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Organic fertilizers replenish farmers overworked plots
"If you work it properly, the land here can produce anything, and with a guaranteed market," said a farmer near the city of Santa Clara. "Cuba is an agricultural country. We should not have to import food."

The farmer, Rubén Torres, has had great success using oxen to plow and relying mainly on organic fertilizers and pesticides.

Despite Mr. Torres optimistic appraisal of the fertility of Cuban land, however, the island nation has been growing increasingly reliant on food produced elsewhere. Food imports grew 35 percent over the past two years, according to government reports from last December.

These figures, along with the rise in prices on the international market, have prompted acting President Raúl Castro to warn that it is essential to boost agricultural production. It has also led the government to become interested in spreading the use of ecological practices such as the ones used by Mr. Torres.

"This season I used around 26 tons of earthworm humus on my fields and I sold the rest to other farmers in the area," Mr. Torres said in a telephone interview.

His crops include vegetables, rice, coconuts and guava fruit. He belongs to the local Credit and Services Cooperatives and sells most of his products to the state. He said he believes in ecological farming practices because "they improve and enrich the soil."

Mr. Torres said it is important to fertilize land with organic matter, especially since most private farmers in Cuba today have small farms of less than 2 hectares, which quickly become overworked.

"Besides, the lack of inputs [such as chemical fertilizers] has helped convince more people about the advantages of agroecology," he said.

The degradation of soil is one of the environmental challenges faced by Cuba in terms of making agriculture sustainable. Experts blame the situation on Cubas sugarcane monoculture model, which has affected the economy of this Caribbean island nation since the 18th century.

"The wealth of our soils and a large part of our biodiversity have left Cuba, along with each grain of sugar that we export to"among other things"buy food," wrote agricultural engineer María Caridad Cruz in an article published in the Cuban magazine Temas.

"It has gradually disappeared with all of the vegetation we have cut down and with the agricultural techniques we have used," she added.

According to the agronomist, around 75 percent of Cubas farmland is degraded to some degree. There are 3 million hectares with low fertility and 4.6 million with extremely low content of organic matter. Salinity affects 1 million hectares, and medium to severe erosion affects 2.5 million hectares.

At the same time, given its high level of dependence on imports of agricultural inputs, the farming industry is among the sectors hit hardest by the financial restrictions adopted by the socialist government during the economic crisis that broke out in the early 1990s, euphemistically referred to as the "special period" that, as Raúl Castro clarified on July 26, has not yet come to an end.

Between 1989 and 1993, Cubas gross domestic product shrank 35 percent, while value-added agriculture declined by 52 percent, basically due to the abrupt cut-off of supplies from what had been the countrys main sources, the Soviet Union and the East European socialist bloc, Cruz said.

To deal with the crisis, which was caused mainly by the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European socialist bloc, the agriculture industry underwent far-reaching changes.

These involved new forms of land ownership and administration, including the 1993 creation of Basic Units of Cooperative Production, whose members have free usufruct of the land they work for an indefinite period.

At the same time, a program of land grants to families was launched, also involving the free use of land, with the aim of bolstering production for the domestic market and increasing output of export products such as tobacco and coffee.

These new forms of land tenure and production were added to the Credit and Services Cooperatives and Agricultural Production Cooperatives that have existed in Cuba since the first agrarian reform, which distributed approximately 20 percent of the countrys farmland to 200,000 people in 1959, after the revolution led by Fidel Castro.

The Credit and Services Cooperatives entail associations of small farmers, who continue to own their land but are grouped together with others to obtain better access to new technologies, as well as to financing and markets.

The Agricultural Production Cooperatives also entail associations of small agricultural producers. Farmers sold their land and other means of production to the cooperatives, which continue to own and work the land collectively.

The Agricultural Production Cooperatives also brought their members technological, financial and market benefits.

According to official data from 2006, more than 60 percent of land in Cuba is arable. But of the 6.6 million hectares of farmland, only 3.1 million are currently under cultivation, of which approximately 1.2 million are planted in sugarcane, 180,000 in rice and 806,300 in a variety of vegetables, fruits and grains.

From the point of view of property ownership, 449,400 hectares on which food for domestic consumption is produced are owned by individual farmers or members of Credit and Services Cooperatives, 182,800 hectares are worked by the Basic Units of Cooperative Production, 77,000 belong to the Agricultural Production Cooperatives and 276,700 are owned by state-run companies.

Last year was a good year in terms of rainfall and a lack of heavy storms in Cuba. Nevertheless, crop yields (excluding sugarcane) dropped 7.3 percent from 2005, when the island was suffering from severe drought. The livestock sector and dairy production fared no better.

"Necessary structural and conceptual changes will have to be introduced" to increase production, said Raúl Castro, who also mentioned the need to provide incentives for successful farmers.

To that end, the government began recently to pay higher prices to producers of beef and dairy products. During the first half of the year it also paid off large debts to farmers and adopted measures to keep from falling into arrears again.

A Cuban researcher who preferred to remain anonymous said it would be good for the agricultural industry, as well as for other sectors of the Cuban economy, to open up to foreign capital, in order to gain capital, technology and markets. "There is potential for that," he said.

He also suggested the creation of a market of inputs, equipment and tools for farmers to directly purchase what they needed" something that does not currently exist. In addition, he recommended fomenting greater participation and a stronger sense of belonging among the members of cooperatives.

He further called for "a process of decentralization ... because it is easier to seek solutions at the local level. Besides, what is good for one province might not be good for another," he said.

Cuban officials have not concealed their concern over the rise in import costs caused by the high international prices of basic products such as powdered milk, which now costs $5,200 a ton; milled rice, which costs $435 a ton; or frozen chicken, the cost of which has soared to $1,186 a ton from $500 a ton just a few years ago.


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