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Learnings from Agroecology in Cuba

Learnings from agroecology in Cuba
24/02/2020 Steph Wetherell

In this blog, LWA member Jayne Rotheram talks about a recent trip to Cuba and what she learnt about organic fruit and vegetable production there. 

I joined the LWA when I attended the Good Food March in London in 2018 – at the time I was working for the RHS at Wisley Gardens in Surrey, and was a student there for 1 year, working and learning about all things edible. Whilst working at Wisley, myself and two colleagues decided to plan a joint trip to Cuba to learn more about the organic fruit and vegetable growing there. The group included fellow LWA member Naomi Kashiwazaki, Kitchen Gardener at Loseley Park, Guildford, and Pavlina Kapsalis, Horticulturist with the Edibles team at RHS Wisley.


Plan for the trip

We were attracted to Cuba because of it’s political history and how this had increased the reliance upon and development of organic agriculture. It is often cited as a case study for sustainability and food sovereignty and we wanted to learn more about this and see what growing techniques and organisational systems were in place. 

To put Cuban growing into context very briefly; the Soviet collapse in the 1990s had led to the ‘Special Period’ in Cuba, when a lack of fuel and industrial agricultural inputs decreased production and led to food shortages. This forced the nation to make changes in land ownership and means of food production, with the promotion of lower input growing. This history, combined with the present day concern for the climate, the ongoing impacts of the US blockade and the system of cooperatives that is so widespread in Cuba, make Cuba a unique and fascinating place to visit and learn more about agroecology. 

Funding and organising the trip

In order to make this trip possible, we successfully applied for funding from the RHS Bursary scheme. As RHS employees we were very aware of this funding opportunity – however it is not exclusively for RHS employees and is open to both professional and keen amateur horticulturists, aimed at making travel and training possible for individuals or groups to expand their horticultural knowledge. 

Organising the trip took months of patient emailing to different organisations, farms and useful contacts. Our limited Spanish and the often long periods of delay between contacting and receiving responses made planning the trip challenging. We were helped hugely in the end by Margarita Fernandez and her colleagues at the Vermont Caribbean Institute, who coordinate the North American delegation to the conference we were hoping to attend. 

Independent farm tours

Upon arrival in Cuba, the first item on the agenda was to complete a week long training course, to be held at a government affiliated research centre of tropical commercial horticulture. The aim of this was to introduce us to the history and current techniques in modern urban agriculture in Havana. It had taken a lot of time and effort to organise this course, so we were disappointed when (cutting a long story short) we were unable to go ahead with it when we arrived. While we were sat in a dark office building (lights were switched of for a period of the day due to the fuel crisis), trying in vain to access international banking (unsuccessfully due to the blockade), we got our first taste of some of the challenges Cubans frequently face. In any case, we quickly improvised and, with a lot of help from our well connected host, were able to arrange farm visits for the week to a range of growers and organisations around Havana, from private farms to urban Organoponicos (a name for urban farming operations that can vary in size from small plots to market gardens), such as Vivero Alamar, a particularly productive and well established growing cooperative. 

During these initial farm visits we began to pick up on key elements of agroecological techniques that were being successfully implemented across Havana, and that we would continue to see through the rest of the trip. Examples include: 

  • An emphasis on biodiversity – including maximising the variety of crops grown as well as biodiversity of the land. For example, ‘mini jungles’ – the idea of having micro areas of multi-canopy plants to encourage in a diversity of wildlife.
  • Retaining independence and resilience – for example, saving seed to reduce the risks of being dependent on a fluctuating supply of commercially available seed.
  • Maximising soil health – often achieved through (mostly on-farm) cyclical systems, often utilising livestock for manure, sometimes accompanied with vermiculture.
  • Biological approach to disease management – we saw one site were they were growing ladybirds in a simple system and visited a small lab which produced bio controls that were available to small farmers

International conference of agroecology

During our second week in Cuba we attended the 7th International Conference of Agroecology, run by the Cuban National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP). ANAP has been representing and supporting small farmers since 1961, from the grassroots to national political level. The purpose of this conference was to demonstrate the work and organisation of the cooperatives represented by ANAP, the scope and practices of agroecology used in Cuba currently as well as the campesino-to-campesino training in place. The conference was attended by hundreds of delegates from around the world, and was part of a month long series of events run by ANAP. Translation was available.

Through visits to farms and a series of presentations and lectures, we began to get to grips with the incredibly organised structure of cooperatives within Cuba, which has been vital in producing up to 80% of the ‘everyday fruit and vegetables’ that are eaten by the nation, despite an ongoing fuel crisis and general lack of ‘conventional’ resources. We heard how in Cuba, growing food for the population was less of a choice than a matter of national security, which was a critical driving force for the models they have adopted that has led to such a productive system. 

In addition to farm tours and lectures, we learnt a lot through meeting a diverse range of people from around the world working in the agroecological movement in many different roles. It was inspiring to be amongst a group of people from completely different places, professions and backgrounds – but who are joined through a shared dedication to and enjoyment of growing good food well. For me, one of the great things about food growing is how it connects people, and highlights our similarities despite completely different life experiences.

Coming back home 

Learning more about the challenges Cuban growers face in getting food on the table was eye-opening, as was the level of organisational infrastructure within the cooperatives. It’s helped me to realise the potential of cooperative systems of working and how a well connected network of small farms can really produce a significant amount of food. As an aspiring producer, I returned home with a greater sense of connection to the international world of food growing, more determined, inspired and less willing to let the difficulties stop me from trying. Viva Cuba!

Photo credit: @brookeporterphotography 

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