Insights on Food Sovereignty from Cuba

Reader Contribution by Eugene Cooke and Grow Where You Are
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Some experiences in life depend on our involvement. Much about our state of health is dependent on our environment. How we interact with our environment is dependent on our perspective. Perspective is an internal experience and quality.

As our mother planet heats up and the political body of humans is focused on conflict, it is only our inner world that we can control. We can redirect our attention to become dependent on what is in our souls, rather than in our hands, what is in the seed and soil, rather than the courts and board rooms.

Inner dependence can lead to sovereignty. It demands intention, awareness and practice. Often when we travel to a place that is new to us, our senses get sharp and our awareness awakens. This reaction is primarily for safety. We want to remember streets and roads, new addresses and landmarks along with new faces, names and language. This heightened awareness stimulates other thinking capacities as well.

Recently two members of the collective Grow Where You Are were selected to visit Cuba with on a food sovereignty tour. This exciting honor is still fresh in the hearts and minds of Nicole Bluh, Operations Coordinator, and Maricela Vega, Agroecology Intern. Below each of them shares a bit of their reflections about local food systems and the people at the center of them.

Cuba is in an energized transition at the same time that the toxic conspiracy of the corporate agribusiness system is being unmasked.

Insights from Maricela Vega, Grow Where You Are Agroecology Intern

My country of birth is USA, though my blood streams Mexican heritage and I am a first-generation American woman of 27 years of age. I am still seeking to understand real independence and doing it through the coursework of what most would consider as “not so traditional” work fare.

My work involves understanding this lost meaning of what it is to be a sovereign thus independent being in this current state of society. It has a meaning tied to your freedom to be a healthy, educated being with the opportunity to possess property or land that is used to aid your choice of way of living and how you choose to determine your position in economic stances.

Grow Where You Are, in partnership with Food First, provided me a scholarship opportunity to travel to Cuba during its most recent developing economic and social state of governing as an independent social country in the western hemisphere. With the embargo being lifted earlier this year, Nicole Bluh and I went during an unimaginable post­-Cold War/Millennial time period just 6 months into open doors to American travelers.

We traveled with Food First, a pro-­sovereignty, pro-campesino international organization, to learn a different perspective of sovereignty. The trip included the meeting of over 15 different communities of Cuban growers, helping to confirm my views of independence. Cuba has established land grants to the people for the sake of providing food for themselves and contributing to both economics and the society. This introduced me to the underestimated power and benefit of community practice that societies such as Cuba embody daily.

In Cuba, food security becomes a natural priority and basic need in the communities. From individual state food rations distributed via CDR (revolutionary community defenses), to upholding Organoponicos (organic community farms), and shedding light on the main source of survival, which is the Grower.

In Cuba, a food producer is not undervalued as they are in the U.S. The growers are the majority in the General Assembly, which aids in Cuban legislature. The growers are currently being advised to pursue farming wherever there are empty, unused lands.

After the 1990’s collapse of their supporter country formerly known as the Soviet Union, the increased pressure of NAFTA in the Americas, as well as global economic issues, Cuba felt more inclined to reintroduce and revolutionize food sovereignty as a social solution. Despite an American embargo being “lifted”, Cuba is not allowed to export to the USA though the USA is allowed to export to Cuba. This makes economic trade difficult with a Western neighboring country, such as the USA. This reinforces the concept of agroecology in community as a staple of economic revolutionary grounds

Please read and engage with the words from these women as they share their travels within Cuba. Interdependence is another possible interpretation of INdependance.

We all contribute to the current global food system as consumers, producers or both. This food system operates through food regimes that  have defined land borders, currency and warfare for centuries. How do the growers participate at this time when academics, advocates and activists compete for a position to represent them rather than support, celebrate and listen to the ones who grow our food?


Insights from Nicole Bluh, Grow Where You Are Operations Coordinator

Cuba is at a precipice right now between coming out of their Special Period, where they had to completely restructure their agricultural and manufacturing sectors after the break up of the USSR, and the entrance of multinational corporations as well as a huge increase in tourism.

Before the 90s, they were growing mainly sugarcane for export while using more chemicals per area than any other nation in the world. When the USSR broke, which was their main buyer of sugar and supplier of agricultural inputs, they lost their client and also lost imports from them. This is where they had been importing most of their food supply. Quickly Cuba had to work to rebuild their agricultural system with what they had available, to feed their people. The times were lean.

Going through and coming out of these lean times, with access now to cheap oils, wheat and meat, contributes to the degradation of their cultural healthful diet. During the Special Period, Cubans caloric intake dropped very low, although everyone had something. With 2014 agrarian and land reforms from Raul Castro that are set up to get the people back into agriculture and onto the land, and the beginning of the lift of the U.S. embargo on Cuba, there is much change afoot.

While there is a major push in investments into input-heavy industrialized agriculture once again, there is a very solid grassroots movement of agroecology and permaculture spreading. These permaculture and agroecology communities are demonstrating the rich quality of life  and health that can come from deciding to return back to the live and work with land in Cuba.

If someone had told me that in 7 years I would be traveling to Cuba as a grower and representing a collective of urban growers from Atlanta, with someone I was having an educational exchange with (our apprentice, Maricela Vega) I would have been stunned. Considering the turnaround I have had in consciousness, in my health and skill set, however this does make sense.

Through this process of learning to live a life based in agriculture, I have been immersed into the depths of how agriculture is the base of our entire system and the field in which almost every ill we face in our society can be worked out.

The externalized costs of any system are most often most blatantly felt by the laborers.  This is reason for many, worldwide to decide to not move into the field of agriculture, either because the compensation is poor, there is no longer access to arable land, or the image or status is no longer desirable.

Cuba is opening access to land; however, the desire to be in the field of agriculture is still low, and Cuba is moving forward with the industrial agriculture investments so as to ensure a food source for their people.

A major reason for the degradation of the symbol of agriculture as desirable work is because of the effects of the U.S. export of a system based on slavery and theft. As labor workers in the food system, we have been discussing and working with some of the most pressing issues such as land access, marketing of vegetables, environmental degradation, racism, health, respect for the labor, etc.

This connection to Food First has brought us into a global movement and community of growers who realize that for true positive change to happen in the food system, the growers must be in leadership.

Photos by Nicole Bluh and Maricela Vega

Eugene Cooke presents the “Grow Where You Are” workshop series and book in partnership with the organization m.a.m.a. earth. After years of working as an independent contractor supporting urban agriculture organizations, Eugene established Grow Where You Are, LLC, to create a structure for the collaborative efforts of local food heroes to yield tangible results. The main hub for Grow Where You Are is the Good Shepherd Agroecology Center in Southwest Atlanta, Ga., where clean food is grown in a system that preserves the ecology and supports the people. Read all of Eugene’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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