Agroecology in Cuba before and after the revolution

Cuba (Image property of nbcnews.com)

Street of Cuba (Image property of nbcnews.com)

My journey as a writer begins with a departmental seminar given today at the University of Vermont in the US.  Armed with a pen and my notebook I crossed to the Davis Center, excited about the talk I was about to listen to.

As I went up the stairs to the fourth floor, I joined a big crowd that was lost amid the many conference rooms. They were all looking for room 203 without any luck. After a couple of minutes we were able to safely find the room, though there was another matter to resolve before the conference began: we were too many people trying to fit in a room that could hold at most 50 people.

After an apology and a bid for patience, the host proceeded to lead us to another (much bigger) room. Another few minutes passed before the last stragglers realized they had missed the coffee and donuts as they found their seats. There was such a turnout that some people even had to sit on the floor.

With a warm introduction of the speaker by both the host and the executive director of the Vermont Caribbean Institute, the talk began. With the mixture of charm and charisma that latin american people have, Dr. Fernando Funes Aguilar proudly introduced us to his country and reviewed the state in which agriculture was before and after the revolution in 1959.

When Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492, almost 95 % of the island that is known to us as Cuba had been covered with trees. As man colonized the island and the natives had been exterminated, the trees were cut down to make space for agriculture. Fast-forwarding to the years before 1959, only 14 % of the forested lands remained and the country’s natural resources were being over-exploited. At the time agriculture consisted in only one kind of crop: sugar cane.

After the social revolution, another revolution came: the green revolution. It consisted of a more aggressive form of agriculture were the input of chemical fertilizers is extremely high. By 1989, Cuba was adding the double amount of fertilizers to the ground than US or the rest of latin america. This green revolution was a revolution that was also implemented in India, with the same terrible results. To name a few: soil degradation which prevented crops from growing, more deforestation and low food self-sufficiency, among other effects. Most of the food of the country had to be imported.

In the 1990’s, things became worse. Cuba had joined the socialist block of countries and after their fall, support and materials from those countries stopped coming. Cuba had two options, to sit down and cry or to stand tall and work to become self-supporting. It chose the second option.

As Dr. Funes Aguilar told us, they now have reforested some of the land (24 % of forests), the have not only countryside farms, but also a new alternative: urban farms. Whole gardens and balconies of houses now grow fruits and vegetables. From 1994 to 2006 they now produce a 1000 times more food. Some of the methods in their program consist of teaching people and farmers to learn by doing and by talking among farmers. They use less fertilizers and have started using the soils own biodiversity to enrich their degraded soils. Vermicomposting (the use of earthworms along with compost) and the use of manure are now more common tools that farmers learn to use.

As I sat there listening to how proudly Dr. Funes Aguilar talked about his country’s effort in making Cuba a better place to live, I thought of all the countries that would benefit from introducing such practices. I thought of how much people go to sleep hungry because their governments are too busy getting rich to take care of their people. Perhaps some day they will learn and I can sit at another talk with someone proudly telling me how they are now better. Meanwhile, it is in each one of us to try to make the world better by taking care of the earth that is near us and by lending our hands to our neighbours.

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