January 19, 2011

Greetings from Cuba!

Jesse Kurtz-Nicholl

Jesse Kurtz-Nicholl

Research Assistant

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

CLF’s Sr. Research Program Coordinators Jesse Kurtz-Nicholl and Sarah Rodman are visiting Cuba as part of a Natural Environmental Ecological Management delegation. Members of the group will see first hand large-scale Cuban infrastructure developed to support its 18-year-old, world-renowned sustainable agricultural system in both the rural and urban sectors.

This is the first of a few blog posts from the island of Cuba, where we are lucky enough to be studying the world recognized, sustainable model of Cuban agriculture.  Before I begin reporting on some of what we have been exposed to so far, I think readers should have a short background on how the sustainable agriculture system developed in Cuba.

cubagraphicWith the collapse of the communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the Soviet Union in 1990, Cuba lost 80 percent of its export and import market practically overnight. Cuba had a heavily industrialized, export-oriented agriculture system, dependent on petroleum inputs related to fertilizer, pesticides and fuel.  During the three decades from the Cuban revolution in 1959 to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, Cuba averaged 1.3 million tons of chemical fertilizers, $80 million dollars worth of pesticides and 600,000 tons of feed concentrates.

Cuba exported large quantities of sugar to the Soviet Union based on very favorable trading terms, allowing Cuba not only to receive enough oil for its domestic purposes, but as a revenue stream selling surplus oil on the open market.  Even though Cuba was very productive as an agricultural system, it was heavily dependent on food imports, which accounted for 57 percent of the calories of the Cuban people before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The period after the collapse of the Soviet Union, from the 1990’s to the mid 2000’s was interestingly called the “special period in peace time” when caloric availability in the country dropped significantly, along with the weights and the health of the Cuban people.

With no subsidies from the Soviet Union, and a serious lack of resources in the form of oil, fertilizers and pesticides, Cuba began developing a low-input, high yield, semi-organic agriculture system that has taken root throughout the country, with impressive production coming from urban centers.  Reports show over 50 percent of Havana’s fruits and vegetables, for example, are grown within Havana city limits. Urban farmers in Cuba alone provide nearly enough produce to meet the 300 grams of vegetables daily

Apartments overlooking an organiponico

Apartments overlooking an organiponico

that are recommended by the UN FAO. Cuba’s agriculture system is a source of pride with much information being disseminated from the Cuban government about the harmfulness of chemicals in agriculture and the healthfulness of Cuban food.   In addition to healthy foods, the system has provided over 300,000 new employment opportunities and significant community development.

There are many more details related to the history of the special period, but it is time to jump forward to present time and our trip.

After taking a short 40 min flight to Cuba, we were immediately taken to ACTAF (Association Cubano Technico de Agricultura y Forestra) to meet our host, Fernando Funes, an acclaimed researcher and winner of the Right Livelihood Award, the alternative Nobel Prize.  It was exciting to know that such a knowledgeable person on the history and development of the sustainable agriculture movement shaped our itinerary and would be leading our daily activities.  After sharing our backgrounds with our Cuban hosts, Funes and his team gave us a presentation titled the Past, Present and Future of Cuban Agriculture.  While I have addressed some of the past issues with Cuban agriculture and how they dealt with the “special period,” what was most interesting about this meeting (besides being introduced to the brainpower behind Cuba’s sustainable agriculture system) was their focus on the present and the future.

What was really refreshing to hear, was the realistic pacing for the changes that the ACTAF and the sustainable agriculture movement wants to see.  Perhaps their patience comes constantly waiting for change from a 50 year embargo, but this group is passionately concerned, but also very patient in their determination that while this model of agriculture is correct, change takes time.   Even as Raul Castro in 2007 (according to Funes) made food production a main goal of the Cuban state, they know that while policies can change overnight, hearts and minds take a bit longer.  To paraphrase agronomist Roberto Caballero, retired from the ministry of agriculture, Cuba may accept diversified, organic, sustainable agriculture as the model of Cuban agriculture (which they did, encouragingly in 2010), but you still must change the minds of generations of men and women who have never farmed this way; farmers who have been told their whole lives what to plant, how to tend, when to harvest, and what price you receive by the state.

actafACTAF’s mission involves creating programs that support this conversion of farms and municipalities (read counties) to this new sustainable model.  They are creating the education between farmers and more importantly the infrastructure to support farmers who convert to the new model. Roberto Caballero described the situation that exists in Cuba today; the ideas of sustainable agriculture have progressed to the point where the systems are viable and reproducible, while the infrastructure of large warehouses, genetic seed breeding, and large industrial tractor repair houses remain empty and unused.   ACTAF is there to promote the services that are needed: local seed farms, small industries related to production, technical shops to get products and advice, and centers of production for biological products (vermi-compost, biologic pest controls, etc).  We are coming to understand that sustainable agriculture is a knowledge-based system, that needs not just human resources, but the adaptive intelligence of its farmers.  It is system that lives by the statement, don’t worker harder, work smarter.

One idea simmering below the surface of the delegation was quick to emerge when the time came for questions.  What do you think will happen to the sustainable agriculture movement, to trade, to the organic nature of production in Cuba if the embargo with the United States is lifted? (note: they call it a blockade)  Egidio Paez, an ACTAF member and diversified crop farmer stood up when we he realized the logic thread going through our minds.  He gave a passionate speech exhibiting a philosophy that we have seen reinforced in the following days.  He said emphatically that he wants the embargo to end.  He knows the risks of future cheap imported pesticides, artificial fertilizers, and/or genetically modified feed that will be competing with their sustainable models, but they must have confidence in the Cuban people to resist.

When you dissect this statement, it is fascinating in its complexity and the seeming contradiction of the country in which it was said.  As opposed to having confidence in the state to make sure that the government protects this sustainable movement, they have confidence that the individuals, the producers of the food, backed by science, infrastructure and support will be able to resist cheap, harmful imports.  As a listener, it was hard not to be skeptical when looking at our own American system of industrial agriculture, even though our farmers have always had the freedom of choice.

Later, when I stepped back and looked at how Cuba has resisted constant pressure and a 50-year embargo from the United States, it inspired hope that this growing movement will be able to resist any potential future cheap imports looming on the horizon.

–Jesse Kurtz-Nicholl

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