Learning from Cuba: Agro-ecology, urban farming, and making do

Hemingway, Fidel, Bay of Pigs, the missile crisis, Venceremos, Marielitos, Elián—the threads of so many stories of Cuba are woven through the fabric of my own life! I was just eleven years old, catching my first glimpse of a world wider than Kingsville, Texas, when on New Year’s Day 1959 Batista fled the country and Castro’s revolutionary forces took over. And now, more than a half-century later, I have finally visited beautiful Cuba. My tour, a joint offering from Food First, Global Exchange/Reality Tours, and Amistur, focused on Cuba’s developing agro-ecological food system. I learned so much!—Over the next few posts I’d like to take you with me to the foundations, farms, neighborhoods, and small enterprises that we visited, and introduce you to some of the Cubans whose labors are building the system.

Day One: Sunday July 8th

Actually, Day One was supposed to be Saturday July 7th, but we spent it in the Cancun airport waiting for our Cubana flight; we finally go to our Havana hotel at about 5:00 Sunday morning. So we dumped our early Sunday-morning plans and slept in.

But we re-grouped around 11:00 and set off for UBPC Alamar, in the suburbs of Havana. A “UBPC” is a “basic unit of cooperative production,” one of several organizational structures of farms in Cuba. The story of the origins of the UBPCs brings together a number of themes that will come up again and again as we learn about Cuban agriculture. The story, like so many others here, is a story of cataclysm and recovery. Up until 1989, Cuban farming was organized into large state-owned agro-industrial “green revolution”  farms that relied on expensive heavy machinery and large amounts of imported chemical fertilizers to produce mono-crops of sugarcane, coffee, and tobacco. By far the largest trading partner?—The Soviet Union. But in 1989 the Soviet Union collapsed, and so did Cuban agriculture. Once again (as it had after the 1961 US blockade began), Cuba lost 80% of its trade, including the market for its crops and the imports of food that had fed the populace. Thus began the “Special Period” (still continuing today) in which agriculture (among other sectors) underwent radical change. In one such change, beginning in 1993, a number of large state farms were broken up and turned over to cooperatives made up of the farm-workers who had been wage-earners on the land before—thus the birth of the UBPCs. The land itself was granted in “usufruct” (essentially, a long-term lease of the state-owned land). Sustainable agriculture began to be understood as a matter of national security, and organic and agro-ecological techniques began to be adopted.

At UBPC Alamar, Miguel Salcines, president of the cooperative, walked us through the good-sized farm with its lush vegetable and herb crops striping the rust-red soil. Here he is explaining their use of irrigation and covered structures (—for shade, rather than for raising the temperature, as we use them here in Seattle; I’m here to tell you that they do not need to raise the temperature. At all. Whew.). By the way, pretty much our entire group is in this photo; there were just  nine of us, plus our tour coordinator Zoe and our guide/translator Jesús.

Among the other sustainable practices in use at Alamar are interplanting (here of lettuces and green onions), drip irrigation, integrated pest control, and vermiculture (using worms to turn cow manure into organic matter for compost)And they aren’t trifling with that operation either; they produce about one ton per day of organic matter, and sell what they don’t use.

The cooperative plans to grow; the farmers hold shares in the organization based on the length of time they have been members, and profits are distributed per share. The group votes on policies and practices, and Sr. Salcines told us that their decisions can’t be overruled by outsiders. They also have a community mission; they do educational  tours and workshops for the local schools.

We ended our tour with a delicious meal served alfresco on the farm:  fresh plantains, mangos, squash soup, black beans, malanga (a potato-like tuber), fresh juice, and more. We also saw one of our first instances of the Cuban “make it do” mentality—old bus windows pressed into service in an outbuilding on the farm.

Back in town in the afternoon, we took a little walking tour of the Plaza de San Francisco and Plaza Vieja in Old Havana. Remember that the Spanish were thriving in Cuba as early as the first years of the 16th Century; Havana’s streets and plazas are as elegant and baroque and wasted as only five complex centuries can make them. But throughout the twists and turns of our walk, it seemed to me that Cuban wit and creativity winked at us from all sides. What had we learned so far about Cuba? Here at the end of our first day, I couldn’t say; I found myself distrustful of my own delight in what I was seeing. Was our experience being managed? Certainly. Were the people we were meeting open and analytical and willing to question their own practices? Yes. The one thing I was sure of was that I needed to learn more.

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