Urban Agriculture and Sustainability | Post 2/6
Sun, cigars, communism and Che [Guevara]. All about as Cuban as you can get. The largest island in the Caribbean undoubtedly holds distinct charm. But what travel guides fail to mention about this tropical paradise is that in the roots of its infamously turbulent past, the seeds were sown for a vibrant urban agricultural movement to blossom. One that is a testament to the resolve of the Cuban population and an example to the rest of the world.
Following the fall of the Soviet Bloc in 1989 and continuation of the US trade embargo (known in Cuba as ‘el bloqueo’ for ‘the blockade’), Cuban trade was decimated; plummeting the island into a devastating economic crisis. This period of economic turmoil between 1991 and 1996 is referred to as the ‘Special Period (‘Periodo Especial’) and brought about substantial reforms for the island. National imports dropped 75%; decimating food commodity imports as well as quantities of chemical fertilisers which, in turn, reduced large scale agricultural productivity on the island.
With diminished food availability, but unwavering demand, food prices soared, accompanied inevitably by escalating food insecurity. Unsurprisingly, the urban poor, lacking access to alternative food sources, were, in many cases, the hardest hit. Driven by the inability to purchase enough food to fill the plates of their families, many of Cuba’s urban population, armed with shovels, began cultivating rooftops, backyards and balconies – any space between the concrete large enough to harvest.
In the soil of necessity, urban agricultural movements in Cuba bloomed. Grassroots horticultural clubs and community gardens burst forth; growing foods from tomatoes, lettuce to beans and beets, to name but a few. These community networks facilitated the sharing of agricultural knowledge and resources, enriching social ties between neighbours and sharing agricultural knowledge among the population; propelling urban food production to new fertile heights.
Recognising the remarkable contribution that urban agricultural practices could make on food insecurity within the country, the Cuban Government relaxed agricultural regulations and in 1994 created a designated Urban Agricultural Department. Educational and training programmes were established to further promote the activity, with subsequent reforms allowing any citizen the ability to request the use of vacant land to cultivate. In Havana, the capital, the city provided at least 2,000 hectares of land that would otherwise sit unoccupied for its citizens to cultivate. This energised and empowered system, of now over 350,000 urban farmers, grow a bountiful source of food produced by, and for, the vulnerable urban poor1.
Although quantities of food cultivated from urban agriculture certainly fall short of supplying enough food to sustain an entire household, it nevertheless importantly supplemented the food bills of those engaged, somewhat alleviating the economic choke-hold that gripped the country. Furthermore, the diligent support of urban agriculture from the Cuban gGovernment, by removing barriers to land cultivation, catalysed the economic development of urban districts with histories of high unemployment as well as empowering women. Many producers diversified their crops into non-subsistence crops, such as sugar, supporting their livelihoods through trade at strong and vibrant local markets.
This transition from principally food consumers to food producers provided Cubans with greater control over their consumption patterns. Embracing their increased freedom of choice, communities have been able to farm and consume a greater variety of healthy and nutritious foods that were once constrained by their unaffordable market prices and perishability.
Moreover, the dramatically reduced quantities of chemical fertilisers imported to Cuba inadvertently promoted organic, sustainable and healthy methods of urban production; a practice termed as ‘organoponics’. The technique utilises organic sources of nutrients and well-adapted varieties of crops to ensure the maintenance of fertile urban soils.
The overwhelming success of urban agriculture in Cuba has led the practice to be firmly rooted in the lives of many of Cuba’s urbanites still today. Despite the unique economic conditions undoubtedly catalysing its adoption, the socio-economic benefits of urban agriculture to the Cuban population have been direct, far-reaching, and importantly, are easily replicable globally. Not just directly countering the growing food insecurity, urban agriculture has also provided a seed of hope for many of the poor and marginalised urban populations. The active support from the Cuban Government has been critical in ensuring the activity can take root and bloom. Comparable support will be equally vital if the activity is to take off in the west and unlock the fertile ground of cities.
However, with US relations in 2015 taking substantial strides forward, and trade restrictions lifting, it remains uncertain whether the huge adoption of urban agriculture in Cuba can weather the allure of low-cost mass-produced food straight from the global food conveyer belt…
Max Russell is a graduate student in Urban Management and Development at the Institute of Housing and Urban Development Studies in Erasmus University Rotterdam, and has a background in BSc Geography. He has an interest in areas of sustainable development including the circular economy, food security, climate change and community-based renewable energy. He is currently writing his masters thesis on governance arrangements to promote the circular economy. He loves long evening walks in the moonlight and 18th century French poetry, amongst other things.
In this blog:
Part 2/6: Viva La Agricultural Revolución! Urban Agriculture in Cuba.
Part 3/6: Crops From Concrete. Growing movement in the West. (Incoming)
Part 4/6: Race To The Table. Food sovereignty and urban agriculture. The Case of Detroit, USA. (Incoming)
Part 5/6: The ‘Foodie’ Chain. (Incoming)
Part 6/6: Looking UP Going Forward. (Incoming)
ViissiArt: Signe Westi, Made for Viissi
(1) Febles-González, J.; Tolón-Beccerra, A.; Lastra-Brava, X.; Acosta-Valdés, X. (2011). ‘Cuban agricultural policy in the last 25 years: From conventional to organic agriculture’. Land Use Policy. Vol.28(4) pp.723-735.
(2) Altieri, M.; Companioni, N.; Cañizares, K.; Murphy, C.; Rosset, P.; Bourque, M.; Nicholls, C. (1999). ‘The greening of the “barrios”: Urban agriculture for food security in Cuba’. Agriculture and Human Values. Vol.16(2) pp.131-140.
(3) Crawford, C. (2003). ‘Necessity makes the frog jump: land use planning and urban agriculture in Cuba’. Georgia State University College.
(4) FAO. (2015). ‘Urban and peri-urban agriculture in Latin America and the Caribbean: Havana’. Food and Agriculture Organisation. url:http://www.fao.org/ag/agp/greenercities/en/GGCLAC/havana.html accessed:15/05/2017