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Cuba’s Harvest of Surprises

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Christopher Cook reports in Craftsmanship Quarterly:

In the fall of 1989, a full quarter-century before President Obama normalized US relations with Cuba, the Berlin Wall came tumbling to the ground in a flurry of sledgehammers and concrete dust. Meanwhile, an economic tsunami was brewing on the small Caribbean island. The Soviet Bloc was crumbling fast, sending shock waves across the globe that would plunge Cuba’s food and farming into years of austerity, hunger, and radical overhaul.

Earlier that year, the international socialist market terminated Cuba’s favorable trade rates—abruptly curtailing 85 percent of the tiny nation’s trade. Imports of wheat and other grains dropped by more than half; food rationing set in, and hunger widened. Soviet aid, a pillar of Cuba’s economy, evaporated as U.S. economic sanctions tightened.

Economic collapse led swiftly to agricultural crisis. Cuba’s industrialized farming system, fueled, literally, by Soviet tractors and petrochemicals, ground to a halt. Oil imports fell by 53 percent, and the supply of pesticides and fertilizers fell by 80 percent. Launching an era of austerity and reform known as the “Special Period in Time of Peace,” the Castro government “instituted drastic measures such as planned blackouts, the use of bicycles for mass transportation, and the use of animals in the place of tractors” to meet the unfolding crisis, according to a report by Food First, a U.S.-based think tank focused on food justice issues.

Cuba took a step back in time, transforming itself from an industrial farming machine into a traditional agrarian society. Soviet tractors, once ubiquitous on Cuba’s farmlands, were replaced by animal traction—oxen, horses, and cows. In just the first year of this change, the nation put 280,888 domesticated animals to work, according to a detailed study of Cuba’s agricultural transformation called “Agroecology Revolution,” referring to an agricultural science developed in Latin America.

Out of sheer necessity, an entire nation went largely local and organic. By 1990, Cuba began breaking up its big state-run farms. Much like its American counterparts, these industrial operations produced monoculture harvests, which were accomplished primarily with heavy machinery and fossil fuels. Now the government was issuing land use-rights, seeds, and marketing incentives to peasant farmers by the thousands. Over the next decade, according to “Agroecology Revolution,” Cuba’s farmers shifted to organic fertilizers, traditional crops and animal breeds, diversified farming with crop rotations, and non-toxic pest controls emphasizing the use of beneficial plants and insects. This blend of measures is part of a sustainable-agriculture approach known as agroecology. It’s often described as a promising innovation—which is a little ironic given that it draws on age-old peasant farming practices.

And in this case, the revolution was not born out of idealism. It was simply the only option on hand for a nation with no money to keep buying tractors, oil, and petrochemicals. “Necessity gave birth to a new consciousness,” explains Orlando Lugo Fonte, president of Cuba’s National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP).

Agroecology’s Big Harvest

Cuba’s agricultural de-tox represents “the largest conversion from conventional agriculture to organic and semi-organic farming that the world has ever known,” according to Food First. Across the countryside, a “campesino-a-campesino” (farmer-to-farmer) movement, growing more than 100,000 strong, shared techniques to stimulate production. Among the farmers’ guiding principles: “start slow, and start small;” “limit the introduction of technologies;” and “develop a multiplier effect” of farmer knowledge.

Great concepts, but what about results on the ground? By 2007, ANAP found, Cuba had stabilized and in some areas expanded food production even as farmers dramatically reduced pesticide use. While scaling back pesticides anywhere from 55-85 percent across a range of crops, peasant farmers produced 85 percent more tubers, 83 percent more vegetables, and 351 percent more beans.

Cuba’s farming revolution propelled the island from the lowest per capita food producer in Latin America and the Caribbean to its most prolific, says Miguel Altieri, UC Berkeley professor of agroecology. Writing in The Monthly Review, Altieri and Fernando Funes-Monzote, a founding member of the Cuban Organic Agriculture Movement, came to a dramatic conclusion: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 June 2017 at 12:10 pm

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