An Caorthann Samhain '98

The Greening of Cuba

The world’s largest-ever transition to small-scale, organically-based farming is taking place in the Third World. Caroline Whyte reports...


One of the more unexpected effects of the fall of the Iron Curtain has been the rise of organic farming in Cuba. Dr. Fernando Funes, one of the founders of the Cuban Organic Farming Association, gave a talk on the subject to a packed hall in the Mission district of San Francisco, preceded by Jaime Kibben’s film The Greening of Cuba, which showed interviews with Cuban farmers and agricultural scientists (not to mention lots of wonderful salsa music between interviews!)

At the beginning of his talk, Dr. Funes asked us to put up our hands if we had been to Cuba. About a fifth of the people there had been: this would technically make them subject to a fine of $10,000 and two years in jail, in the US. Luckily, there didn’t seem to be anyone around who cared particularly about that sort of thing.

From industrial agriculture to market gardening

Until the fall of the Iron Curtain, Cuba’s agriculture was strongly dependent on oil, pesticides and fertilisers, mostly provided by other Eastern Bloc countries. 75% of Cuba’s trade was with these countries,and the USSR subsidised the sale of their sugar cane by about 300%. The emphasis was on making Cuba’s agriculture as “modern” as possible, and the government was very proud of the country’s Green Revolution. However, this all changed drastically after the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Suddenly, oil supplies were reduced by 80%, and fertilisers and pesticides became much more expensive and difficult to obtain. In addition to this, Cuba already had to cope with the crippling effects of the US’s thirty-year long trade embargo. So the largest-ever conversion to small-scale, organically-based farming began to take place in the early 1990s.

Many of the large, state-run, mechanised farms which used to be dominant in Cuba have now been replaced by much smaller, un-mechanised farms which use few chemicals. Would-be farmers are granted land by the government in exchange for growing a certain amount of a particular crop. They are also encouraged to grow their own gardens. Anything they grow above and beyond the amount demanded by the government can be sold at farmer’s markets. Competition is intense at these markets. and the quality of the food is usually very high. Dr. Funes said that he thinks the new small farmers in Cuba are probably among the richest people in the country (which admittedly doesn’t have much of an income gap to begin with), because of the popularity of the farmers’ markets. In addition, there’s a movement to make the cities of Cuba as self-sufficient as possible, by growing vegetables in larger “organoposts”, intensively. 26,000 people in Havana now take part in urban gardening.

The return of the ox

In the early nineties, the conversion to modernity had been so “successful” that there were over 75,000 tractors in Cuba, and a half million tonnes of fertiliser were used every year. However, (as a farmer explained in the film), Cubans are now beginning to re-learn traditional methods of farming. Tractors have some limitations anyway, as they can’t be used on soil which is not dry, whereas oxen will work in all conditions. Oxen hadn’t completely died out in Cuba; they were still being used on private farms. But their numbers had dwindled considerably; from around 400,000 pairs in the fifties, to 1,000 in the late eighties. However, now their numbers are up to over 300,000 pairs again. This achievement was the result of a campaign to stop farmers from slaughtering cattle for food.

In order to provide grain for the cattle, however, some mechanisation will still be necessary in Cuba for the foreseeable future. As 80% of the people now live in cities, mechanisation is also still necessary to provide them with rice. But Dr Funes is hopeful that even if the US lifts their embargo, Cuba will remain dedicated, on the whole, to organic farming. There are no exact statistics for the degree of conversion to organic farming in Cuba, but Dr. Funes estimated that 90% of farming there is now mainly, though not entirely organic (with about 5% entirely organic).

Research for change

The government is now funding research on biofertilisers (it's been funding research on biological pest control since the 70s). Farmers are encouraged to use legumes to "fix" nitrogen in the soil, to practise crop association (e.g. growing corn with beans, so that each crop "controls" the other's pests), and to "plant" worms in the soil. Farmers are encouraged to improvise in other ways, too; the film showed a farmer who had made an electric fence to protect his crop from his cows, by using a small wind generator attached to an old windscreen wiper motor. The government also provides money for research on homeopathic medicines, in order to compensate as much as possible for the US's ban on the sale of medicines to Cuba.

The drastic nature of these changes made some of them very difficult. Under the old system, 50% of Cuba's agricultural produce was exported, with sugar cane as the main source of income. With the change, the market for the cane collapsed, and fertiliser supplies were cut by 80%. Some crops (particularly rice, potatoes, and some types of sugar cane) were difficult to change over to organic production. Moreover, the farmers and researchers had been educated on “Green Revolution” procedures, and so had to re-learn a lot of theory.

In order to help with the change-over, the Cuban Association of Organic Farmers was formed in the early nineties, with the aim of educating people in organic farming methods. The association is a non-governmental organisation (a rarity in Cuba) which advises the government and also has a growing number of foreign members, including many US citizens and Latin American people. Among the findings of the Association are that while a cow in Cuba, grazing on 1 hectare of land, can produce 2,000 litres of milk in a year, the same hectare of land can produce 7 tonnes of food when it’s used to grow mixed crops, organically. Research is now being done into producing organic sugar, and into developing new machinery for oxen teams which is efficient but doesn’t damage the soil.

Despite the changes brought about by some degree of exposure to the West, the level of income in Cuba is still comparatively even. Dr. Funes told us that he earns around $28 a month ... but he pays $1.30 a month rent for a large family house, and he didn’t pay anything for his children’s college education. After an economic depression brought about by the collapse of the Iron Curtain, the Cuban economy is beginning to become healthy again, partly as a result of the shift to small-scale, organic farming. Life expectancy is 78 there.

Anyone interested in more information could contact Food First (who hosted Dr. Funes’ talk) at 398 60th Street, Oakland, CA 94618, USA. Food First has also published a book by Peter Rosset and Medea Benjamin, called The Greening of the Revolution; Cuba’s experience with Organic Agriculture, which can be ordered from them for $11.95 (presumably plus postage costs). It’s also possible to subscribe to Agricultura Organica, the quarterly Spanish-language magazine of the Cuban Organic Farming Association; write to Associación Cubana de Agricultura Organica, Apdo. Postal 6236, Codigo Postal 10600, La Habana, Cuba (email ICA@CENIAI.CU, fax (53-7) 333295).

Caroline Whyte is San Francisco correspondent for An Caorthann


An Caorthann (The Rowan Tree)
Irish green-alternative magazine
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