During the 1960s the United States of America enforced a trade embargo on Cuba in response to the country adopting a socialist government in 1959. As a result Cuba relied on an alliance with the Soviet Union for food and oil. In 1989 however the Soviet Bloc collapsed and with it the supply of food, oil and agricultual supplies such as fertilizers and pesticides. The United States saw this as an opportunity to tighten its embargo, as a means to topple the Castro government, and banned all trade with Cuba. These events marked the begininng of severe food shortages across the country. Havana, with a population of around 2million people was hardest hit. Prior to 1989 Havana had no urban agriculture, relying completely on rural Cuba and the imports from the Soviet Bloc for its food supply.
Rather than face starvation, residents of Havana collectively began planting food crops around their homes. The Cuban Ministry for Agriculture supported this movement and set up the Urban Agriculture Department to oversee the aim of turning all derelict space in the city into a productive gardens. The department gave residents land for free on the condition that it be a garden. With no fertilizers and pesticides, the Department has assisted people by diseminating information on organic farming practices and biological pest contol. They have also set up centres to distribute seeds and organic fertilzers from animal manure and composted vegetable waste.
Approach The gardens approach all spectrums of sustainability. The planting of previously disused or derelict sites has greened the city, making it more attractive and more environmentally active. It encourages people to be outdoors connecting with nature. Organic farming practices connect further by teaching people to be more in tune with natural process and cycles in order to yield more crops. The collective crisis resulted in a collective response which has set up a stable social community, one that grows food for each other, not just privately. The popularity and expanse of growing in Havana has sparked more horticultural interest in young people, helping to disperse the population into rural areas, rather than just expanding the city.
Scale This project crosses many scales, from small private gardens to state owned and managed gardens. Most common however are the ‘huertos populares’ (community gardens), often of state owned land given to gardeners for free.
How The country’s innovative solution was a system of urban organic farming, the creation of ‘organopónicos’. They often consist of low-level concrete walls filled with organic matter and soil, with lines of drip irrigation laid on the surface of the growing media. Organopónicos provide access to job opportunities, a fresh food supply to the community, neighborhood improvement and beautification of urban areas. They are publicly functioning in terms of ownership, access and management, but heavily subsidized and supported by the Cuban government. The shortages of fuel enforced changes in mechanical farming practices to low-tech alternatives, such as using oxen instead of tractors and manual labour. Likewise the shortage of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers created changes in practice. Cuba utilised its scientists to establish biological pest contol program.
Challenges and Opportunities The urgency and adhoc development of the initial gardens resulted in some gardens being labour and water intensive. The long term sustainability of these sites will require attention. Those established later were planned with the benefit of the scientic input. The opportunities to come out of the is the willingness of scientists, community and governent to work together. This collaboration could now be applied to other areas of the community aside from food production.A positive additional outcome from this project has been an increased interest in horticulture and farming, particularly among young people.
This has seen the population dispersing into rural areas from the city (the reverse of what happens in most countries.) Of course, it’s important to acknowledge on that Cuba’s green revolution – as impressive as it may be – is not entirely replicable in other countries. After all, Cuba remains a state-dominated society with a high degree of social cohesion (or social control, depending upon your point of view). The question is whether a more liberal society without that kind of central command structure would be able to respond as effectively to a sudden breakdown in the food system. Perhaps the answer can be glimpsed in the resilience of the experiment. For people in other countries, the lessons of the Cuban success come not through the details of the systems, (which are society- and site-specific) but via the average Cuban citizen’s commitment to the ideal of local food production.