This essay will explore the historical timeline of Cuba’s agricultural systems starting with the countries colonisation in 1492 and finishing with examples from modern day agricultural setups. Cuba have faced many economic, political and food security crises which have led to them exploring a path to food sovereignty relying only on organic sustainable farming and inward looking development policies. Though huge success has been shown in the yield of urban gardens, Cuba is still faced with the challenge of applying their alternative agricultural methods to large-scale farming.
HISTORY: HISTORICAL ISSUES OF CUBA AND ITS FOOD SYSTEM
Cuba’s agricultural history begins shortly after Columbus’ discovery of the country in 1492, when it was settled by Spaniards who were in search of lands capable of grazing cattle, growing tobacco and sugar (Warren 2010). The sugar industry stayed pinnacle to Cuba’s economy and development for over 100 years, with exports becoming so large and constant that infrastructure such as railway and highways were built to keep up with the demand (Warren 2010).
In 1920, the sugar boom collapsed and Cuba was subject to many military coups and political struggles for power until 1959 when Fidel Castro starts leads the country and promised to return Cuba back to a land of prosperity and trade with his revolutionary communist approach (Castro 1967). It is important to note that by 1959, 9% of farmers in Cuba owned 62% of the land, 4 million hectares of which was taken up by latifundio a dualistic land tenure space (Nelson 2003) (Rodriguez 2010).
1959 saw Cuba and the Soviet Union (USSR) establish diplomacy, causing the United States to enforce a trade embargo in an attempt to drastically reduce Cuba’s economic benefit from exports by refusing to trade any fuel to Cuba, nor receive any exports from Cuba (Rodriguez 2010). The Cuban government attempted two agrarian reforms after 1959 to give land to tillers; the first failing due to strangleholds from the United States and the second achieving taking land from farmers who owned more than 67 hectares which led to 70% of land being owned by the government (Alveraz 2004).
From this point up until 1980, Cuba depended heavily on the USSR for aid, trade and food imports, the years 1981-1985 saw an increase in trade after Cuba and the USSR enter a bilateral cooperation agreement, sharing resources and both experiencing increases in trade of up to US$8 billion per year (Warren 2010).
Leading up to the fall of the USSR, trade and aid was cut to and from Cuba by 12% causing Cuba’s economy to drop 3.5% in the year of 1988. 1991 saw the fall of the Soviet Union, destabilising Cuba’s economy, development and soviet-styled industrial agriculture (Koont 2008). With the collapse of the USSR came the end of Cuba receiving farming goods such as machinery, spare parts and most importantly: petroleum and other fuel alternatives. The country was facing an agricultural crisis and a huge threat to food and economic security that demanded sustainable inward-facing development policy implementation from the government. This began with the ‘Special Period’ in 1992, which involved a wartime styled economy and development program using a mix of deregulation, decentralisation, demonopolisation and the implementation of a food rationing system (Rodriguez 2010) (Garth 2009).
In 1987 the Cuban Association of Agricultural and Forestry Technicians was founded and aimed to ‘integrate agricultural and forestry technicians in order to contribute to a sustainable ecologically based development’ (Caballero 2001); from this came the ‘design of sustainable alternatives for the local food sovereignty’, a project that involved local farmers teaching each other and spreading knowledge on a national level about how to achieve food sovereignty. Such programs have led to employing the unemployed to plant and provide vegetables for the community on abandoned land in urban areas, mixed farming systems utilising livestock and crop production, artisanal production of microorganisms which is turned into biogas and retrospectively used to provide warmth to new born animals and cooking of food for humans and animals (Caballero 2001).
Urban agricultural programs were surfacing as a success in Cuba with the success of vegetable growing superseding that of animal raising and training, in 2006 urban areas within Cuba were producing 1kg of vegetables per capita, per day (Koont 2008). Agriculture has shifted from traditional, industrial models toward an outstanding community driven sustainable farming culture, Cuba are no longer reliant on imports from the developed world and now rely on organic produce farmed through ecological horticulture methods that is locally sourced.
The spread of urban agriculture reached as far as the gardens of home owners in urban Cuba, with prices of fresh fruits and vegetables still unstable the community was encouraged to grow their own fresh produce in an attempt to further efforts toward food sovereignty (Buchmann 2009). Home gardens offer increased self-sustainability to individual households and reduce susceptibility to external impacts such as political, economic and climatic.
ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT/SOCIAL ISSUES
As well as achieving food sovereignty and reducing national hunger, the current agricultural methods executed in Cuba have resonating positive impacts on environmental management and socio-economic issues. Access to land, seeds, water and local markets has opened up to the poorer ‘peasants’ of Cuba as they often hold knowledge on the ‘old way’ of farming and do not rely on the use of chemicals or industry and their knowledge is highly desired for programs such as ‘design of sustainable alternatives for the local food sovereignty’ and ‘farmer to farmer movement’ (Altieri & Toledo 2011).
The farmer to farmer agro ecology movement (MACNAC) swept across Cuba, a movement that changed the agricultural landscape and public mindset and led to food sovereignty (Historical changes in the process). This movement encourages public involvement, sharing of local knowledge and small sustainable gardens to grow food for the population (Edible City: Grow the Revolution 2012), which involves the peasants mentioned above. This movement increased productivity across the nation involving farmers from all socio-economic groups and also cemented the philosophy of organic farming in Cuban culture. Farmers have realised through this program that synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are not necessary and that they can use seeds with natural defences to boost their yield (Altieri & Toledo 2011).
A Ph.D student in Cuba discovered by Fidel Castro is on a mission to spread his grassroots organic movement to larger scaled farms, intent that organic farming can address large scale agricultural demands and should not only be used as an escape from a crisis (Block 2013)
“Sometimes we are thinking that to grow organic food is like an escape from the crisis, not a development alternative. We are fighting to give evidence. This is our battle, I involve people and they make their own conclusions, but we have so much evidence to show.” (Block 2013)
Although Cuba is well on the way to food sovereignty, it is of concern that the current agricultural method being followed does not apply to large scale farming. Development of agroecological production models for large scale farms is necessary, without neglecting the empowerment of local farmers and the necessity of sustainable based agriculture (Caballero 2001)
Cuba has shown exceptional resilience against a number of economic and food security crises and were given a rare opportunity to be innovative in the direction their agricultural production. After being reliant on other nations for the import of food and agricultural tools for many years, Cuba have broken away from traditional industry based agriculture and are heading to complete organic, sustainable farming with large yields. The traditional agricultural method contributes greatly to carbon emissions and contributes to climate change whereas Cuba’s method of producing biogas for use has much less of a footprint on the climate and the environment. Cuba is now on the way to comfortably producing enough food for their population that will be little affected by trade relations, climate change and the global political climate.
Altieri, M and Toledo, V 2011, ‘The agroecological revolution in Latin America: rescuing nature, ensuring food sovereignty and empowering peasants’, The Journal of Peasant Studies, vol. 38, issue. 3, pp. 587-612, viewed 18th March 2014
Alvarez, J 2004, Cuba’s agricultural Sector, University Press of Florida, Gainesville
Block, B 2013, ‘Traditional Farmer Knowledge leads Cuba to Organic Revolution’, Worldwatch Institution, viewed 18th March 2014, < http://www.worldwatch.org/node/6435>
Buchmann, C 2009, ‘Cuban Home Gardens and Their Role in Social–Ecological Resilience’, Human Ecology, vol. 37, issue 6, pp. 705-721, viewed 18th March 2014
Caballero, R 2001, ‘Agro-ecology and Food Sovereignty in Cuba: Successes, Threats and Challenges’, lecture notes for Food Sovereignty Day, London UK, viewed 18th March 2014.
Castro, F 1967, History will absolve me, Guarias Press, Havana
Edible City: Grow the Revolution 2012, motion picture, Andrew Hasse, San Francisco
Garth, H 2009, ‘Things Became Scarce: Food Availability and Accessibility in Santiago de Cuba Then and Now’ NAPA bulletin, vol. 32, issue. 1, pp. 178-192, viewed 18th March 2014
Koont, S 2008, ‘A Cuban Success Story: Urban Agriculture’, Review of Radical Political Economics, vol. 40, issue 285, pp. 285 – 291, viewed 18th March 2014
Nelson, R 2003, Honduras Public Brief: Property Rights and Land Markets, Land Tenure Centre, University of Wisconsin
Rodriguez, E 2010,’Cuba’s Alternative/Inward Looking Development Policies. Changing Production Patterns and Land Decentralisation: Toward Sustainable Small Farming (1990-2008)’, Ph.D. thesis, University of London
Warren, J 2010, ‘Sustainable Transport Systems: Leaning from Cuba’ in P Furniss, R Kimbowa, G Wilson (eds), Environment, Development, and Sustainability: Perspectives and Cases from Around the World, Oxford, Oxford, pp. 54-65.