Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Cuba's Urban Agriculture Movement

By Sinan Koont

Over the last fifteen years, Cuba has developed one of the most successful examples of urban agriculture in the world. Havana, the capital of Cuba, with a population of over two million people, has played a prominent, if not dominant role, in the evolution and revolution of this type of agriculture. The phrase "urban agriculture in Cuba" has a somewhat different meaning, simultaneously more and less restrictive than might appear at a first glance. It is more inclusive, as it allows for large expanses, urban fringes, and suburban lands.

For example, the entire cultivated area of the Province of the City of Havana belongs to urban agriculture. This definition includes land that is much more rural than urban-some of the city's municipalities (or boroughs) in the eastern and southwestern parts of the city have relatively low population densities, around 2,300 to 3,500 people per square mile versus around 50,000 to 100,000 per square mile in the densely populated parts. As a result, more than 35,000 hectares (over 87,000 acres) of land are being used in urban agriculture in Havana!1 The serious development of urban agriculture in Cuba began simultaneously with the disappearance of petrochemical inputs, such as fertilizers and pesticides, from Cuban markets. Consequently, urban production uses only biological fertilizers and biological and cultural pest control techniques. The limited quantities of petrochemicals available are employed for a few non-urban crops such as sugar, potatoes, and tobacco. In Cuba, the distinction between organic and urban is hardly worth making, as almost all urban agriculture follows organic practices.

The necessity for Cuba to turn to urban and organic agriculture in the early 1990s is both well known and understood. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the ending of trade with COMECON on rather favorable terms spelled the end of the Soviet-style, large-scale, industrial agriculture that Cuba had been practicing since at least the 1970s. Almost overnight, diesel fuel, gasoline, trucks, agricultural machinery, spare parts for trucks and machinery, as well as petrochemical-based fertilizers and pesticides, all became very scarce. In view of the severe crisis in food production, a shift to urban agriculture seemed an obvious and necessary solution: urban production minimized transportation costs and smaller-scale production minimized the need for machinery. Agro-ecological production (applying the principles of ecology to agricultural practices), in part, necessitated production sites near the living areas of large concentrations of people, and at the same time avoided the use of toxic petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides, which were no longer available.

Less well known, but perhaps equally important, are the reasons of prudence and national security that had been pushing Cuba in this direction since the 1970s. Cuba had been, and still is, under a partial blockade by the United States. Even more threatening, and ever-present, is the possibility of a total blockade of the island. Early on, scientific institutions started researching the possibility of import substitution in production, including agricultural production, which would make the island less dependent on imported goods.2 At the same time, within the Ministry of Defense (and not the Ministry of Agriculture, which was committed to industrial, high-input agriculture) and institutions such as the National Institute of State Reserves (INRE), programs were started to study potential responses to a complete cut-off of petroleum imports. It was during a visit to the Armed Forces Horticultural Enterprise on December 27, 1987, that Raul Castro, as minister of defense, encouraged the introduction of a technology later widely employed in urban agriculture.

General Moises Sio Wong-head of INRE-recounted this visit to Raul Castro ten years later during another visit: a woman agricultural engineer, referred to by Sio Wong simply as "Ingeniera Anita," had carried out some successful experiments growing vegetables without using petrochemicals.3 Castro had suggested the desirability of generalizing this method of cultivation. Thus, beginning December 1987, four years before the demise of the Soviet Union, the so-called organoponicos, rectangular-walled constructions-roughly thirty meters by one meter-containing raised beds of a mixture of soil and organic material such as compost, started being installed in armed forces facilities.

It was, however, not until the end of 1991, that the first "civilian" organoponico in Havana was put into operation in a two-acre, empty lot across the street from the INRE Headquarters in the Miramar district of Havana. Since then, the organoponico has become one of the mainstays of vegetable cultivation in Cuban urban agriculture.4

Thus, by the time the crisis made the shift of agricultural production to cities unavoidable, at least some parts of the Cuban institutional structure were able to respond with technologies, policies, and practices that had been developed for a lengthy period of time preceding the crisis.

By 1994, an organization was created to oversee the systematic introduction of organoponicos and intensive gardens into urban agriculture. In 1997 this was converted into the Urban Agriculture National Movement. Conditions of access to land underwent considerable change. Before the crisis, land was either privately held and worked by owners or it was state-owned and worked by employees. Now, in addition, land was distributed to individuals (as parcelos [plots], with the individuals being called parceleros) and cooperatives. New cooperative forms-with or without a collectively cultivated, jointly held area-came into being. A Credit and Services Cooperative (CCS) typically brought together plots and willing pre-existing private farms.5

In addition, there are patios (privately owned home gardens producing primarily for family consumption), individual plots, state farms, and areas de autoconsumo (state enterprises producing food for the consumption of their own workers).

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