Cuba: Local Farmers Producing Food Solutions
Agriculture on this Caribbean island is still recovering from three decades of the "green revolution" characterised by a centralist policy that kept most of the 6.6 million hectares of arable land in state hands.
However, the authorities appear convinced of the need to adopt certain changes in the face of rising food prices on the world market, which will force the country to spend around two billion dollars this year on food imports.
"I think the country's leadership is closer than ever to letting us decentralise agriculture," Fernando Funes, coordinator of the Cuban Association of Agricultural and Forestry Technicians (ACTAF) Agroecology Project, told IPS.
"The fact that power is being given to the municipalities to work at local level is a great step forward," Funes said, about the creation in April of Agriculture Ministry delegations at municipal level which will be in charge of land tenure and boosting production.
Over one-third (36 percent) of Cuba's agricultural land still belongs to the state, but only 29 percent of that is cultivated, whereas nearly twice that proportion of non-state land is productive, according to the National Statistics Office (ONE).
Private campesinos (small farmers) and Credit and Services Cooperatives (CCS) made up of independent producers make the fullest use of their land, cultivating over 65 percent of it.
"Historically, everything was planned at the macro level and I think that led to failure," Ania Yong, a researcher at the National Institute of Agricultural Science (INCA), told IPS. She thinks solutions to the food problem will come from the lowest level. "Personalised local work has given us the best results," she said.
Yong is part of a team for the Programme for Local Agrarian Innovation (PIAL), an initiative benefiting more than 8,000 producers all over the island.
María Valido, one of the beneficiaries, told how contour farming and growing king grass (cattle fodder) with organic fertiliser on her land got her through the drought this year.
Several families in the valley of San Andrés, west of Havana, were able to save their livestock thanks to the grass she grew.
Meanwhile, Plácida Aldaz proudly showed off the 225 varieties of beans harvested on her land, some of them yielding up to 100 pounds per pound of seed, without the use of chemicals.
Aldaz, a campesina from La Palma, near San Andrés, and her brother farm dozens of other crops and raise palm trees and livestock.
Valido and Aldaz, both members of PIAL, participated in the Local Agricultural Innovation Festival, sponsored by INCA and held May 27 and 28 in the village of San José de Las Lajas, south of the Cuban capital.
"Farming culture has been lost in Cuba," Manuel Ponce, the coordinator of the Local Centre for Agricultural Innovation (CLIA) in Havana province, told IPS. "Many farmers now live in towns and cities, and their children don't want anything to do with the land."
Only 24 percent of the Cuban population lives in the countryside.
The rural exodus was, in fact, one of the consequences of the so-called "green revolution", an intensive farming system that left a legacy of one million hectares of land affected by salinisation, as well as eroded, compacted and infertile soils, and an "invasion" of weeds like marabu or aroma (Dichrostachys species) in the fields, according to Funes.
Furthermore, 43 percent of agricultural land suffers from medium to severe erosion, while over 1.2 million hectares, about one-fifth of the total, are lying fallow, according to ONE statistics from December 2007.
Funes is in favour of extending a system combining agriculture, livestock and forestry, which has had excellent results on several farms on the island. The method incorporates agroecology, is largely independent of inputs like chemical fertilisers and insecticides, boost self-sufficiency and respects the environment.
In his view, the old model of "vertical agriculture" which centralised decision-making or restricted it to state companies that would "tell people what they had to do" was responsible for much harm to the sector, because it did not take into account local farmers' specific talents or skills.
"But applying agroecology methods is not enough. Farmers need to recover their self-esteem and earn enough profits to make a decent living," said Funes. "There are a lot of people who want to stay in the countryside, because of tradition and their own awareness.
"I think campesinos should have greater participation in decision-making, and more use should be made of their wealth of knowledge," Funes said.
Yong, for her part, said that some farmers involved in PIAL had begun to hold positions in the structures that design local agricultural policies. Expanded production and increased family incomes are the arguments that have gradually convinced the authorities of the usefulness of the programme, she said.
"We have to promote agricultural innovation, distribute more land and give campesinos more support," said Ponce, who is also an INCA researcher. "I think that if these ideas catch on, all the problems can be solved."