Conquering Nature: The Enviromental Legacy of Socialism in Cuba (Pitt Latin American Series)

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Most memorably, during our two week trip we got to know some farmers and gardeners. I came back to the United States convinced that those of us working on building a sustainable and just agricultural economy must be engaged with what is happening in Cuba. Following the Cuban Revolution — , the Soviet Union 's USSR agricultural imperatives drove the island toward state-run farms, marginalizing many family run operations.

The breakup of the USSR in spelled the end of Soviet agricultural influence but intensified Cuban food shortages. Cuba began to look within for solutions, finding indigenous knowledge and encouraging local innovation. Exaggerated praise for developments in the country's sustainable agriculture belies the reality that Cuba is no utopia. Popular descriptions often oversimplify the narrative of Cuba's sustainable agriculture. For example, the website of the Durham, North Carolina, non-profit NEEM Natural Environment Ecological Management features a narrative sketch that labels the rise of organic garden collectives in Cuban cities "the urban agriculture miracle.

In much sustainable agriculture praise of Cuba, we do not hear that the country like the United States has confinement hog and chicken houses, that major US food conglomerates are already selling vast quantities of grain and other products there, or that the embargo on trade with Cuba does not apply to US agribusiness.

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We are not told that thousands work in small farming because they have no other option. Agricultural work is popular in Cuba, in part, because state-supported income is drying up for hundreds of thousands of wage earners and there is often nowhere else to turn but to small-scale farms and gardens. Yet much of Cuba's former sugarcane land, once a volatile but powerful economic life-force, is idle and in poor condition.

Even with its admirable innovations in sustainable and organic farming, Cuba's domestic agricultural producers cannot meet the food needs of the island's population; there is a real sense of food insecurity. Looking for food in dollar stores, on the black market, legally , is a major pre-occupation for much of the population. Cuba imports at least 80 percent of its food, with much of it coming from its largest trading partners—China and Venezuela.

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This is hardly a sustainable scenario, and while there does not appear to be starvation in Cuba, food shortages remain a problem, even as the government's meager food rationing is fading. According to the US Department of Agriculture at least Most Cubans lack housing options and do not have money for home repairs. They crowd onto public transportation that, on a good day, can take them twenty miles. To supplement their incomes, many people rent rooms in their homes, sell black market cigars in Havana or offer services to tourists on the street—ranging from help finding the "best" nearby restaurant to sexual favors.

Nearly all Cubans are underemployed, even though most are better educated and receive better healthcare than many of their Caribbean neighbors. Many Cubans receive help from relatives living abroad, including in the United States. With Cuba developing closer ties to the US agriculture industry, increasing its trade with China, and, with Venezuela's help, poised to explore oil fields off its northern coast, we cannot assume that the island nation will adopt a model of ecological sustainability. What we do know about Cuba's agricultural innovations is that domestic shortages brought on by the end of Soviet subsidies and the US embargo forced the Cuban government to seek alternative solutions.

Working toward sustainability, Cuba's rural farmers have received new freedoms to produce for more open markets. Such policy changes, along with newly revamped farms and numerous urban gardens, have contributed to a much-needed increase in the country's food supply since the early s.

He graciously spent a morning with us, beginning by talking about Cuba's history of agriculture. Cubans filled the cities, and the countryside soon depended on sugar exports alone. At its height, over 5 million acres were planted in sugarcane, and different refineries dotted the landscape. When the USSR collapsed and ceased buying sugar at inflated prices—over five times the going international rate—and the United States continued its embargo called a blockade by Cubans on agricultural and other inputs, Cuba urgently explored ways to produce its own food.

Because of a lack of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and machinery, the island nation turned to organic fertilization and pest control, all run by trained scientists, such as Miguel. We met scores of people, young and old, engaged in harvest. We met a scientist named Marisol, who was conducting a lab experiment involving beneficial insects.

We found her bent over a microscope in a small shed in the middle of the fields, her child playing nearby.

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We saw acres and acres of picture-perfect organic vegetables. Miguel characterized the impressive system they have built as a "biological machine" with everything self-contained. One hundred and eighty-one workers are employed by the garden. Miguel claimed they are producing two hundred tons per acre off the plots, and we could see that production was at full-bore in December The diversity and the extent of crop production result from the number of hands that have carefully infused life into the plots.

Miguel and his colleagues are feeding over five thousand weekly, and lines of people form outside the gates daily to purchase the results of their work. Charles D. The planting and harvest process is his own even though he must petition the use of the land and buy his seeds from the government, Trinidad, Cuba, December While markets function differently in the United States, similar models should be profitable here.

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Agriculture researchers are looking for ways to reverse the losses of family farms in the US South by locating organic, sustainable markets. Fernando Funes, internationally recognized leader of the sustainable agriculture movement in Cuba. His son, also Fernando, who increasingly has stepped into his father's leadership role, told us, "My father was a farmer, and I thought he was backward.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, during what came to be called the "Special Period," Cuba was unable to feed its people. This stark situation prompted frantic searches for innovative approaches and an eventual change to biological-intensive—as opposed to chemical-intensive—means of production. The government opened over three hundred agricultural research stations. Where urban agriculture had been prohibited previously because of the danger of chemical exposure, Fernando explained, after the policy change the number of gardens immediately shot up to over two hundred.

Some , people joined the ranks of rooftop and vacant lot gardeners. The government supplied the land and opened channels of distribution. In the first year any new group of gardeners could secure the right to cultivate approximately thirty-three acres and, with success, this could double the next year, and triple in three years to a hundred acres. Peter Rosset formerly with the US organization Food First , and is widely known as an international ambassador for Cuba's sustainable agriculture.

His affability and intelligence drew us in, and we left believing that new leaders and groups would continue to learn from his example. The following day we spent with Dr. We accompanied Humberto to talk with the " guajiros" the nickname for people from the Cuban countryside with whom he works daily. As we drove the four-lane road to Pinar del Rio , Humberto told us his organization works with a network of 55, farmers in seed sharing and farm-based research.

Charged initially with increasing squash production in Cuba, Humberto began holding meetings with farmers who showed up to participate in an effort to find new seed varieties and improve their yields. Humberto recognized the need to turn the traditional extension model upside down.

Instead of the scientists being the "experts", Humberto realized that the farmers themselves cultivated the necessary knowledge and crop diversity. The participation of farmers expanded exponentially, starting with a few hundred and increasing by the thousands.

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The opportunity to learn from the success of such grassroots organizing campaigns among farmers is another compelling reason for exchange across the Florida Straights. Royber, completing his degree in agronomy at the local university, was conducting experiments on the family farm, including one plot with seventy three different varieties of beans. Suddenly farmers were sharing their knowledge and seed varieties together in meetings of campesinos. The family was eager to tell us about their operation, how they came to some of their innovations Royber's father had built a methane digester , and how their seeds performed.

By seeing results on other farms, they could duplicate and improve their own work.

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On this little piece of land, our research team found hope and innovation, and some of the friendliest smiles and open, informed attitudes we had experienced in Latin America. We left glowing, having consumed farm-raised food and taken in a large helping of farm entrepreneurship that included not only experiments with plant breeding and food preservation, but also solar and methane energy production.

We took away a feeling that true exchange had taken place, and that we were the primary beneficiaries. If farmers could reach tourists and sell food directly as in the urban casas particulares where we stayed, people would pay handsomely to eat farm-raised food on a farm in place of the typical tourist fare. Humberto had explained that marketing ideas are as important as technical innovations. Miguel Salcines's ideas for distribution are why many are flocking to join. Necessity is the driving force, but marketing keeps income rolling in for the members.

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Agritourism has already developed in parts of the US South. Autumn drivers along the Blue Ridge Parkway can see apple orchards filled with tourists picking fruit. Likewise, a chance to try one's hand at a plow powered by a pair of oxen, for example, might intrigue adventurous tourists in Cuba. Agritourism, of course, is no simple or straightforward solution, as historic experience with tourism and agritourism shows.

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If farmers and local communities are not in control, tourism could create greater inequalities and exacerbate food insecurity. Therefore any emphasis on tourism has to take into account who owns and controls the local food system. The next morning was Christmas day and we visited a small alley market named Agropecuario Beleu in Havana.

She taught us how the Cuban agricultural authorities broker the sales of vegetables and fruits.

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Each seller registers with a market officer, charges a fixed price, and takes a percentage of the profit for the day, paying some of the return to the government. From Osiris we learned why growers would surely welcome the chance to sell directly to consumers. A policy change in December was supposed to permit just that. Lacking prior introductions did not seem to matter. After visiting his house and farm the next day, I was impressed by how promising this young man believed his garden work to be and how open he was to sharing its message. This sense of hope from agriculture has been a rarity in the developing world.