Lessons from Cuba

Alison Blay-Palmer
Wednesday 23 December 2009 by LRAN

Editor’s Note: Canadian Geographer Alison Blay-Palmer looks back on a trip to Cuba to study urban agriculture. It documents how Cuba responded to a major economic and nutritional crisis by turning to urban agriculture.

The Período especial (Special Period) in Cuba and the innovation in sustainable urban agriculture that resulted is extensively documented achievements in recent Cuban history (see for example, Bill McKibben 2005; Cruz and Medina 2003; and Koont 2004 and 2005). This report adds a snapshot in time of Cuba to this literature. It draws on a research visit in the spring of 2005 to Havana and Havana province while Blay-Palmer was the guest of an NGO. During the trip she visited sixteen urban agriculture projects and research institutes. This paper documents and reflects on Cuba’s achievements as it emerged from the extreme difficulties precipitated by the fall of the Soviet Union.

Período especial

The impact of the Período especial should not be underestimated. As a Cuban woman explained to me, the fall of the Soviet system was catastrophic. In her words it was as if, "We had built the house and all we had left to do was put the roof on. But then the rains came and washed all of our work away."

Between the late 1980s and 1993 in post-Soviet Cuba, nourishment plummeted from near-acceptable levels (based on FAO guidelines) of 2400 kilocalories per person to about 1860 kilocalories (Koont 2005). Part of this shift was due to Cuba’s reliance on food imports and the focus on sugar as its primary export crop. Prior to 1990, sugar accounted for more than 75% of all commodity exports while at the same time Cuba relied on imports of wheat (100%), beans (90-99%), oil and lard (68-94%), rice (50%) and milk and dairy products (38%) to feed its people (World Development Bank 1986). The combined reliance on Soviet imports and Soviet demand for Cuban product was compounded by a series of blockades and anti-Cuban policy emanating from the US that began in the early 1960s.

Facing the food security crisis of the early 1990s, Cuba moved aggressively to restore food access using a multi-pronged approach. By leveraging existing human resources and research infrastructure, redistributing land, introducing low-input sustainable agriculture, and taking preliminary steps towards market incentives, Cuba emerged as a leader in the field of urban food production. While of interest in itself, the Cuban story raises many flags for people debating the merits of food sovereignty and acceptable levels of regional food self-sufficiency.

Leveraging human resources: Celebrating success

Thanks to a strong sense of community, social approval goes a long way in Cuba. Cuba has a vibrant musical tradition in part because of the support youth receive as they learn to play. Old-timers mentor up-and-coming musicians in clubs around Havana where their accomplishments are recognized and celebrated. Food is no different.

’Old’ food processing techniques were gleaned from the older members of the community by this 17 year-old Havana entrepreneur (Figure 1). The teen set up a canning operation in his kitchen to preserve fruit, grow herbs in tires and other reclaimed containers, and offer courses to other people in Havana neighbourhoods. He targets youth through his work but shares his learning with all members of the community. He was recognized for his entrepreneurial and community-minded spirit with several awards and was held up as an example to visitors as one of the ways forward in urban food preservation and processing. In fact, he was the first stop during my visit. He was experimenting with different fruits and had cans of pineapple and mango as well as different preserves such as jams. He also dries herbs for teas and medicinal purposes. In this case, there was an emphasis on human and social capital as the food community was rebuilt around the preservation of food.

The role of incentives and social approval was very important on the farms I visited. The primary incentive program was a ranking system that classified urban farms based on their participation in a number of progressive projects. For example, one farm I visited was the first farm in Havana to experiment with aquaculture. As they also had a high diversity of crops and an irrigation system, this farm had the highest rating of all the farms I toured. Each farm group, whether a co-operative or a family run farm, was quick to point out and proud to display their level of achievement. This system encourages infrastructure as well as technological and crop diversity as a way to build resilience. In this context, social recognition was critical to achieving goals of food self-sufficiency.

Another facet of social ties is the strong links that are forged between urban farmers and their communities. First, farmers are required to be self-sufficient and produce for themselves. On one farm I visited this meant that the three-person (wife, husband and cousin) workforce ate off their small-holding. For larger co-operative farms, kitchens were in place on-site and everyone ate a noon meal together. On one farm I visited, over twenty people shared their midday meal in a common eating space. I took part in several of these meals as people generously shared their food. During my visit, I was treated to delicious soups, bean dishes and ham sandwiches. These meals are genuine ’slow food’ experiences as farm workers break bread and socialize with one another. These meals help to build on-farm communities. The second farm obligation is to help feed their community as each farm is paired with a community organization - a hospital, a daycare, school or senior citizen residence. The farm must provide a set amount of produce to their community partner on a regular basis. In this way, urban farmers are strongly embedded in their communities.

Introducing sustainable agriculture to urban areas

Creating raised organic vegetable beds (known famously as ’organiponicos’), Cubans reformed degraded land and turned it into productive, enriched gardens. This allowed farmers to reclaim land. In some cases where buildings had collapsed - this was not uncommon as tens of buildings failed every year, the victims of insufficient funds to maintain them. In other cases, parking lots and brownfields were the sites for urban farming. Frequently, building debris was used as to contain soil (Figures 2 and 3).

Backed by the Ministry of Agriculture, the human resources mobilized to support the transition to sustainable urban agriculture were remarkable. In 1997 Havana had 67 extension agents, and 12 seed houses centred on TCAs (Tiendas Consultario Agricola or agricultural consulting stores) (Koont 2004). The goal was to ramp this up to 50 stores and 500 professional extension agents and technicians (Figure 4). The advice and surveillance offered by technical experts about pest and weed management, along
with input about seeds, soil improvers, and biological products meant that human know-how and diligence replaced chemicals. When I toured farms I was told that extension experts visited farms on a weekly, or if needed daily, basis to help inspect crops. This enabled early and targeted intervention in the case of disease or pests. This rapid, focused approach to support the conversion to urban agriculture represents a structural overhaul as the food system shifted from rural-based export market-dominated food production to urban food production for local consumption.

Technical innovation was key to maximizing the impact of increased human resources. A technical expert explained that Cuba was using many different biological approaches for pest and disease control including pheromone technologies. Direct and frequent links between farmers and government technicians created a more intensive agricultural system in urban areas designed to mitigate problems before they develop into crises. This also spreads knowledge as extension experts visit several farms so that improvements to systems such as vermin-composting spread from one area to another. Koont (2005) reported that as of 2003, the Crop Protection Institute operated over 220 centers to provide inexpensive and ready access to beneficial insects and microorganisms for biological pest control in plants. There were even simpler, lower level interventions. For example, one farm had a garden for seedlings that was enclosed in cactus to prevent rabbits from eating the young plants.

Vermi-composting looms large in Cuban urban agriculture (Figure 5). Worms crank out tons of top quality compost every year. This rich ingredient is key to the productivity of urban farms. In 2001, Cuban farmers generated one million tons of natural compost. By 2003 they were producing fifteen million tons of organic matter (Koont 2005). Compost is the basis for beginning gardens and remediating poor quality soil. On one farm I visited, they were experimenting with siphoning water from their compost and windrows to use as an intensive liquid fertilizer that could be applied in a concentrated form to give soil and plants a boost. This kind of ad hoc experimentation empowered farmers and seemed to be an important innovation, helping to improve resources for all farmers as ideas were disseminated through the network of technology specialists.

Redistributing land and rebuilding the food system

As a result of the unique political dynamic, Cuba was able to activate huge land reform to facilitate the transition to urban agriculture. In an attempt to get state land into the hands of smaller scale farmers and co-operatives, the Cuban government undertook a land devolution initiative. Between 1989 and 1997, this meant a shift in the type of farms. In 1989, state farms accounted for 80.7% by type. This fell to 48.7% by 1997 while the number of co-operatives increased from 8.6% to 39.4% (ECLAC 2001). In addition to making more land available to grow food for domestic consumption, land resources were leveraged in a variety of ways.

In addition to social and technological innovation, Cuba also had to devise new ways of managing land. As a result several different land management arrangements emerged. ’Unidad Básica de Producción Cooperativa’ or the Basic Unit of Agricultural Production (UBPC) was the land reform that altered the farm landscape as the land for UBPCs was converted from former state farms. The UBPC uses a co-operative model so that all workers share in the productivity of the farm and benefit from the sale of crops. In the Havana context, the ability to effectively market crops depended very much on ’locationŠlocation...location’. Two farms I visited were located near relatively more affluent Havana communities - one was in the embassy district - and were able to grow and market higher value-added products. In one case, farm workers were earning more than four times the basic monthly allowance guaranteed to all Cubans. To put this in context, the additional income gave farm workers more disposable income than doctors. This was possible because once urban farmers fed themselves and met their community obligation any surplus could be sold through farmers’ markets. In some cases these were formal market stands, in others, they were more informal connections with people in the community. The effect of these markets for Cuban citizens was increased access to fresh produce as they no longer depended on food shipped in from rural areas. Given the lack of fuel and parts for transportation vehicles, this empowered local communities and freed up resources for other uses. Another vehicle for change was the Patio Comunitario (community gardens). As Tores et al. (2006) explain, the Patio Comunitario initiative was developed to increase food security for the most vulnerable Cubans at the micro scale. The goal for community gardens was to have a production capacity garden for every fifteen houses. As part of this initiative, backyards, parks and verges were dedicated to food production. And no land was considered out of bounds. If someone wanted to cultivate a lot an occupant was not using for food, the person could apply to get access to the land. I was told that usually within six months a decision would be made about using the piece of land for growing food.

The achievements and challenges

Many gains have been made thanks to the Cuban drive to use urban agriculture to address food sovereignty challenges. The numbers back up the move to a more robust food system. Comparing 1989 to 2003, the Ministry of Agriculture reported the renewed use of animal traction power so that there were 2,400 teams of oxen labor in the City of Havana. There were also huge decreases in the amount of inputs as Cuba was using half the diesel fuel, ten percent of the chemical fertilizers and seven percent of the synthetic insecticides by 2003 when compared to 1997 levels (Koont 2005). By 2000, the daily food per capita had risen to 2600 calories per day, exceeding FAO recommended levels of 2400 calories. Remarkably, they were also meeting almost 95% of their daily protein requirements. By 2003, urban agriculture employed over 20,000 Cubans. It accounted for 22% of job growth between 2002 and 2003 (Koont 2004). To put the scale of the Cuban achievement in context, in 1997 it was estimated that urban agriculture produced 0.1 million tons of produce. By the middle of 2003, the country was on track to achieve 3.4 million tons of produce for the year (Lazo and Barada 2006).

Despite some remaining challenges, the acute food shortage crisis is essentially over. As a result, Cuba provides a leading example of large-scale success in moving a food system away from industrial style agriculture to urban based, local food production. While under considerable duress, Cuba made heroic efforts to construct its own version of a food secure space for its citizens, and has in some ways shown the way for other countries as they aspire to use urban agriculture. Of course, some problem areas remain, especially regarding milk, meat, and eggs, which continue to require imported animal feed that strain limited resources. Rice, usually grown on large state farms, has also consistently fallen short of planned levels of production. For example in 2003, Cuba was able to meet only 57% of its domestic rice requirements. Even in these areas, there is hope for the future.

A very encouraging technological development is the introduction of a new approach to growing rice called the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) known as SICA (Sistema Intensivo de Cultivo Arrocero) in Cuba. This new approach is promoted world-wide by, among others, the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development. In Cuba, this technology has been pioneered and tested by Dr. Rena Perez, Luis Romero and the Cuban Rice Research Institute. In field tests root numbers increased over 8 times and yields increased up to fourfold (Uphoff 2006) while seed, water, and petroleum requirements are reduced. Optimistic rice experts are claiming that Cuba is potentially on its way to self-sufficiency in rice.

New interstices for social, economic and technological innovation

While Cuba provides an exciting example of the potential for new food systems it is important to make some qualifications before discussing its relevance to other contexts. First, the climate of Cuba must be considered. Cuba has a year-long growing season in terms of heat and daylight given its mid-latitude location. This semi-tropical to temperate climate allows for your round food production. For example, potatoes are seeded in September for an April harvest. Second, there are unique political circumstances to contemplate. The transition to a stable post-Fidel Castro situation is well underway. However, there are substantial US interests who see Cuba as a potential branch-plant opportunity for food products such as citrus. As a 1998 Tampa Tribune article observed, "Before Fidel Castro rose to power in 1959, Cuba supplied the United States with a third of its winter vegetables, 3 million tons of sugar a year, and enjoyed close ties to Florida agricultural buyersŠ ŠCuba has several advantages, Spreen [University of Florida economist] said. The island has an abundance of fertile farmland and faces no threat of a crop-destroying freeze, plus Cuban farmers do not have to contend with the expensive environmental safeguards in place in the U.S. and other counties." (Willon 1998) While this does not necessarily represent current mainstream thinking in the US, it is an attitude that may have to be considered as new political realities play themselves out. Finally, the ability of the central government under Castro to rapidly realign land and human resources during the Special Period is not transferable to other countries.

So, while acknowledging these exceptional circumstances, there are take away lessons for other countries aspiring to integrate more urban agriculture into their food systems. First, there is huge value in empowering people and allowing them access to land to be more self-sufficient. Given current debates about the merits of re-localizing food systems, the power of putting land into the hands of people is important to consider. Second, there may be merits in connecting urban agriculture projects to community groups as a way to build social cohesion. Third, Cuban urban agriculture underlines the merits of low technology approaches to affordable, healthy, abundant food production. This is good news as the capital costs are relatively low while the benefits could be substantial. The Cuban experiment inspires others around the world to move in more sustainable urban food production directions. Meanwhile, within Cuba the more open-market experiment provides rich ground for Cuba to build on strong foundations of community participation and sustainable urban agriculture.


- ECLAC (Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean) and UNEP (2001) The Sustainability Of Development In Latin America and the Caribbean: Challenges and Opportunities. Accessed online November 24, 2008 at: http://www.eclac.org/publicaciones/xml/8/8688/lcg2145i.pdf

- Lazo, JT and Barada, JF (2006) ’Project ’Patio Comunitario’: a community initiative to produce sustainable food in Urban Agriculture for Green and Productive Cities’. In René van Veenhuizen (ed) for ETC - Urban Agriculture RUAF Foundation : International Institute of Rural Reconstruction; International Development Research Centre.

- Koont, S. (2004) Food security in Cuba. Monthly Review. Volume 55, No. 8.

- Koont, S. (2005) Cuba: Case study in food security, Organic Consumer Association, http://www.organicconsumers.org/OFGU/cuba010405.cfm

- Cruz, MC and Medina, RS (2003) Agriculture In The City: A Key to Sustainability in Havana, Cuba. International Research Development Centre. Accessed online November 29, 2008 at: http://www.idrc.ca/en/ev-31574-201-1-DO_TOPIC.html

- McKibben, B. (2005) The Cuba Diet: What will you be eating when the revolution comes? Harper’s, April 2005. Accessed online November 29, 2008 at:

- Uphoff, J. (2006) The System of Rice Intensification
SRI - A collaborative effort of Association Tefy Saina and the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development. Accessed online November 25, 2008 at: http://ciifad.cornell.edu/sri/listservs/sriricearchives/sririce092007.html#cuba14

- Willon, P. (1998) ’Earlier growing season, cheap labor lure farmers’. Tampa Tribune, May 12, 1998.

- World Development Report (1986) The Hesitant Recovery and Prospects for Sustained Growth Trade and Pricing Policies in World Agriculture: World Development Indicators PUB6134, July 1986, Oxford University Press.

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