News Date: December 14 2016
By Debora Iozzi
Research Associates at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the tightening of the US embargo, the early 1990s saw Cuba facing a severe food crisis and a collapse of more than 30 percent of the island’s GDP. In order to tackle this grave moment, in which Havana’s government was unable to deliver adequate food supplies to the population, Cubans were forced to develop a new method of farming: urban agriculture, hopefully a sustainable way of land exploitation and food production.
Even though it was not the result of a deliberate government policy, but rather an unfortunate consequence of helpless events, the results of this new system led Cuban authorities to adopt specific measures to incentivize its expansion. This effort rendered the island a world leader in sustainable agriculture and its food production system became a model for other countries in the world to follow, especially developing societies that should be guarded against any damaging transformations.
A Model of Sustainable Agriculture Born out of Necessity
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba faced a grave shortage of oil supplies, which cut it off from cheap imports. The island was plunged into what was called the “Special Period in Peacetime”, further hardened by the relentless US embargo. Indeed, in 1996 the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act – also known as the Helms-Burton Act – strengthened the already existing embargo against the island, applying sanctions extraterritorially to foreign firms trading with Cuba.
The lack of fuel, fertilizers, and other farm inputs decreased agricultural productivity. According to statistical data, the per capita food production annual average growth was negative, by -5.1 percent, between 1986 and 1995. Farmers had to switch to predominantly oxen traction because of fuel scarcity. Oil shortages also forced producers to move closer to consumers since fossil fuel-powered transportation was limited.
City dwellers were the first hit by supply shortfalls, and, in order to effectively respond to the food crisis, they started to occupy unproductive state lands to produce their own food. Additionally, ordinary citizens used balconies, backyards, and roof terraces for cultivation and raising livestock. Furthermore, rural farmers, out of necessity, adopted agro-ecological methods due to the lack of oil-based pesticides and fertilizers.
Without having it as a main goal, they started to practice sustainable farming as a way of food production in order to guarantee nutritious and accessible food for everyone while natural resources are managed in a way that maintain ecosystem functions to support current as well as future human needs. This includes a full participation of farmers, pastoralists, and other rural dwellers who might benefit from the economic development.
Sustainable agriculture includes promoting urban farming, which improves food security and favors equitable access to resources, managed in the most efficient way. The Cuban government understood the potential of this spontaneous citizens’ initiative. The government soon started supporting and encouraging urban agriculture through a number of measures, which entailed the revision of property rights, a significant change for the socialist system.
Cuba went through a drastic revision of the work paradigm: it shifted towards a decentralized production model and an acceptance by farmers that they obtained benefits from their own labor. The possibility of gaining from their efforts functioned as a major incentive for workers who had a greater interest in maximizing their production.
The reorganization of agricultural production consisted mainly in converting the large state farms into smaller, more efficient, cooperative farms and distributing land in usufruct to small producers. Farmers had the right to enjoy the use of the soil and take advantage of its products, without necessarily owning the land.
The aim of the Cuban leadership was to improve agricultural production and cut, if not eliminate, food imports into the country. For this reason, it supported the creation of the Department for Urban Agriculture at the Ministry of Agriculture in 1994 and of the National Group for Urban and Sub-urban Agriculture (GNAU) in 1998. The GNAU coordinates and promotes the development of sustainable urban agriculture in Cuba and was charged with encouraging the recycling of nutrients and wastes. It frames guidelines with agro ecological principles and directives for individual production of compost and seeds, local use of resources, and organic plant protection for Cuban producers.
Later in 2008, the newly installed government of Raul Castro adopted Law Decree 259, a land reform targeted at the distribution in usufruct of unproductive parcels. In 2011, Lineamientos, a reform package aimed at modernizing the Cuban economy placed a large emphasis on agricultural production. In 2012, Law Decree 300 provided for the construction of buildings on the usufruct land, and the planting of forests and fruit trees.
The government, moreover, started to work on creating additional commercial possibilities for farmers, providing training and access to agricultural inputs. The promotion of Cuban agriculture had become so important that domestic food production was declared a national security issue.
For full story: Caribbean News Now