by Jason Mark | PeopleAndPlanet.net

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuban people in towns and cities began spontaneously to grow their own food organically in whatever spaces available. In doing so, they started a revolution in food production which now makes a major contribution to their health and wellbeing.

The Alamar district in eastern Havana is a typical example of Soviet-style housing. Perfectly rectangular apartment blocks march in formation, one after another, in a monotony of layout tht seems to check morale. Until, that is, one discovers Vivero Alamar - Alamar Gardens.

Founded in 1994 on a nine-acre parcel of land, Vivero Alamar today is a 140-person venture growing a wide range of fruits and vegetables. A patchwork quilt of orchards, shade houses, and row crops provides a steady harvest of bright green lettuces, carrots, tomatoes, avocados, culinary and medicinal herbs, chard, and cucumbers. The crops are healthy-looking, well tended, and all grown without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides. Vivero Alamar is a completely organic operation.

Driven by necessity

Upon harvest, the farm’s produce is sold to the neighbours at a colourful farm stand. Vivero Alamar also sells a range of organic composts and mulches for families’ use, as well as a broad selection of patio plants, propagated on site. In 2005 this neighbourhood-managed, worker-owned cooperative earned approximately $180,000. After capital improvements and operating expenses are taken into account, that translates to about $500 per worker annually; not bad, considering that the Cuban minimum wage is $10 per month.

Noel Pena, the 41-year-old production manager of Vivero Alamar, is quick to describe the farm’s benefits. “First, it’s a job opportunity for the people. Second, it provides a fresh food supply to the community. Third, it has many economic benefits for the families. And I could mention a fourth, which is that an ugly place in the city has been turned into a beautiful garden.”

Vivero Alamar is just one example (albeit a best-case one) of a revolution in food production that swept Cuba in the early 1990s and continues today. From Santiago de Cuba in the east to Pinar del Rio in the west, thousands of urban gardens like Vivero Alamar are blossoming. In community food parks, backyard patios, and larger urban farms like the one in Alamar, some 300,000 Cubans are busy growing their own fruits and vegetables and then selling the surplus to their neighbors.

For the Cubans’ recent history proves that, if driven by necessity, people can and will organize grassroots, community-based ways to feed themselves. At the same time, the Cuban experience shows that even a modest amount of government support and investment can greatly amplify community efforts. If - as a growing number of academics warn - industrial nations ever face food supply disruptions due to climate change or peak oil, such lessons will be vital.

Community support

The Cubans did not come to their exalted status as organic pioneers through some benevolent ecological epiphany. Their conversion to organic agriculture was, quite simply, the result of scarcity. The Cubans ran out of money and oil, and then they started to run out of food.

During the Cold War, the Cuban economy relied heavily on support from the Soviet Union and the other members of the Socialist Bloc. Approximately 50 per cent of Cuba’s food came from abroad. When the USSR collapsed [in 1989], Cuba ground to a halt. Without Soviet oil, city streets were emptied of cars and, more ominously, tractors were idled in the fields; domestic agriculture production fell by half.

The average per-capita calorie intake fell from 2,900 a day in 1989 to 1,800 calories in 1995. Protein consumption plummeted 40 per cent. As Cubans lost weight, cats disappeared from the streets of Havana, destined for family soup pots.

Then the Cubans went to work, proving that necessity is, in fact, the mother of invention. Without government direction or urging - an important point, given the state-run nature of Cuban society - people began to spontaneously grow their own food. In the cities, residents took over garbage dumps, parking lots, and abandoned corners, and started to plant gardens and build chicken coops In the countryside, the old-timers went back to the fields and showed people how they could make do with oxen and using their own hands to do the labour.

“We started this with no money,” said Vilda Figueroa, who built one of the first urban gardens in Havana and who now hosts a nutrition education programme on television with her husband, Pepe. “We knew that the most valuable thing was the support of the community. So we started training volunteers who could horizontally spread the knowledge among their neighbours. We wanted something grassroots so we could popularize this idea of small-scale production.”

Agrarian reform

While urban residents built community gardens to meet their own needs, the government undertook a sweeping national agrarian reform programme. The large, Soviet-model state farms were broken into smaller, farmer-run co-operatives. The state started to set up an infrastructure of organic compost and organic pest and disease control centres to help farmers make the transition away from chemical inputs. To give farmers incentives to grow produce for the domestic market, the government allowed the creation of farmers’ markets in the cities, a break from the formerly state-dominated food system.

Today, Cuban agriculture is on the mend. Vegetable production doubled from 1994 to 1998, and then doubled again in 1999. Harvest totals for key crops such as potatoes and plantains have tripled. Cereal and bean yields are up, as are numbers for meat and egg production. Perhaps most significantly, daily caloric intake is back to its 1989 level and, in a sign of restored prosperity, some Cubans are beginning to worry about obesity.

And all of this has occurred using just a fraction of the chemicals that agriculture in the “developed” world depends on. Before the crisis hit, Cuba used more than 1 million tons of synthetic fertilizers a year, today it uses about 90,000 tons. During the Soviet period, Cuba applied up to 35,000 tons of herbicides and pesticides a year; today the number is about 1,000 tons. The country is a living example of how to grow food on a large, national scale without being reliant on petroleumbased inputs.

“It’s very simple. We’ve moved to organics, not because we’re Greenpeace members, but because we can’t afford chemicals,” Juan Jose Leon, an official at the Cuban Ministry of Agriculture, told me. “Everything we have gained, all the experience we have gained, we are not going to leave that behind.”

Jason Mark is working on his second book, Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots, to be published in the autumn of 2007 by PoliPointPress.

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