The Urban Farmers of Cuba

In Cuba, urban farmers utilize sustainable practices that help mitigate the economic realities of their nation.
By Silvia Ceriani
May 2014
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Called an "agricultural miracle," the urban farmers of Cuba have cultivated a sustainable system that has improved the lives of health of its workers.
Photo courtesy Slow Food

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Slow Food Almanac (Slow Food, 2013) argues that something valuable has been lost in this era of fast food and instant gratification. Humanity needs the pleasure meals made with love and attention, and from locally grown ingredients. A global, grassroots organization with supporters in 150 countries around the world, Slow Food International promotes the pleasure of good food with a commitment to their community and the environment. This selection highlights urban farmers on the island nation of Cuba.

Urbanismo y Comida

Necessity, possibility and will. With these three words, an urban farmer sums up the driving forces behind the Cuban “agricultural miracle” for his interviewer, Sinan Koont, author of the article “The Urban Agriculture of Havana”.

I visited Organiponico Vivero Alamar, a sustainable community food urban garden on the outskirts of Havana, on a May morning in 2012. The organopónico* was about half an hour’s drive from where we were staying, past old baroque mansions and Art Deco buildings, green parks and the blue sea along the Malecón.

An Exemplary Experience

The entrance to the organopónico — also called UBPC (Unidad Básica de Producción Cooperativa) — takes us into a shady area where crates of pineapples, okra, chile peppers, tomatoes, spices and spinach are on display, their prices listed in moneda nacional or pesos cubanos. There is a bustling queue of women, old people and families. The neighborhood’s residents do their daily shopping here, and when they have finished making their purchases, many treat themselves to a glass of iced guarapo, sugar-cane juice pressed to order.

Moving on from the entrance, we meet Miguel Salcines López, the cooperative’s president. A statuesque man, he has great ideas and a strong conscience. Miguel takes us through the history of food and production on the island, from an agriculture defined by monocultures to the collapse of the Soviet economy, which swept away machinery, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, means of transport, gasoline and diesel. During this período especial, it was seen as essential to become self-sufficient in food production, to grow food near the cities to reduce transport costs to a minimum and to adopt sustainable practices that did not rely on fossil fuels. In some ways, Cuba was prepared for this crisis: Since the 1970s, research centers and state institutions had been studying ways to live without using oil.

Vivero Alamar grew out of that crisis. Miguel has been here since the beginning, in 1997, when together with four other people he obtained the right to work a plot of 3.7 hectares. The land was uncultivated and seemingly worthless. But then came the “miracle,” clear from the current figures. The cooperative now covers 11 hectares of land and employs 162 workers, including younger people who see working the land as a way to a better life, university-trained professionals, more than 40 women and 35% retirees. The work conditions are good: seven hours of work a day, salaries of around 800 pesos (compared to the national average of 450), the chance to follow training courses and free meals from the communal canteen. This business clearly has a strong social impact, improving the quality of life of those who work here and the diet of the whole neighborhood.

Urban Farmers Diversify Activities

An exemplary, avant-garde model, the UBPC receives many visits from official foreign delegations, the media and farmers from other countries who want to learn the secrets to their success. As we walk around the property, we spot a group of Venezuelans armed with pens and notebooks. They observe carefully, ask questions and take notes. Alamar has much to teach.

Looking at it closely, we can see that this cooperative offers a kind of encapsulation of everything we have read and learned about clean agriculture and which clearly indicates that it is all the result of the choices that Miguel and his partners have made while studying, documenting themselves and re-estabishing an authentic contact with nature. A final mention of biodiversity: The urban farm is home to countless types of vegetables grown following a short cycle, with four to five rotations a year, plus tropical fruits, culinary and medicinal herbs like yerba buena (mint) for mojitos and Albahaca santissima, an unusual variety of basil used in the Santeria religion, brightly colored flowers in greenhouses, chickens and rabbits and bulls for producing manure. And all surrounded by Soviet-style apartment blocks. “¡Mira!, urbanismo y comida,” says Miguel. Everything is linked to everything else, land-insects-plants-animals, environmental-social-economic wellbeing, and everything testifies to skill and creativity.

*The word organopónico originated in Cuban Spanish and describes a type of farm developed in Cuba from 1987 on, before spreading elsewhere. Organopónicos are organic urban food gardens, and consist of raised beds of various sizes, constructed from low walls just a few centimeters tall and filled with soil and organic matter. It is estimated that Cuba is home to over 7,000 of various sizes, which fulfill much of the country’s internal requirements.

Interested in learning more about the slow food? Read Inside the Slow Food Movement.

Reprinted with permission from Slow Food Almanac edited by Silvia Ceriani and published by Slow Food International, 2013.  Slow Food is a global, grassroots organization with supporters in 150 countries around the world who are linking the pleasure of good food with a commitment to their community and the environment.

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