Thousands turn out to hear Cuban permaculturist

Issue 

As news headlines report riots and food shortages in Third World nations, during March and April more than 5000 people on Australia's eastern seaboard were able to hear the inspiring story of Cuba's survival when faced with starvation and its transition to ecological sustainability.

Roberto Perez, a Cuban biologist and permaculturist, toured Australia to some of the biggest crowds ever seen for a Cuban activist.

The World Wide Fund for Nature rated Cuba as the only environmentally sustainable country in its 2007 report.

Perez brought a message of immense hope and survival against all the odds. He described how the Cuban people turned to various methods of organic farming after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba's main trading partner. This resulted in the loss of access to oil, fertilisers and food.

Those who have seen the documentary The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil, in which Perez features, will know just how close Cuba came to mass starvation.

While in Australia Perez addressed more than 30 gatherings, gave more than 20 media interviews and was applauded by radicals and conservatives alike.

Cuba's achievements in the wake of its socialist revolution have come despite implacable opposition from the US, including a devastating blockade. Prensa Latina reported in September Cuba's foreign minister, Felipe Perez Roque, said the economic siege, which has lasted close to five decades, had cost the island nation over US$89 billion.

Robyn Francis, one of the organisers for the Perez tour said, "People have come in such large numbers to hear Roberto because many have seen the movie Power of the Community and found it empowering and inspiring. They know things have to change ... they're looking for a success story. This is an amazing success story in the face of adversity."

Francis said that Perez had spoken in many small country towns like Violet Town, where 130 people came to hear him. Hundreds came to meetings in the capital cities; in Brisbane 550 people attended a meeting on April 16. The Brisbane meeting was opened by Sam Watson, an Indigenous activist and the Socialist Alliance national spokesperson on Indigenous affairs, and was emceed by Jerry Coleby-Williams from ABC TV's Gardening Australia.

In the facilitated panel discussion that followed, Perez highlighted the need for urgent action to turn around climate change. He compared the state of soil degradation in Australia with that in Cuba, which was being regenerated through sustainable agriculture.

Perez explained how Cuban society, based on collective not individual aspirations, with human needs not corporate profits as its motor force was able to
rapidly respond to the peak oil crisis: switching to permaculture and increasing use of sustainable technology. Discussion from the floor raised questions of the potential of such a transformation in Australia.

Even regional centres like Lismore, Geelong and Daylesford attracted more than 200 people to meetings featuring Perez.

One of the more curious stories of the tour involved an address that Perez gave to the Kuringai Council Chambers, north of Sydney. One hundred and fifty people attended, and conservative mayor Nick Elsbeck was moved to proclaim at the end that "We've got a lot to learn from Cuba". Thousands more Australians now agree.

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