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Cuba: Gardening its Way Out of Crisis

Sunlight brightens the paved streets and historic buildings of Havana, Cuba, bouncing off the tents of vendors and the tin drums of a street band. Once stricken by poverty and inequality, the city has slowly blossomed as a result of the bustling enterprise of urban agriculture. Between buildings and behind street walls, in every green space available, locals have cultivated crops, utilizing the techniques of sustainable urban farming. After years of isolation from the United States and the former Soviet Union, Cuba has independently fostered development of urban agriculture and now provides an environment of growth and structure for its economic, social and political policies.

Cuba is the only country in the world that has developed an extensive state-supported infrastructure to support urban food production.

Functionally, this system was established in response to acute food shortages in the early 1990s, which occurred after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the island was forced to find an alternative manner of cultivating crops. Havana has established and expanded on this innovative model since this time, and it continues to lead the island nation in its quest for self-sufficiency. The increasing prevalence of urban agriculture benefits the economy, environment, community and health of Cuban citizens.

Crisis to Bounty

Cuba turned to urban agriculture out of necessity. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the termination of trade with the Soviet-based Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON), the industrial agriculture on which Cuba had relied since the 1970s disappeared. Almost overnight, diesel fuel, gasoline, trucks, agricultural machinery, spare parts for trucks and machinery, as well as petrochemical-based fertilizers and pesticides, became very scarce commodities. Like many large metropolitan centers, Havana was a food consumer city, completely dependent upon comestible imports from the Cuban countryside and abroad. Havana had no food production sector or infrastructure, and had little land dedicated to cultivate this vital industry.

In light of the severe agricultural crisis, a shift to urban agriculture seemed an obvious and necessary solution. Urban production minimized transportation costs and smaller-scale operation decreased the need for machinery. Urban agriculture necessitated production sites near highly populated areas, and at the same time avoided the use of toxic petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides, which were no longer available.

Roots of Growth

Although Castro began installing organoponicos (rectangular-walled constructions containing a mixture of soil and compost) in military facilities in 1987, it was not until the end of 1991 that the first “civilian” organoponico began operation. This governmental experiment prepared at least some parts of the Cuban institutional structure for the impending food crisis. By 1994, an organization was created to oversee the systematic introduction of organoponicos along with intensive gardens into urban agriculture.

Since the development of urban agriculture in Havana, production has increased exponentially, with the harvest of fresh herbs and vegetables jumping a thousand fold from 4,000 tons to 4.2 million tons between 1994 to 2005. The introduction of locally grown, organic agricultural products has significantly benefitted the typical Cuban diet. The environment of Cuba’s cities has immensely profited in terms of both climate change and aesthetics.

Plots that were previously eyesores and de facto garbage dumps have been transformed into productive land. The social and economic environment has enjoyed the creation of sizeable sources of urban employment as well as the robust incorporation of women and youth into the workforce.

Although Havana constitutes only 0.67 percent of the total area of the island, 20 percent of Cuba’s population is concentrated in the capital. The immense agricultural production capable in this small area could be considerable. This production rate is largely due to the overarching organizational structure of Havana’s urban agricultural model. Clearly fundamental to the success of this paradigm is the coherent, central direction that the socialist government provides. In spite of this collective approach, a certain amount of decentralization exists allowing citizens wide pathways to guide marketing and production. The central government offers support and an organizational backbone, while the decentralized arms furnished by the planning model permit decision-making to be made by producers and encourage local solutions to local problems. Thus, urban agriculture in Havana is a model of urban self-sufficiency worthy of imitation.

Havana and the Outside World

By incorporating modern farming methods into its economy, Cuba has experienced considerable advancements that have allowed the country to address many of its structural as well as life-style shortcomings, particularly the security of its people, the environment and the economy. The former food-supply problem plunged the Cuban economy into a downward spiral of hunger and despair. However, by fostering agricultural awareness, the country was able to attain enhanced levels of food sovereignty and security. This increased allocation of edibles has contributed enormously to the opening of society. Resources are now accessible and affordable to the general public and the creation of infrastructure accommodates more labor and increased wages. Thus, the changes Cuba has made have generated a positive interaction between the community and economy.

Many worry whether Cuba’s budget and planning services will be able to maintain its commitment to urban agriculture and sustainable methods, as the country enters the global economy and faces pressures to restructure its economic and political system, especially as Washington nears a decision to lift the U.S.- Cuba trade embargo.

As the economy opens, the tourism industry and multinational food corporations will compete for urban land and attempt to flood the Cuban market with cheap imported food products that could undermine the urban agricultural system. Havana must develop policies that will protect their growing agricultural sector, but also allow for international influence and trade to flourish.

Although the opening of trade relations threatens local food production, Cuba’s success in the agriculture industry makes it a substantial contender in the global market. Its products are competitively priced and thus, have the ability to generate a considerable profit for the island nation. Not only will increased participation in international trade boost revenue, but it could also promote social reform in the country. Cuba’s urban centers, once underdeveloped and filthy, are now encouraging progressive goals, targeting rising living standards and sanitation concerns, while promoting national initiatives that will support future improvements in the urban landscapes.

Agriculture for the Future

Cuba’s successful implementation of urban agriculture should serve as a model for other developing countries, particularly in Latin America. By embracing more modern and effective methods of farming, countries theoretically have the opportunity to transform their local markets, augmenting the labor force and cultivating capital and infrastructure. Introduction to the global market would allow a country like Cuba to become an important economic actor, ultimately expanding its profits through competitive transactions and trade. Considering the increasingly overbearing nature of contemporary power-house economies, as well as the improvements that would address many of the social and economic issues that plague struggling nations, Latin America, as well as other regions, should acknowledge the practicality of a low intensity urban approach to agriculture, if only as a supplement to other major approaches.

Agricultural urbanization is not only inevitable, but also may be the best available option in ensuring food sovereignty and security for increasing populations, and facilitating economic opportunities for the poor. The prospect of growth and development, as well as increased global cooperation and communication, should serve as incentive for industrializing countries to integrate and harmonize urban agriculture into their local communities.

This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associates Christina Conell and Tara Patel August 14th, 2009 Word Count: 1200

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