It's only a matter of days now before I head out to Cuba on my horticultural adventure and I feel overwhelmed by absolute fear and absolute excitement in almost equal measure. Although I have done loads and loads of research it's almost as though I have no real perception of what will greet me when I arrive. Of what the country will actually be like. My experiences so far seem to suggest that Cubans are extremely hospitable and helpful people but beyond that I don't know what expectiations I should realistically have of what the island will actually be like when I finally step off the plane next Wednesday. One thing that I am secure about though is my motivation for visiting in the first place - to get a feel for how their organic agriculture system actually looks on the ground, with particular focus on urban agriculture.
The break-up of the USSR in the early 90s signalled the beginning of a time in Cuban history that is referred to as the ‘special period’. Prior to this Cuban agriculture was highly industrialised and had relied heavily on Soviet oil for farm machinery, fertilisers and pesticides. When the Soviet Union broke up Cuba lost more than 50 percent of its oil imports, much of its food and 85 percent of its trade economy. Transportation systems ground to a halt and people went hungry.
The Cuban response to the crisis included a series of major shifts in the way food was produced. Estimates suggest 50% of Havana’s 2.2 million population is now supplied by urban agriculture, a growing industry in which 140,000 people are currently employed. Lack of access to fertilisers and pesticides has also meant 80% of Cuba’s production is now organic with use of pesticides slashed from 21,000 tonnes per year in the 1980s to the 1000 tonnes it now uses. Use of oxen has also increased in place of petrol fuelled farm vehicles and large state run farms have given way to smaller co-operatives, with 10,000 acres leased rent free by the state.
Even now Cuban food production continues to increase and since Raul Castro took over as president from his brother Fidel in 2008 the state has increased what it pays for crops; decentralised agricultural decision making and distribution; and leased 50% of vacant state lands to 100,000 individuals and private and state co-operative farms. Investment continues in agricultural alternatives to fossil fuelled farming with estimates being made that the production of bio-pesticides saves the Cuban economy $15 million annually.
Amazing stuff huh? I can't wait to see how this will all look in reality and get a feel for how this organic farming revolution that I have heard so much about actually functions on a day to day basis.