Monday, September 22, 2008

Organic Cuba without Fossil Fuel (Part 2): The Cuban Response

It began with a nation-wide call to increase food production by restructuring agriculture. It involved converting from conventional large-scale, high input monoculture systems to smaller scale, organic and semi-organic farming systems. The focus was on using low cost and environmentally safe inputs, and relocating production closer to consumption in order to cut down on transportation costs, and urban agriculture was a key part of this effort [2-5].
A spontaneous, decentralized movement had arisen in the cities. People responded enthusiastically to government initiative. By 1994, more than 8 000 city farms were created in Havana alone. Front lawns of municipal buildings were dug up to grow vegetables. Offices and schools cultivated their own food. Many of the gardeners were retired men aged 50s and 60s, and urban women played a much larger role in agriculture than their rural counterparts.
By 1998, an estimated 541 000 tons of food were produced in Havana for local consumption. Food quality has also improved as people had access to a greater variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. Urban gardens continued to grow and some neighbourhoods were producing as much as 30 percent of their own food.
The growth of urban agriculture was largely due to the State’s commitment to make unused urban and suburban land and resources available to aspiring urban farmers. The issue of land grants in the city converted hundreds of vacant lots into food producing plots, and new planning laws placed the highest land use priority on food production.
Another key to success was opening farmers markets and legalising direct sales from farmers to consumers. Deregulation of prices combined with high demand for fresh produce in the cities allowed urban farmers to make two to three times as much as the rural professionals.
The government also encouraged gardeners through an extensive support system including extension agents and horticultural groups that offered assistance and advice. Seed houses throughout the city sold seeds, gardening tools, compost and distribute biofertilizers and other biological control agents at low costs.
New biological products and organic gardening techniques were developed and produced by Cuba’s agricultural research sector, which had already begun exploring organic alternatives to chemical controls, enabling Cuba’s urban farms to become completely organic. In fact, a new law prohibited the use of any pesticides for agricultural purposes anywhere within city limits.
The introduction of a diversified market-based system for food distribution has spurred increased agricultural productivity [1]. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that between 1994 and 1998, Cuba tripled the production of tubers and plantains, and doubled the production of vegetables, which doubled again in 1999. Potatoes increased from 188 000 tonnes in 1994 to 330 000 tonnes in 1998, while beans increased by 60 percent and citrus by 110 percent from 1994 to 1999.
Anecdotal information suggests that thousands of families have left cities and large towns to make their livelihood from the land. Other information suggests that thousands of unemployed – including rural migrants – have found employment in urban agriculture.

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