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Cuba and sustainable food production

Photo by Matthew Alteri

If a system has been created out of necessity, with unimaginable governmental influence, what happens when necessity is gone and the influence that has sustained the system dissipates?

The International Agroecology Conference in Cuba this year drew up many issues and exposed these questions. Cuba is on the front line of major change, how they handle this change will have far reaching implications upon sustainable agriculture.

Connecting Cuba's Agricultural dots

Arriving in Havana was a jolt to say the least. Everything is old, everything smells old and everything looks old. Beyond all the Fidel billboards strung along the highway and roads as well as quotes and Hugo Chavez superimposed image next to him, it has this trace of inexplicable attractiveness that lingers still. You feel like you’re walking into a history book that you were only told negative things about while trying to interpret for yourself the reality that exists in front of you. People move at a pace and act in a fashion that I can only depict as, “What’s the rush?” or “This is just another day!” Coming to Cuba for the first time entailed a rather odd reason in it inception for myself, agriculture.

Most wouldn’t connect Cuba as a beacon of hope in terms of sustainable food production, but ironically they are one of the most productive in the world. Especially today with the opening of relations with the US, many are concerned about the future of Cuban agriculture, particularly one that has been produced through necessity and supplemented by overbearing governmental control that holds, I would argue, the lifeline to its future.

Before setting foot on Cuban soil, for the past year, I’ve had an unwavering support of the agroecology movement taking place within the country. Granted most of my knowledge and insight had been from reading and doing my own research. And to draw out any possible concrete conclusion was always going to be absent unless I saw it in person. This entailed a snubbing on my part of critical features upon its success, and not only in Cuba, but on the possibility of exporting such a system on a large scale.

The 5th International Agroecology Conference that I attended was held in Güira de Melena, Cuba- about an hour south of Havana- and hosted by La Via Campesina International and the Asociación Nacional de Agricultores Pequeños of Cuba (ANAP), National Association of Small Farmers. The conference was composed of farmers, peasants, agroecology advocates, scientists, students, and those like myself concerned with the expansion and future of agroecology. The platform is an occasion for indigenous and peasant organizations throughout the world, together with the previously mentioned participants, to exchange their ideas, knowledge and practical experience. Captivating the farmer-to-farmer –Campesino- to-Campesino- idea of knowledge sharing. ( link for campesino-to-campesino agroecology movement in Cuba)

Using various presentations including farm visits, roundtable discussions, interactive panels, exchange workshops and seminars, the conference focused on an array of issues including sustainable food sovereignty and security, technological knowledge in sustainable agriculture, safeguarding of natural resources and the environment, business experiences of sustainable productive systems, social and institutional factors of sustainable agriculture as well as gender issues and cooperative movements.

Here’s a quick history recap to underline the basics: The Cuban revolution in 1959 was based in large part by agrarian distress brought on by the foreign impact of colonialism stemming as far back as Spanish colonization and ultimately substituted by American influence. The economic blockade of Cuba after the revolution by the United States brutally constrained their economic opportunities. As a result of the blockade Cuba’s economy was heavily dependent on trade with the Soviet Union, subsequently building a high-input, agro-chemical, monoculture and an oil dependent agricultural system. After the fall of the Warsaw pact Cuba was forced, predominately by necessity from isolation, to adopt an agricultural system built upon agroecology; farming practices that reject chemical input, while coupling a scientific approach with traditional knowledge.

The conference with its cocktail of events was held over five days. For the first three days we met at the ANAP headquarters, oddly reminiscent of an old military barracks, and divided into groups of around 15-20 people before heading out for farm visits. By the end of the third day with my assigned group, we had visited roughly nine different farms in the municipality of Artemisa.

The visits were structured around the idea of demonstrating working farms that practice agroecology methods. Besides all the fresh paint and apparent tidying up of each farm, the visits were productive and educational. Each farmer and his family showed a great deal of generosity and hospitality towards us.  

The education that I gained during my visit was paradoxical in every sense of the word. On the one hand we saw amazing farms with enormous productions of sustainable crops with zero chemical inputs and incredible local knowledge within its propagation. Predominantly, these farms practiced crop association, biotic control, intercropping with livestock and composting while eliminating or greatly reducing agro-chemical inputs, and showed great resistance to climate change.
Other farms that I visited were, “in transition” in becoming agroecological farms and working towards, along with the help of ANAP, a more sustainable and ecological production system.

Nevertheless, we were constantly subjected- and with discernable reason- to a barrage of forced exaltation of the Castro regime, including visiting revolutionary memorials and museums. In my view ANAP was taking advantage of the situation to exaggerate alternative motives that came off as bizarre and staged with underlining messages trying to link the success and reasons behind their modern agricultural system solely upon the revolution, rather than the absolute obligation for change due to near collapse 25 years prior.

Beyond the “Big-Brother eyes” that seemed to swallow me at times, the entire period I was visiting or speaking with farmers or even members of ANAP, I couldn’t ignore the overbearing elements within the success of agroecology in Cuba: large amounts of peasant labor, lack of choice and governmental engineering.

Finding it impossible to not play devil’s advocate I began to question farmers who were visiting and participating in the event along with me, mainly from the US and Europe.  In large part the biggest concerns that became a consensus among some of the participants I interviewed was the blatant imbalance between Cuba and modern societies. Although we are great supporters of agroecology and hope to see its expansion in the future, it is impossible to reject the fact that this system requires a large work force with low salaries combined with intensified labor practices, and undeniably limits to the access of choice. Additionally, momentous political change would be required for not only the safe guarding of the system but the potential it possesses all the while not impending on our liberties, something that Cubans have lacked for more than 50 years.
I would aver it advantageous to inject immediate support, knowledge, education and documentation surrounding the agroecology system currently employed. Agroecology is a system that can work and does, but we need to critically analyze and be candid about its conceivability outside and inside Cuba.

Furthermore, the thawing of relations between the United States and Cuba more than likely will introduce investment, business (heavily subsidized agro-business), and availability of a high-input, capital over labor and modern biotechnology reappearance along with mass tourism. How the Castro regime responds, I would argue, holds in the balance the agricultural leaps the country has made and the outsourcing of its knowledge.