Monday, June 12, 2006

Cuban Agriculture: A Green and Red Revolution

Excerpt from CHOICES: The Magazine of Food, Farm and Resource Issues
(4th Quarter, 2003)

By Lydia Zepeda
...In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. Almost overnight US$6 billion in Soviet subsidies to Cuba disappeared. At the same time, the US trade embargo tightened, and Cuba was plunged into an economic crisis. Gross domestic product (GDP) shrank by 25% between 1989 and 1991. Cuba entered what is euphemistically called the "Special Period." Special, indeed: Oil imports (and consequently fuel) fell by 50%; the availability of fertilizers and pesticides fell by 70%; food and other imports fell by 50%; and most devastatingly, calorie intake fell by 30%. Further exacerbating the economic crisis, in 1992 the United States passed the "Cuban Democracy Act," which prohibited assistance to Cuba in the form of food, medicine, and medical supplies.

Recent Reforms

Faced with this crisis, Cuba radically changed the state sector in 1993; about 80% of the farmland was then held by the state and over half was turned over to workers in the form of cooperatives—UBPC (Basic Unit of Cooperative Production). Farmers lease state land rent free in perpetuity, in exchange for meeting production quotas. They may even bequeath the land, as long as it continues to be farmed. A 1994 reform permitted farmers to sell their excess production at farmers' markets.

The reforms emphasized five basic principles. Foremost of these was a focus on agroecological technology, supported by the state/university research, education, and extensions system. There had been researchers, outreach specialists, and faculty devoted to agroecology before the crisis. The crisis not only brought them to the forefront, but universities, research centers, and agricultural policies were reoriented to make agroecology the dominant paradigm. To begin to understand the magnitude of this reorientation, imagine for a moment that your local college of agriculture reoriented its entire curriculum, research, and extension programs to agroecology. Pick yourself up off the floor, and now image that all the universities as well as all national agricultural policies in your country were reoriented to agroecology.

A second principle of the reform was land reform; state farms were transformed to cooperatives or broken into smaller private units, and anyone wishing to farm could do so rent free. In effect, a right-to-farm policy was implemented. A third principle of the reform was fair prices to farmers: Farmers can sell their excess production at farmers' markets; average incomes of farmers are three times that of other workers in Cuba. A fourth principle of reform is an emphasis on local production in order to reduce transportation (and hence energy) costs. Urban agriculture, a key to this reform, produces nearly the recommended daily allowance of 300 grams per person of produce. The fifth principle of reform is farmer-to-farmer training as the backbone of the extension system.

Impact of the Reforms

What were the results of these reforms? Production of tubers and plantains tripled and vegetable production quadrupled between 1994 and 1999, while bean production increased by 60% and citrus by 110%. Potato production increased by 75%, and cereals increased by 83% between 1994 and 1998. Calorie intake rose to 2,580 per capita per day—just under the minimum recommended by the World Health Organization. This is despite Cuba being the second poorest country in the Americas.

The conversion of Cuba's agriculture to more sustainable practices has focused on urban agriculture and domestic crops. Indeed, these practices seem to free up scarce chemicals for the traditional export crop, sugar. Sugar continues to be produced in monoculture, but increasing amounts of organic sugar are being produced, largely for export.

Urban agricultural production climbed from negligible in 1994 to more than 600,000 metric tons in 2000. There are more than 200,000 urban farm plots ranging in size from a few meters to a hectare in size. Production practices rely on organic matter, vermiculture, raised beds, crop rotation, companion cropping, and biopesticides. Yields are between 6 and 30 kilos per square meter and are predominantly roots, tubers, and vegetables. A proposed project called Calle Parque (street parks) will extend urban agriculture and provide much-needed urban cooling by converting some streets in central Havana to parks and gardens.

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