The Future of Cuba’s Urban Agriculture

Due to the collapse of aid from the Soviet Union and U.S. sanctions in the early 1990’s, Cuba moved from a centrally-planned, fossil-fuel based agriculture system to a locally-organized organic urban one, writes Solutions journal. However, with lessening tensions and growing trade with the U.S., there are new concerns that Cuba’s model of self-sufficient green agricultural production will be scrapped.  

Farmers and agronomists responded to economic isolation by localizing food production, which has now taken off across Cuba’s urban areas. In fact, urban farms in “vacant lots in the capital, Havana, and a network of producers across the country” now provide 80 percent of the country with local, organic produce and helped turn Cuba into an “unintentional leader of the green movement,” says Solutions. CBS News adds that most urban farms where organic produce is grown are walking distance from residents.

The fall of the Soviet Union meant the end to external support, and green agricultural practices had to be scaled up quickly. In the early 1990’s, “agricultural production in Cuba, dominated by sugar cane production for export, following Spanish colonial practice, shrank from 88.1 Million Metric Tonnes in 1990 to around 2.2 MMT in 1993. Supplies of corn, Cuba’s other main product and a staple of the Cuban diet, fell by 70 percent. In Havana, the average caloric intake over the same period fell from 3,052 calories per day to 2,099. Some reports suggest that many were surviving on only 1,500 calories a day.” To save Cubans from starvation, agronomists and farmers pushed for the decentralization of agriculture,  an end to collective farms.

Farmers diversified local agricultural production and explored how to combat pests without oil-based fertilizers. One practice involved mixing complementary crops naturally resistance to pests, a “technique that drew on neglected traditional practices.”  In 1992, the Asociacion Cubana de Agricultura Organica (ACAO) was formed to spread organic agricultural practices. ACAO grew to 30,000 members by 1999 and won international awards. However, the organization was viewed as increasingly independent and a threat to socialism, and was shut down by Castro.

Strangely, given that Cuba is deeply reliant on sustainable practices, sustainability is often viewed as a threat to the regime because its associated with local bottom-up organization. To preserve green agricultural practices in the future, sustainability may need to be made official agricultural policy. Fernando Funes Monzote, a Cuban agronomist who received his Ph.D in the Netherlands, told Solutions: “On the one hand, we need the power of the central government to defend sustainable agriculture. On the other, we need the government to cede some of its traditional powers in food production. Have the ideas of sustainability successfully permeated the regime’s thinking? If sanctions lift and we have lots of oil again, will the government continue to support our agriculture?

In the event of widening trade, it’s not clear whether the Cuban government will let the current system stand. To date, no new sustainable agriculture policy has been issued. Monzonte believes sustainability can survive only if it’s built into the revolution: “Cuba has commanded the world stage in its opposition to American capitalism. If we can convince our leaders that sustainability gives us a new platform for leadership and for renewing the revolution, I think we can succeed.”

Read the article

Image credit: Urban Habitat / Race, Poverty and the Environment / REDI

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