||Customers at a
bustling Havana farmers market. Most booths are
managed by intermediaries who are contracted directly
by farmers to market their products. Tomatoes displayed
here for 5 pesos/pound (around 20 cents/lb U.S.) are considered
I know that the world is weak
And must soon fall to the ground,
And, then, midst the quiet profound
The gentle brook will speak.
José Martí, 1891
Posted April 2, 2003: Our air-conditioned
bus was a haven of comfort, in a land where few of the “comforts
of home” as we know them exist. The well-cushioned seats
reclined to allow for an occasional and much needed nap along
the route, but instead I usually sat leaning forward, my attention
riveted out the window.
The contrasts of metropolitan Havana are difficult to describe
without pictures, many pictures really. Most residential buildings
remain in sorry shape, even as those structures more important
for drawing tourists (hotels, museums, historic landmarks,
etc.) undergo thorough restorations everywhere.
urban farmer extraordinaire: Below you'll
find more photos of America's extraordinary Havana
There is much poverty in Cuba, for sure, but there are also
signs of promise that kept my eyes glued to the oncoming landscape
outside the bus. For amid the substantial ruins of a society
that has faced tremendous adversity, there is agriculture—agriculture
everywhere—agriculture that the high priests of corporate
agribusiness have told us can never be possible in our own
As part of what has been called the “largest ever fact-finding
delegation destined for Cuba,” I was joined by Penn
State IPM specialist and PASA board member Lyn Garling and
Tim Bowser, executive director of the FoodRoutes Network (www.foodroutes.org),
as part of a dynamic group of about ninety food and farming
specialists from all over the United States, Latin America,
and the Caribbean on a study tour of Cuban agriculture. The
trip was organized by the California-based Food First/Institute
for Food and Development Policy (www.foodfirst.org),
and took place over a two-week period bridging February and
March of this year.
Why sustainable ag has become a guiding
principle in Cuba
To put it bluntly, I think most if not all of us on the trip
were stunned to find out how central the concept of sustainable
agriculture has become in Cuban society, and likely were equally
stunned afterward in returning to face the reality of our
situation in this country. It is worth noting, however, that
not all of Cuba’s success in this regard has been by
design; historical consequence has played a significant role.
Following the Revolution that was complete at the beginning
of 1959, Cuba was pushed into a mostly exclusive trading relationship
with the Soviet Union and other socialist countries by the
U.S. trade embargo, now more than forty years old. Despite
the embargo, or “blockade,” as it is called in
Cuba, this arrangement worked pretty well for the growing
Cuban economy for about thirty years, until the collapse of
the Soviet Union beginning in 1989. Cuban exports during this
period were mostly sugar, tobacco, and nickel, which they
traded for fuel, food, medicine, and the necessary equipment
and supplies to support large-scale conventional agriculture.
on-farm stand: "America's" curbside
farm stand, fashioned from an old railroad car.
Note the apartment building in the background --
food is produced and marketed very close to where
it will be consumed.
The seeds of agricultural change, however, were present throughout
the thirty years following the Revolution. We were reminded
on the trip that agrarian reform had always been a priority
of the Cuban socialist regime, and many of us were left with
our jaws hanging open to hear the story that in 1963, Fidel
Castro attended graduation ceremonies at the Universidad Agraria
de la Habana (Agrarian University of Havana) and personally
handed each graduate a copy of a newly published book called
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson.
||"Cuban officials put it this
way: ‘Sustainable agriculture has become an integral
part of our national defense . . . a war of the people,’
and ‘Our soils are a strategic natural resource.’
Now, how long will we wait here in the U.S. before we
hear such statements from our own officials?"
From the beginning, the Revolution had sought to guarantee
adequate food for every man, woman, and child in Cuba as a
birthright, and the desire had been to supply as much of this
food as possible through production using fewer chemicals
on smaller farms or farm cooperatives located close to where
people actually live.
The large industrialized and foreign-owned farms that previously
exported for the profit of absentee corporate owners were
nationalized, and the priorities of production changed. Exports
continued, but were considered mostly a necessary evil to
obtain the goods not immediately available within the confines
of this island nation.
But with the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba was plunged into
Ag in Cuba Defined
The following list of current initiatives
was presented to the Food First delegation by Luis García,
an agronomist who is Director of The Center for the
Study of Sustainable Agriculture at the Agrarian University
of Havana. Entitled “The Cuban Model for Sustainable
Agriculture,” the list reflects challenges facing
Cuba’s farmers since the beginning of the current
economic crisis, but serves also as a pretty good menu
of priorities for sustainable farmers anywhere.
• Organic fertilizers and biofertilizers
• Soil conservation and recuperation
• Animal traction and alternative
• Inter cropping and crop rotation
• Mixing crops and animal production
• Alternative mechanization
• Urban Agriculture and community
• Alternative Veterinary Medicine
Adjusting to local conditions
• Reversing rural migration to
• Increasing cooperative use
• Improving agrarian research
• Changing agrarian education
desperate food crisis almost overnight, which dramatically
quickened the pace of agricultural reform. The United States,
perhaps sensing an opportunity to bring about a new capitalist
counterrevolution, tightened the embargo with legislation
in 1992 (Torricelli) and again in 1996 (Helms-Burton), making
things even worse for the Cuban people.
Throughout our travels, speaker after speaker emphasized
with considerable emotion the impact of the historical one-two
punch of Soviet trade evaporation and U.S. legislation, but
somehow each person avoided sounding bitter in retrospect.
Instead, they expressed pride in what they have achieved in
the face of overwhelming circumstances.
Lacking the feed concentrates, fertilizers, pesticides, and
other chemicals that used to come through trade, the people
of this society, with the support of their government and
universities, launched a massive campaign to make widespread,
diversified, and well-distributed organic agriculture a reality.
The results are amazing, if not yet complete, and provide
convincing testimony to the enduring power of the revolutionary
spirit still apparent in Cuban culture.
The rise of urban farming
One major strategy to ease the crisis was to implement urban
agriculture, with folks farming their backyards, or bringing
new life to abandoned lots or defunct manufacturing sites.
Because of free-market incentives established by the government
in response to the crisis, there is now enough organic produce
grown within the city limits of Havana to feed each of the
city’s 2.5 million residents a minimum of 300 grams
(about 10 ounces) of fruits and vegetables each day.
& trained oxen replace tractors: A
helper at "Chucho's" farm deals with a
problem familiar to all produce farmers ... lettuce
that has bolted. Though works horses are somewhat
rare in Cuba, the country now has nearly half a
million trained oxen, which provide power in place
of the fuel-hungry tractors of the past.
Some of the urban farmers we met had left very stable professional
careers to engage in agriculture for the first time. For instance,
we met “Chucho,” a former veterinarian who had
originally switched to farming in order to keep his children
fed. As he put it, “When we realized we only had one
egg per day to split between two kids, we decided to make
the change before it was too late.” He and his wife,
a former chemist, now operate two farms, making considerably
more money than they did in their former careers.
Another strategy has been to divide the large, state-owned
farms into smaller cooperatives, or Basic Units of Cooperative
Production (UBPC), as they are called. Our group visited one
that employed fifty-five farmers farming a total of about
eight acres, with each of the farmers earning approximately
four times the national average monthly wage. They achieve
this despite the fact that such farms must first provide,
as part of their social obligation, food for local schools,
hospitals, and nursing homes before selling on the open market.
The key to the success of urban agriculture in Cuba is that
the farms are located in the same neighborhoods as their customers.
For instance, another farmer we met, named “America,”
grows on a lot adjacent to her house with help from her neighbors.
After meeting her social obligation, she sells produce from
a refurbished railroad car that now serves as a curbside farm
stand. Such stands in and around Havana often attract hundreds,
and even thousands of customers each day.
beds: Part of "America's" urban
farm in Havana, with raised beds and a modern irrigation
system provided by the Cuban government. Individual
farms like this usually operate through a cooperative
and, after providing fresh food for local schools
and hospitals, are able to sell at curbside stands.
Another key has been the reinvention and rejuvenation of
university Extension services. Throughout the country, extensionists,
as they are called, adhere strictly to a model of “popular
education” that is described as “emancipatory”
in nature. By this model, the teacher is never considered
more important than students, but both learn and share in
the process together.
The principle goal of Extension services in Cuba is to integrate
new technology in support of traditional production systems.
Farmers are thought to be the best judge of what to produce
and how it should be done. As one extenstionist put it, “What
the farmer would not eat, the farmer should not grow.”
Success in achieving sustainability of Cuban livestock production
lags behind that achieved with vegetables and fruit. It is
impressive, though, that pork and poultry production, now
occurring in more diversified systems on small farms, have
reached levels that existed before the crisis, when most all
animals were raised in conventional confinement facilities.
And university research conducted in Cuba, using sustainability
indicators they have developed, has concluded that a 20-cow
dairy provides the maximum level of efficiency.
The innovative spirit is alive and well
without prejudice: A Cuban fruit farmer
and his wife, who hosted a group from the delegation
for a visit at their home. Everywhere it was clear
how proud these folks are of what they had achieved,
and how glad they were to receive us. Departing
comments were often mingled with tears.
Throughout the tour, on every stop and around every corner,
we found evidence of an innovative spirit that was reminiscent
of many sustainably run operations in Pennsylvania and elsewhere
in the United States. But in contrast to the common attitude
in our own homeland, the success of such innovation is seen
by Cubans as critical to the future security of their country.
As an example, and in light of the crisis faced since 1989,
two different Cuban officials made the following comments:
“Sustainable agriculture has become an integral part
of our national defense . . . a ‘war’ of the people,”
and “Our soils are a strategic natural resource.”
These are the words of leaders who knew keenly that mass starvation
might very well be the alternative.
The Cuban farmers we met along the way beamed with pride
as they told of what they had achieved against overwhelming
odds. Starting with the aim to feed their own families, they
now feed their communities and, for the most part, their society.
Few, if any advocates for sustainable agriculture in our
own country would wish to swap our government or economic
circumstances with those found in Cuba. But it sure doesn’t
hurt to see an example of how we might utilize the principles
of sustainability in the United States to avoid our own Special
Period in the future.
Sustainable Agriculture and Resistance,
edited by Fernando Funes, Luis Garcia, Martin
Bourgue, Nilda Perez and Peter Rosset, published
in English by Food First Books, 2002. Available
The Greening of Cuba, a Food
First video directed by Jaime Kibben. Order from
LPC Group at 1-800-343-4499, or visit the book
store on the Food First site (www.foodfirst.org).
Intensive vs. Extensive Agriculture
Of the many interesting perspectives
gained from listening to farmers and other agricultural
specialists in Cuba, one of the most intriguing
was the concept of “extensive agriculture.”
Cubans use the term “intensive”
to describe industrialized systems of agriculture
that are very familiar to us in the United States,
like confined livestock feeding operations and
mono-cultural cropping practices that depend heavily
on chemical inputs.
But in describing the alternative,
Cubans talk about “extensive” systems
that consist of vast networks of sustainably run,
smaller plots of ground that emphasize cooperative
labor, local marketing, farm-based enterprises
and a farm’s inherent responsibility to
the social fabric of its community.
In contrast to intensive agriculture,
extensive agriculture represents an altogether
different philosophical orientation. Cubans use
the word “extensive” to emphasize
how big their plans for establishing sustainable
food and farming systems really are.
Brian Snyder is the Executive Director of the Pennsylvania
Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA). If any person
or group is interested in hosting a more detailed presentation,
including slides, of PASA’s participation in the Food
First delegation to Cuba, please contact Brian directly at