Why Cuba is the only nation to achieve sustainable development

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An organoponico in the outskirts of Havana
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Photography : Eduardo Martino

One may wonder what significance an agro-ecological resurgence in Cuba has in India, which is located on the opposite face of the earth; when it’s night here, it’s day there. Cuba is a sparsely inhabited island nation with 74 percent of her people concentrated in a few cities, while India is a near sub-continent populous, poly-cultural and predominantly rural, a land with a ten millennia history of farming now in a steroidal rush to industrialise and urbanize – even on fertile land! And of course, there are more differences.

Yet, the insistent ‘sustainability’ demands of our churning times suggest that there are valuable lessons India and the rest of the world can learn from that small Caribbean nation. In 2006, the international ‘Living Planet’ report of the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Global Footprint Network declared: Cuba is the only nation to achieve sustainable development! Its agro-ecological model and high forest cover also serve as a highly efficient ‘carbon sink’ ameliorating global warming. With the impending multiple crises of food, fresh water, fuel, climate change, social unrest simmering globally, the Cuban experience has wide relevance.

In India, the blithe devaluing of the agricultural livelihoods of small farmers by policy-makers cutting across party lines sorely needs to be challenged with a fresh agro-ecological focus. While the outstanding achievements of individual organic farmers like Bhaskar Save (in southern coastal Gujarat) are increasingly recognized, people also need examples of success on a larger scale. Cuba’s remarkable agricultural transformation – against formidable odds – following the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in 1989 provides a shining case-study.

Crisis – the Turning Point

Landing on the isle of Cuba, half a millennium ago, Christopher Columbus described it as “the most beautiful land human eyes have ever seen.” Much of it was then inhabited by the Arawaks, who grew maize and nutritious tubers like cassava, sweet potato, taro; also tobacco and cotton. All farming in that era was totally organic. The poly-culture of diverse foods provided more balanced and complete nutrition than modern mono-cropping.

In the subsequent centuries, Cuba became the headquarters for the Spanish crown in the Americas. The colonizers found it profitable to grow monocultures of sugarcane and tobacco for export to Europe. Later America too imposed embargos, which made Cuba turn to the Soviet Union and depend heavily on it. In 1989, the Soviet system began to unravel - Cuba’s favorable terms of trade were abruptly terminated. Soon, the Berlin Wall collapsed and the Soviet Union totally disintegrated. This meant the loss of almost all of Cuba’s import sources and export markets, devastating its economy.

Factory closures became common, and much of the petroleum driven transportation came to a standstill. Tractors were grounded – for lack of both fuel and essential spare parts. Agrochemicals were just not available. And food scarcity became widespread. The severe crisis was felt across the nation and cities were the most affected, especially Havana.

To make matters worse, the US tightened its embargo. It banned ships that had been to Cuba from docking in the US. Simultaneously, it clamped several conditions on Russia and the newly independent states as they scrambled for U.S. aid: one of these was to end all trade with Cuba. But rather than roll over and die, a new revolution began to foment in Cuba, an organic one…

Transition: the Early Years of Re-organizing

In 1990, a survival economy was put in place. Growing more food was the primary challenge. Castro announced that no piece of potentially cultivable land should be left unplanted. Since agro-chemicals were extremely scarce, people had no option but to use whatever biological inputs they could source locally. Cuba thus embarked on “the largest conversion from conventional, industrial agriculture to organic farming that the world has yet seen.”

The government began to decentralize food production and link it directly to consumers, minimizing transportation. Work places and institutions with any open spaces started growing their own food. For those lacking land, the local government helped provide cultivation rights to accessible plots. Farms began to deliver directly to ration stores, hospitals, and other consumption sites.

Many new markets were built where deregulated prices could be governed by demand and supply. This acted as a key incentive to increase food production. The people seized the opportunity and dug their hands into the soil.

State institutions too jumped into the act- the Ministry of Agriculture tore up the front lawn at its Havana headquarters, and planted lettuce, bananas, and beans. Employees working behind desks began watering and weeding to supply their workplace lunchroom. The country’s Defence Minister affirmed: “Food production is our principal task.” Instead of doing one year of mandatory military service, youth were given the option of working at one of the 93 army farms across the country.

In 1993, the Cuban government broke up its state farms to create smaller worker-owned and autonomously managed collectives. While land vested in the State, the workers had free, permanent use rights to cultivate it. Everything above the ground—buildings, machinery —henceforth belonged to the workers’ collectives. This proved a critically important step towards more decentralized self-governance and self-financing of agriculture in Cuba. Indeed, the smaller farms were more easily managed and better able to adopt sustainable agriculture practices.

The small farmers became the backbone of Cuba’s agro-ecological movement. Cultivators were allowed to sell directly to consumers after meeting any contracts they had with state agencies. The absence of price controls stimulated increased production. Many farmers were able to triple or quadruple their net profits!

Most rural homes now grow their own staples – rice, beans and root crops (cassava, taro, sweet potato) -- common in the traditional Cuban diet. Similarly, the cultivation of vegetables, plantains and other tropical fruit, together with herbal medicinal plants, has spread widely.

URBAN ORGANIC FOOD GARDENS

One of the most important strategies for increasing food self-reliance was to support the booming urban gardening movement. To do this, the Agriculture Ministry made another unprecedented move and created the world’s first coordinated urban agriculture programme that integrated: access to land; extension services; research and development; new supply stores for small farmers; and new marketing arrangements for their produce – all with a focus on urban needs.

By 1999, thirteen provinces of Cuba had broken their historical aggregate production records. Nationwide sales of vegetables and fresh herbs reached an average of 469 grams per day per capita, well above the 300 grams per day recommended by FAO.

In December 1999, the Swedish Parliament presented the Right Livelihood Award – or the ‘Alternative Nobel Prize’ - to the Cuban Organic Farming Association “for showing that organic agriculture is a key to both food security and environmental sustainability.” By 2003, the number of household patio gardens exceeded 300,000. In 2006, Cuba grew 3 million tones of food within its cities!

From Input Substitution to Agro-ecology

The non-availability of agro-chemicals from 1990 forced greater use of locally produced ‘bio-fertilizers’ like compost and earthworm humus. By 2003, the supply of vermi-compost was one million tons, while that of various other types of compost reached 15 million tons.

Cuban farmers diligently regenerated other fertility enhancing ‘bio-agents’, including naturally occurring strains of bacteria such as rhizobium, azotobacter and azospirillum, which ‘fix’ atmospheric nitrogen in the soil, thereby replacing inorganic nitrogen.

Surface biomass and the organic content of the soil rose significantly with the mulching of crop residues, the use of green manures and the planting of locally suited leguminous cover crops, shrubs and trees. This in turn supported growing populations of useful bacteria in the soil. Further, the increased use of oxen to plough the land- as tractors lay idle in the absence of fuel and spare parts- enhanced the availability of dung manure.

Collectively, all this greatly hastened the regeneration of soil fertility. While the initial thrust was on substituting agrochemicals with locally produced bio-inputs, a broader agro-ecological approach began to evolve.

Reinstating Traditional Practices and Polycultures

In the early 1990s, it was observed that only the small farmers, following traditional methods, could sustain their yields. They were far more productive than others. Dr. Fernando Aguilar recollects, “We thus began to revive the old traditions, restoring everything our ancestors had taught us, those same ancestors who never used any chemicals.”

Cuban farmers across the island found themselves adopting practices like manuring, inter-cropping, crop rotation, fallowing, the use of oxen for ploughing, and the selection of traditional crops replanted from farmers’ own seeds saved from the previous harvest.

Old, time-tested multiple cropping patterns, suited to local conditions, offer numerous synergistic benefits. For example, the legumes in the system provide nitrogen for the other crops to draw upon. The near complete vegetative cover on the land aids the regeneration of soil fertility, resists erosion, and creates favourable micro-climatic conditions for crop growth by buffering against strong wind, rain and sun.

The Emerging Global Scenario

From December 1998 to July 2008, the price of crude oil rose fourteen-fold! Though it fell back again, it is sure to rise sharply in the coming years, making the energy-inefficient model of industrial agriculture virtually impossible to continue. Last year also saw the release of the remarkable 2,500 page IAASTD report (International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development), following four years of study by a global panel of more than 400 scientists and 1,000 reviewers from 60 nations. It concluded: Business as usual is no longer an option

Without doubt, organic farming is the path to a sane future. As Dr. Peter Rosset, Director of ‘Food First’ Institute of Food and Development Policy, Washington, states: “Cuba offers the very first large-scale test of sustainable alternatives, before environmental realities mandate the rest of the world embark on a sudden, wholesale switch to organic agriculture.”

A fuller account may be found in ‘Organic Revolution: The Agricultural Transformation of Cuba since 1990’ by Bharat Mansata, Earthcare Books 2008. (www.earthcarebooks.com