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The government of Cuba is fighting back by going green. It is surrounding its urban areas with thousands of organic farms, as part of a five-year plan under President Raul Castro to make the country's food supply low-cost and environmentally-friendly.

The plan calls for farmers to grow fruits and vegetables, and raise some livestock, in four-mile rings around 150 cities and towns.

Bulk foods such as rice, beans, pork and plantains will still be produced mainly by state farms and cooperatives farther from urban areas, as will food for the capital, Havana.

The other day, as the sun same up over the beltway surrounding Camaguey, Cuba's third largest city, men and women were plowing fields with oxen, building protective coverings for crops, hoeing the earth and putting up fencing. The Camaguey area
is being used as the pilot project for the new plan.

The quaint little city, where horse-drawn wagons and bicycles outnumber cars and the 320,000 inhabitants take their time going about their daily lives, will eventually have 1,400 plots and small farms covering 130,000 acres, according to the agriculture ministry, producing 75 percent of Camaguey's food.

The project is modeled after the hundreds of smaller urban gardens developed under Raul Castro during the economic depression that followed the collapse of communism in Europe. Cuba's defense minister said at the time that beans were more important than cannons.

Only organic materials are used on the farms. The government is trying to revive soils threatened by large-scale state farming and salt from rising sea-levels.

State Monopoly Eased

Just a few minutes from the city, Mendoza said urban residents had joined the farmers to clear the brush.

Authorities hope small-scale farming close to urban areas will entice city residents, back to the land. Farming in Cuba has had a labor shortage for years.

The plan also seeks to save on the cost of transporting goods to market, rely less on expensive and fuel-consuming machinery and ensure a greater variety of fresh produce.

Mendoza pointed around the fields: "Look, on this side and the other side are other plots, and over there another. Here they have given quite a bit of land and support to private farmers," he said.

For the first time farmers can sell part of what they produce directly to licensed street vendors and consumers at stands set up every mile or so along the beltway.

Under the sustainable agriculture project, the government is leasing fallow state lands to some 100,000 mainly-private farmers. It has decentralized decision-making. It has allowed farmers to raise prices.

"The suburban agriculture plan aims at the rational exploitation of land around cities and other populated areas," Rodriguez Nodal, head of the program and the man who led the widely acclaimed urban gardens' development, said at a meeting last week.

Nodal called for the elimination of bureaucracy so that produce reaches consumers fresh and in good condition.


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