Cuba has boldly initiated alternative and ecologically sustainable methods of food production with the aim of improving food self-sufficiency among urban communities. Luis Sanchez Almanza, agronomist, permaculture activist and horticultural community adviser, is touring Australia and was interviewed for Green Left Weekly by Margarita Windisch.
Can you tell us about your work and more specifically about the agricultural project in the Havana suburb of Santa Fe?
I am employed by the Cuban government in conjunction with the local council of Santa Fe as an agricultural community adviser with the objective of teaching organic agriculture and encouraging the local community to actively participate in food production.
The Santa Fe project is one of many that has been initiated by the Cuban government to tackle irregularities in food supplies, especially for large urban centres like Havana. The aim is also to empower people to take control, be active producers of food stuffs and important agents in helping to solve a national problem.
The project in Santa Fe was set up in 1991 with the aim of utilising vacant urban spaces for food production and direct consumption. The project is based on applying the principles of organic agriculture, which are low in cost and environmentally friendly. We are also taking advantage of the available resources within the community. We want to educate the gardeners and their families in order to increase their knowledge in agriculture and also improve their dietary habits.
How successful has the Santa Fe project been?
To give you an example: In 1991 the food production reached 0.9 kilos per square metre. In 1994 we achieved 3 kilos per square metre, solely by using organic methods of agriculture. Families have become self sufficient in beans, tomatoes, corn, honey etc.
Excess production is sold on the free market, which is a new government initiative. So about 30% of necessary foodstuffs can be supplied by the community itself.
The benefits have been not only in more produce, but new social relations were created. There is a strong sense of solidarity and collectivity, and the barter system is commonly used for food exchange. The community as a whole is healthier, and gardening has become an enjoyable recreational activity.
How do you implement the necessary educational programs, and do you target specific groups?
Together with the Cuban Association of Organic Agriculture, universities and the Ministry of Agriculture, we develop projects and educational programs that are not only scientific but also very practical.
It is especially important to educate our children and youth to respect the earth and take a responsible attitude. All primary and secondary schools in Cuba have gardens. The children are taught by horticulturalists about food production, soil preservation and irrigation in a very practical way.
Women in Cuba traditionally worked in the house; this is changing now. Women play a crucial role in the projects and do great work especially with food preservation to reduce post-harvest wastage. They have introduced medicinal plants into the gardens. We have a shortage of medicines in Cuba, and every garden in the project has a plot for medicinal plants for people but also to use for plant diseases.
So as you can see our approach is grassroots, practical and holistic.
Are the irregularities in food supply and the lack of medicines a direct consequence of the illegal US blockade?
Of course they are! The US government wants to starve the Cuban people into submission. Cuba, like other countries, has to rely on trade to supplement its own food production. The Cuban government guarantees one free litre of milk per day for each child under eight years of age. Some of this milk has to be imported from Canada, or as far away as New Zealand. Our import costs are therefore very high.
Cuba welcomes foreign investment. Nine out of ten foreign enterprises do not get off the ground as a direct result of US government pressure on these countries.
The blockade also makes it very difficult to introduce technological advances in agriculture: intellectual property is part of the ban. Some US agricultural groups have bravely broken the blockade to help Cuba to develop alternative agricultural methods and facilities.
How is Cuba addressing the problems in agriculture?
The Cuban government is in the process of developing sustainable methods of agriculture with the aim to eliminate chemical pesticide and fertiliser use.
It is government policy to introduce soil conservation, biological pest control and bio-pesticides. We have successfully demonstrated high yield harvests of high energy crops without the use of chemicals. The scarcity of dairy produce in a way pushed us into researching and growing alternative sources of protein such as soy beans and sprouted seeds.
There is still a lot of convincing to be done to encourage Cubans to change their dietary habits. Education and active participation are the key to solve this problem.
What is the most important solidarity or aid we can give to Cuba?
The most crucial support is political solidarity. In order for Cuba, its people and the great ecological advances to survive, this sort of support overrides any other.
Only if Cuba's sovereignty is respected internationally can we freely exchange ideas for the benefit of the world as a whole.
[Luis Sanchez is being toured by the "Green Team", which is part of the Permaculture Global Assistance Network. The "Green Team" set up the first permaculture project in Cuba. For further information, contact Permaculture Melbourne on (03) 853 6828.]