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Cuban Agriculture Getting a Second Wind
Every Cuban household debates ways to revamp the weakened agricultural system. Most of the formulas propose to assign resources to landowners, give land to those who want to work it and deserve to have it, or to solve management problems

"We have to delegate to the municipalities the decision-making authority that is now overly centralized and hampering food production," says State Council advisor Mario Flandor."We have to delegate to the municipalities the decision-making authority that is now overly centralized and hampering food production," says State Council advisor Mario Flandor. Photo: Roberto SuárezZoom

Everything, from increasing the incomes and living conditions of farmers to "planting women and men to the ground," were the leitmotivs of agricultural workers surveyed by the Juventud Rebelde newspaper across several provinces of Cuba. The paper carried out an investigation to learn the causes behind why the country cannot produce certain agricultural products and must import them at exorbitant prices.

"Before putting seeds in the earth, the people working the land should be provided with the basic living conditions they need. This is the only way people will stop leaving the countryside and enough people will want to stay on farms," says Maria Elena Ramirez, a farmer from Viñales, in the western province of Pinar del Rio.

This 32 year-old woman told us how a piece of land that was given to her family to cultivate tobacco changed their lives in all senses, since the only source of income prior to becoming farmers was the meagre salary of her husband from a local block factory.

Now, while her partner devotes himself to the growing tobacco, she helps support the family by raising vegetables, and thus feels useful and has the sense of being the owner of every plant harvested.

Many families like Maria Elenas have benefited from the allocation of user rights to thousands of hectares of land for the growing of tobacco and timber.

Today, overall, 60 percent of tobacco grown in Cuba is cultivated on land granted in usufruct. Farm workers labor under a contract, and if they dont fulfil it "or the land is needed for other purposes" the government has the right to terminate the agreement.

However, tobacco is different from any other crop. Its export guarantees that those who cultivate it receive a part of their payment in hard currency, though this is not the case for farmers cultivating other crops.

While aromatic tobacco flourishes in Pinar del Río, thousand of hectares of land remained neglected. In Cuba "an agricultural nation par excellence" 50 percent of the land lies idle or is underused. Moreover, a large portion of it is infested by the thorny marabou plant.

Agriculture ""the only real, steady and pure source of wealth," as national hero Jose Marti once said" has yet to be consolidated into one of our the nations main economic branches. This is why having people working and living in the countryside is an inescapable challenge.

Until the country achieves that goal, around $1.5 billion is being spent annually to import food that could otherwise be cultivated on the island. That number could increase, especially if one keeps in mind that since 2006, and especially over the past several months, there has been a marked tendency for price increase for these products to.
Fighting the wind mills

Pablo Fernández, an agricultural specialist from the Ministry of Economics and Planning (MEP), notes that the domestic impact caused by the recession from 1989 to 1994, caused agricultural production to decrease by nearly 50 percent.

Fernández explained that since the first Agricultural Reform Act until the 1990s, the agriculture structure in Cuba was based on intensive technologies that relied on the import of fertilizers, pesticides and machinery. Shortages of these, caused by the collapse of the socialist bloc and the tightening of the US blockade, were devastating.

Among the external causes affecting agriculture, Fernández cited the lack of macroeconomic and sectorial policies, the dual currency and comprehensive reorganization made in response to the deep changes undergone in the 1990s.

"The impact of the collapse of the socialist bloc provoked a complete dismantling of the productive systems of that time, especially in state-run enterprises, which operated over 75 percent of the land."

"To address this, in 1993 a portion of the land went from state management to management by cooperatives (Basic Units of Cooperative Production or UBPCs), using as their model the original 1959 rural collective - what are called Agricultural Production Cooperatives (CPAs).*"

"Together, along with this transformation in property management, it is necessary to readjust the production system - something weve not yet achieved," he said.

In the 1980s, Fernández recalled, 150 kgs of fertilizer were applied per hectare, the highest rate on the continent, even higher than in the United States.

"Suddenly, we went from 1.8 million tons of fertilizer to practically nothing. From that moment on we developed an agro-ecological movement to nourish crops and control infestations."

"This contraction produced a hole from which we have not been able to successfully climb out in a sustained way, despite the system of science and technology promoted by the Ministry of Agriculture (MINAGRI), which aims to provide a variety of seeds and technology to adapt to the conditions of austerity."

"In addition, irrigation systems were undercapitalized. The only ones that have increased are locally managed, those of the Urban Agriculture hydroponic gardens, but the systems of conventional agriculture fell apart for many reasons, one of them was the lack of maintenance," he acknowledged.
Give me the lever...

In order to find out how food security can be guaranteed through farm production, Juventud Rebelde newspaper consulted a multidisciplinary group of experts as well as a group of farmers from the Pinar del Río, Havana and Villa Clara provinces to learn their opinions.

For Dr. Carlos Lazo, a professor at the Hermanos Saíz Montes de Oca University in Pinar del Rio, it is vital to develop economic levers to boost productivity in agriculture.

"To achieve this, certain structural mistakes must be eliminated, but what must really be done is to begin to accurately assess the agricultural sector within the productive chain and to understand that it is not possible to speak of development in any branch if we overlook local development, which includes territorial autonomy," said Dr. Lazo.

Professor Ángel Zaldívar, a forestry specialist in Pinar del Rio, insists that research must be seriously undertaken and the results generalized in order to contend with financial limitations, threats to plant health and those posed by adverse weather conditions.

Providing idle lands to those who own tilling equipment and who are in a position to work the land "regardless of what they are going to grow" is another of the measures that must be taken to prevent having to import food that can be grown domestically, said Havana Province farmer Mario Fiandor,

Fiandor, an advisor to the State Council on diverse crops, assured that farmers do not care so much whether they are given the land or not. "What matters to the farmer is that they be left alone to produce in peace."

"A farmer was given so many hectares in usufruct some years ago, which is under a contract whereby he will lose that right to work land if he does not use it to produce food for the public.

"To solve the problem of food security and to obtain what can be produced from the land, many things have to be changed. However, production depends on each specific place. Not all land in Cuba is equal; there are even different types of land in the same municipality."

"Every territory needs a set of measures according to their characteristics, and to do that we have to give the municipalities a series of decision-making authorizations that are now centralized and an obstacle to food production," he emphasized.
The two sides of the coin

"I dont have complains about what the government gives me to work the 26 hectares of land I have, 13 of which are usufruct lands. Its true that due to my satisfactory output I receive preferential attention, but if they gave me more, they would have to turn around tell me to stop producing."

This was expressed by Francisco Díaz Machuá, one of the most productive malanga and garlic producers in the country. He is very well-known in the field for his farmstead in the Ubaldo Díaz Fuentes Credit and Service Cooperative (CCS), in Güira de Melena in Havana Province.

He recalled how middlemen used to besiege his farm to buy crops, since the officials in charge of management were insufficient. However, after the period of government non-payments ended and Acopio offices started to reorganize, "farmers didnt want to hear about those kinds of shady deals anymore."

"Payments are better now," he added. "A load of 2,200 pounds of malanga goes for $180 pesos now, and the same amount of garlic is $960 pesos, while sweet potatoes are between $30 and $40 pesos, depending on the time of year.

When asked about the necessity of a new agrarian reform law in Cuba, he did not hesitate, "We already went through agrarian reform, and it was fair. What we need now is for the government to lend lands that are not being used. We have all the necessary equipment, supplies and the conditions to begin working them."

Regarding the necessity of land, a completely different situation was found in the Ciro Redondo Agricultural Production Cooperative, in Batabanó (Havana Province), There, insufficient resources, the lack of a stable workforce and a shortage of electric irrigation systems have convinced farmers that allocations of 165 hectares is more than enough.

Formerly known for being an important supplier of highly disease-resistant tomato, beans, corn and soy seeds, the Ciro Redondo Cooperative used to achieve satisfactory levels of profitability. For a long time its average cost per weight was 27 cents. Now this figure is as high as 41 cents.

According to Joel León, president of this CPA cooperative, the formula to increase productivity and economic efficiency seems to have gotten lost under the impact of shortages and the instability of the workforce, which suffered from the failure to guarantee basic living conditions. "Housing, for instance, is one of the most serious problems they have, because most of them come from other provinces," said León.

"We have a lot of internal problems," he added. "For example, the organization and implementation of farming techniques and technology, the inappropriate use of resources, and the threats to plant health; but there are also external problems that affect us, such as the circulation of two different currencies in the country, the tendencies of international market, and the reduction of investments in our sector due to the economic crisis."

Of the more than 40 farmers interviewed in Havana, Pinar del Rio and Villa Clara province, those associated with the Credit and Services Cooperatives (CCS) said they were willing to work as usufructuaries, while those associated with the Agricultural Production Cooperatives (CPA) said they were not.

"For example, 13 hectares of malanga generate more than $1 million pesos, and all the profits are for the family. The same area in a CPA will certainly produce less, and the money has to be shared among many families," said Lázaro González, a small farmer from Villa Clara who was convinced that it is essential for people to feel that something belongs to them, especially when it comes to working the land.

The worst situation faced by the entities we visited was that of the Basic Units of Cooperative Production (UBPC). The lack of resources, especially those needed to recover the irrigation systems, has scared away the workforce.

In fact, many of these farmers have given back the lands they received from the government because they were not able to exploit them efficiently. This was to be expected. Although the UBPCs "together with state farms" own 65 percent of the lands, they produce only 35 percent of the national output.

"UBPCs were born with the stigma of indebtedness," said Omar Lastra León, manager of the Heroes de Yaguajay UBPC, in Guira de Melena. "When the UBPCs were founded in 1993, Cuban economy was going through one of its hardest moments. It coincided with the time of the highest levels of losses in agriculture. We inherited a complex situation."

"UBPCs have not been acknowledged yet as what they are: businesses that work under cooperative ownership. We have economic problems. Sometimes we have the money, but we are not allowed to use it," he added.

"We cannot use our profits to buy the things we need. Thats a real obstacle. We cannot buy the basic things to subsist. We, in contrast with the CPA cooperatives, are only able to manage our production, but we cannot buy anything," said Lastra.

Agriculture experts explain the inefficiency of UBPCs by pointing out that these kinds of collective projects are part of a larger process. In this process there are measures and solutions that must follow a certain order. Some steps have to be taken first, others occur later, and still others have to operate simultaneously. The essential, they said, is the coherence between strategy, policies and management.

"UBPCs are an example of incoherence," said Rafael Alhama, a researcher at the Center of Work Studies and Research, "and the main reason for it is the circumstances that surrounded their establishment. Strategies must always take into account the limitations, the quality of the soils, human resources, technological development, resources, social and working conditions, and management problems."

According to experts, the reason why independent farmers are so eager for land, while others feel that they cannot deal with large farms, is that when agriculture collapsed, those that were better prepared to face technological changes were the small farmers whose dependence on mechanization, chemical fertilizers, and irrigation systems was less.

"Traditionally, farmers have always used technologies applied to less intensive production systems," said expert Pablo Fernández, who also added that the reopening of the much less-restricted non-subsidized agricultural markets was a great opportunity for these farmers, who were able to make very high profits from very limited offers.

"But high prices are also a double-edged sword for productivity. The gap between the prices of the subsidised products distributed to the public through food rationing cards and those sold in agricultural markets is enormous. So why would farmers make additional effort to produce more when they can make greater earning through on the less restricted market?" But there is another element that doesnt fit in the system: "Where and how are these people going to spend the large amounts of money they make taking advantage of these circumstances?" wondered the expert.

The answer to this question can be found in the response of Alberto Bonachea, a farmer from Villa Clara. Like many other agriculture workers he thinks, "We farmers need a market to purchase the goods we need, that is the only way to put an end to the illegal trade linked to agriculture, which is discrediting the sector."
Land for those who really deserve it

Currently, farmers and cooperatives work 35 percent of the cultivable lands in Cuba. Of these, 225,000 own their land. The rest, some 350,000, are usufructuaries. Altogether they produce 60 percent of the agricultural product in the country.

Orlando Lugo Fonte, president of the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP), told Juventud Rebelde that the procedures for distributing land to people are plagued with illegalities.

"Over the last few years," he said, "officials granted and took away lands arbitrarily. There was no control over land distribution in Cuba. Only now are Municipal Land Registration Offices are being set up and put into operation. We had registration for everything else "cattle, materials, water, and so on" but surprisingly, land registration was missing."

"It was not that farmers sneaked in and seized lands; land was given to them," he explained. "Provincial governments would pass resolutions and the Agriculture Delegation would grant the properties."

"We even had cases in which people would grant lands without any paperwork at all, without keeping the mandatory files. Huge problems emerged; for example, some managers gave people a certain area to clear and work. A farmer might stay there for six months with his family, working the land, clearing it, cutting down the marabou thorns, and rearing his cattle there. Then, when changes took place in the administration of the cooperative, the new managers were not willing to be responsible for violations committed by the former administration and farmer had to be expelled from the land."
"What are the procedures in such cases?"

"In most cases we try to find a solution that benefits the farmer. We havent put anybody out on the street. Some people go beyond the permitted limits, and in those cases we take the lands away, but in most cases we have found alternative solutions."

"Many of them have been working and living in those lands for more than 10 years. Therefore, it is not fair to tell them, "You have to leave and find another way to make your living." They are just victims of somebody elses infraction of the rules.

"Many of these problems have come up for settlement; in fact, most of these farmers have been given contracts. Illegalities are less common now. In my opinion, we are ready to start distributing land to more people, but we have to do it in an unhurried, intelligent way, so as to find the effective way out to our problems."

"This is a very sensitive issue. These irregularities in land management, which are as dangerous to economy as having those lands lie fallow, teach us that we need strong discipline and legal bodies to operate in order to keep things under control."

Lugo also added that if the decision to lend land is finally made, the first to be considered should be those farmers who already own some land. He pointed out that they had to be very careful about the amount of land they grant, not to give farmers more than they can handle, otherwise farmers would start hiring more people than they should, which could turn into a form of exploitation.

"Many of them have only two to five hectares, and they have gained a lot of production experience; they have the workforces and other necessary resources. Instead of giving the land to a stranger, I would lend it to that man whos already there, who has his house in that area and knows the business."

"The best order to be followed would be: CPAs, UBPCs, farms with capacity to take care of larger areas, and finally, farmers who own some land and want more. We have 2,500 improved CCSs and each one can collectively administrate several hectares. This way, they can get the money to pay managers and other service workers.

"Well eventually consider the cases, rigorously analyzing each applicant, and never giving them excessive expanses of land, so that they dont become small landowners. Well even grant them permissions to hire workers."

However, Lugo Fonte thinks that in addition to the land issue, there are other problems that have to be solved in order to achieve food security aspired to in Cuba.

"We have to find the ultimate solution to management problems. I can assure you that we loss 30 percent of output due to the lack of containers, trucks, tires, etc. Also, when you go to the market to sale your products, the salesman there would say, "Im only going to take 2,000 pounds, not the whole load, because if I lose it, I lose money." This chain of individual interests ends up affecting the public, because they dont have food even when we have it in the fields."

"The key to dealing with the public food problems is to give resources to those who own land, to give land to those who want it and deserve to have it, and to solve management problems."

*The reforms in the 1990s included the creation of Basic Units of Cooperative Production (UBPC), in which members were given indefinite use of the land rent-free, and a programme granting the use of parcels of land for families to grow their own food, and to produce extra food for the Cuban domestic market. These new forms of land-holding and production were added to the Credit and Services Cooperatives (CCS) and Agricultural Production Cooperatives (CPA). The CPAs were the original rural collectives introduced in Cuba at the time of the first agrarian reform in 1959, which distributed land to 200,000 people, and authorized private ownership of approximately 20 percent of the countrys farmland.


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