Agriculture Going Back to Basics in Cuba
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- Business and Economy
- 08 / 26 / 2009
Training centers for ox teams are being opened around the central province of Villa Clara to produce more than 3,000 teams, Granma reported Tuesday.
Outside experts argue, however, that the root cause of Cuba's agricultural woes is a centralized state that largely controls what can be planted and when, provides inputs such as seeds and fertilizers and sets prices for the harvests.
"They know what the real problems are," said José Alvarez, emeritus professor at the University of Florida and longtime expert on Cuban agriculture. "But they pretend that they don't have any memory, and they think that we are stupid."
STATE OF CRISIS
Cuba's agriculture fell into an acknowledged state of crisis this year, with millions of acres fallow and many crops damaged by three powerful hurricanes last year that caused an estimated $10 billion in damages.
Cuba imports at least 60 percent of its food, including several hundred million dollars worth from the United States.
In an effort to turn around the low productivity and slash imports, Raúl Castro's government has loaned 1.7 million acres of fallow state lands to 82,000 Cubans and shifted Acopio, the notoriously inefficient agency that gathers and distributes farmers' products, from the Agriculture to the Domestic Commerce Ministry.
But in recent weeks the Cuban media also has been talking up the need to increase the use of ox teams, which had their first revival in the early 1990s, when the collapse of Soviet subsidies all but imploded oil imports and created shortages of spare parts for the island's predominantly Eastern European-made tractors.
"Let's forget about tractors and fuels for this program, even if we had them," Castro told the legislature this month, referring to the parcels being loaned out to Cubans in the hopes of increasing food production.
Calling it "animal traction," the Cuban media has been projecting the use of ox teams as a cheap and even ecologically correct alternative to tractors -- they do not compact the soil as much as the machines, according to the reports.
Varela was quoted as saying that the Ministry of Agriculture can count on 265,120 oxen "ready to work," which are "capable of supplementing and even surpassing the machinery in an infinite number of labors and types of plantings."
But he cautioned that the successful use of the ox teams will require several changes, among them improved salaries for the ox team drivers, blacksmiths, trainers "and anyone else directly involved in animal traction."
Horseshoes, for example, have been in short supply in Cuba since 1960.
Back in 2007, independent journalist Reinaldo Cosano Alén reported that ox teams were being used successfully in Las Tunas province in lands farmed by a highly regarded state agricultural enterprise, the División Mambisa Mayor General Vicente García González.
The enterprise was working 16,600 acres with 700 ox teams and 35 drivers, Cosano reported, while also manufacturing its own yokes, ropes and plows.
It even had the "ingenuity," to figure out how to add two oxen to the usual four-oxen teams to make the work easier on the animals as well as their human drivers.
Alvarez recalled that Cuba at one point imported Vietnamese water buffaloes to pull plows and farm carts, and added that the only crop blooming these days is marabú, a thorny bush that quickly takes over fallow fields.
The only way to efficiently increase agricultural production, he added, is to let market forces drive the sector. "They know that works, but they don't want to do that. So they go over the same old things -- oxen!"
The Miami Herald
Source: Miami Herald