaded Cultivation and Apartment-Style Production: Shaded cultivation is in the initial stages of development. It will allow the year-round cultivation of horticultural crops, especially during the hottest months of the year when the sun is at its most intense. Apartment style agriculture is very diverse. It includes a range of practices, including cultivation with diverse soil substrate and nutrient solutions, mini-planting beds, small containers, balconies, roofs, etc., with minimal use of soil.
State resolutions require that all urban agriculture must be organic so as to protect neighborhood residents, and that livestock cannot be raised in urban areas.
Through a series of urban agricultural stores, the state supplies organic inputs (primarily compost) and extension services.
The urban agriculture movement has met with great success. According to Oxfam America (June 2001), half of the fresh produce consumed in Havana is grown by “nontraditional urban producers.”
Production levels of vegetables have doubled or tripled every year since 1994, and urban gardens now produce about 60 percent of all vegetables consumed in Cuba, but only 50 percent of all vegetables consumed in Havana. Moreover, urban agriculture alone (not counting small gardens and individual farms) provides 215 grams of vegetables per day per person throughout Cuba – more than 70 percent of the grams recommended by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
At the end of 1999, prices at vegetable stands supplied by urban producers were generally at 30 to 50 percent of farmers market prices. (Various types of markets will be discussed a coming post.)
The urban agriculture movement in Cuba has made a significant contribution to food security in cities and has provided employment for many urban residents. Because of the introduction of urban agriculture nationwide, urban residents no longer are forced to rely primarily on rural areas for fresh produce. This is a vast improvement over the oil based agriculture of the Soviet era.
All photographs by Lisa Reynolds Wolfe
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