For a country that responded to severe energy crisis by switching to organic, localized agriculture, the fruits of the revolution must be protected from the coming peace.
For those trying to imagine life without oil, Cuba has proven the solitary example of a country successfully de-industrializing.
Confronted with the collapse of aid from the Soviet Union and ever-tighter U.S. sanctions in the early 1990s, the Castro regime was forced to scupper its centrally-planned, fossil-fuel-driven agriculture and rediscover sustainable and green farming practices.
The solutions developed by a young generation of farmers and agronomists – including urban farms in vacant lots in the capital, Havana, and a network of producers across the country – now provide 80% of the country with predominantly local, organic produce and helped turn Cuba into an unintentional leader of the green movement.
And yet, scarcely has this revolution been achieved, but it is under threat — not from the imperial machination of America (a popular theme in Communist circles) but from the promise of Cuba’s re-integration into the world economy, raised by President Barack Obama at the recent Summit of the Americas.
The problem, say the leaders of Cuba’s green movement, is that opening up trade will flood the country with cheap oil and with it a return to an industrialized food supply. Recent subsidized oil imports from Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez have led to an increase in the use of fertilizers.
“Industrialized food production in Cuba means centralized planning and control. The government never wanted to give up control, and now with more oil, we may see the independence that localized, sustainable agriculture produces being undermined,” said Fernando Funes Monzote, a leading agronomist at the Indio Hatuey Experimental Station, University of Matanzas.
The solution, says Monzote, is for the government to develop a strategy that enshrines sustainability at the heart of agricultural policy, a recognition so far absent from the cabal of soviet-trained generals that surrounds the current president, Raul Castro (the current agriculture minister is also a general in the army).
But to do so will mean Castro relinquishing some of his centralized control. In a country where every act carries a political significance, can agricultural policy become a testbed for what will emerge after the Castro brothers finally depart the scene? And can the gathering momentum in the Obama administration towards lifting sanctions against Cuba be expected to protect the delicate emergence of Cuba’s green movement?
Fernando Funes Monzote recognizes the contradictions of Cuba’s green movement only too well.
“On the one hand, we need the power of the central government to defend sustainable agriculture. On the other, we need the government to cede some of its traditional powers in food production,” said Monzote in his small office on the top floor of his family home in Havana’s old diplomatic quarter.
The fresh-faced, 38-year-old Funes Monzote, who earned his Ph.D. from the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands, embodies the energy of the sustainable agriculture movement and speaks the measured words of a veteran of clashes with the Cuban regime.
In a country where private enterprise is largely nonexistent – witness the shopless streets of downtown Havana – and decaying state-run factories line the city’s outskirts, agriculture is one of the few areas where the government allows for innovation.
Working with his father, Fernando Sr., himself a respected agronomist, in the early 90s, the two men were instrumental in introducing sustainable agriculture to the country.
Fernando Sr., a dapper 68-year-old who now acts as Cuba’s unofficial agriculture ambassador, shuttling visiting academics around the city in an ancient Lada, recalled the period immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Agricultural production in Cuba, dominated by sugar cane production for export, following Spanish colonial practice, shrank from 88.1 Million Metric Tonnes in 1990 to around 2.2 MMT in 1993. Supplies of corn, Cuba’s other main product and a staple of the Cuban diet, fell by 70%. In Havana, the average caloric intake over the same period fell from 3,052 calories per day to 2,099. Some reports suggest that many were surviving on only 1,500 calories a day.
“The government was desperate. The state-run farms were not able to feed people; there was no petrol for the tractors. People were starving. They turned to us and said, ‘How can we feed the country?’” said Fernando Sr.
The answers developed by the two Fernandos and a small band of farmers involved a radical reversal of communist policy. Decentralization of agriculture and the break-up of collective farms were at the top of the agenda. A network of small-scale producers with the flexibility to respond to local food markets would replace collective farms.
Next came diversification, moving from acres of one crop planted in monoculture to rotational crops capable of restoring soil fertility–seriously damaged in many areas by fertilizer overuse. Mixing complementary crops bolstered natural resistance to pests, a technique that drew on neglected traditional practices as well as the experiments carried out by the two Fernandos and the new generation of agronomists.
The final component of the agricultural revolution was what Fernando Funes Monzote called “people participation”: the movement to educate and engage local communities in sustainable agriculture. In 1992, the Asociacion Cubana de Agricultura Organica, or ACAO, was formed as a national organization to share knowledge and promote a countrywide understanding of the value of organic farming.
By the end of the 90s, ACAO could claim that sustainable agriculture had solved the food crisis: 90% of food was being produced organically on a network of 500 farms.
In Havana, urban agriculture – the practice of using small, vacant plots of land to grow vegetables – fed almost 80% of the city.
At the UBPC Organopónico-Vivero Alamarin on the eastern outskirts, Miguel Angel Salcines, a former bureaucrat turned farm manager, recounted the mood when he and a team of twenty workers began farming with rudimentary tools and little knowledge:
“We were fighting to save ourselves. For some of us it felt like we were reliving the revolution.”
However, it was this sort of idealism, which for some evoked the early years of Fidel Castro’s rural-based revolution in the ‘50s, that attracted the suspicions of the latter day communist party.
In 1999, ACAO, by then a 30,000-strong organization, was awarded a Right Livelihood Award (known as the alternative Nobel) for its pioneering work (http://www.rightlivelihood.org/gao.html).
A few months later the organization was closed down by the Castro regime.
“They saw ACAO as a political threat, but there was never any political intention behind the movement. It’s just that we’d gone straight to the people and bypassed the usual apparatus of government, and this made them nervous,” said Fernando Funes Monzote, who had been an active organizer of local farmers and now found himself deeply disillusioned with government policy.
Although his father continued working with the farmers, Fernando decided to leave the country. In 2008, he completed his Ph.D. at Wageningen University in Holland. He returned to Cuba in 2008 with a renewed sense of purpose, inspired in part by the growing international recognition of what the sustainable agriculture movement in Cuba had achieved. He also brought back some important lessons from his run-in with the government.
“We work a lot more closely with the Communist party now. A lot more of our time is spent talking to government,” said Monzote.
“They’re beginning to see that sustainability is not a threat, that sustainability can be a core value of socialism.”
The change in attitude was evident early last year at a Havana conference held by the Cuban Association of Agriculture and Forestry Technicians – the body in charge of sustainable agriculture – to introduce government officials to some of the key advocates of sustainability.
Professor José Fernando Martierena Hernández of the Universidad Central de las Villas, who runs Centro de Investigación y Desarrollo de Estructuras y Materiales (CIDEM), an organization that teaches communities to build houses from local materials, said the government is beginning to see itself as a market leader in sustainability.
Hernandez’s work in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, when CIDEM moved rapidly to construct emergency shelters from reconstituted wood, won plaudits from the Castro regime as well as a World Habitat Award (http://www.worldhabitatawards.org/winners-and-finalists/project-details.cfm?lang=00=986C2BBF-15C5-F4C0-99A7AA69AEC53694).
“In the last few years the government has begun to respond to the idea of sustainability. Fidel himself has said this is the direction the country should be moving forward in,” said Hernandez.
But from Fernando’s point of view, though he welcomes government platitudes, he has yet to see the government adopt a consistent strategy for sustainability.
He is worried that unless the ideas that he and others like Hernandez are propounding are developed into an over-arching strategy, the advances made toward sustainable living may be quickly lost.
“Have the ideas of sustainability successfully permeated the regime’s thinking?” asked Monzote. “If sanctions lift and we have lots of oil again, will the government continue to support our agriculture?”
As Monzote cedes, the temptation may prove too strong for a regime built on the power of a centrally-controlled economy.
But Monzote believes he has an answer: “Cuba has commanded the world stage in its opposition to American capitalism. If we can convince our leaders that sustainability gives us a new platform for leadership and for renewing the revolution, I think we can succeed.”