So, the first day of proper classes at INIFAT and you’ll be pleased to hear that I actually made it! The big new challenge for me was that I was now part of a group of food producers from Mexico City who I would be tagging along with for the rest of my time in Santiago. Which was great because it meant I now had people to bounce ideas off and discuss what I was learning with. It also meant that I would be spending long days in seminars and study groups that would be delivered entirely in Spanish with Spanish speaking audience in mind which would certainly be very different to the one on one sessions I had been having so far.
My Mexican Friends at INIFAT
But before I start telling you about the programme let me introduce you to my new classmates.
Conchita – a housewife who grew lettuces using hydroponics and who also has horses that her husband hired out for weddings and other celebrations.
Alberta – who worked for a rural development programme with special focus upon women working in rural areas.
Maritza – who grew ornamental plants and flowers, as well as corn. She was in Cuba because she wanted to learn more about organic production.
Rosa – grew medicinal and ornamental plants.
Leonardo – a producer of pork and pigs and other related products. He was in Cuba because he wanted to learn more about the production of corn as an animal feed.
Maria – an actuary, who lived on the family small holding. Before inheriting this she had no contact with growing or agriculture.
David – a student of Agro-ecology with a specific interest in organic agriculture and compost.
Maria Minerva –a small producer of rabbits who wanted to learn how to cultivate food for her rabbits.
Alejandra – a housewife who grew lettuces and tomatoes in a roof garden using hydroponics.
Valentine – interested in capacity building around Agro-economy. Also interested in native Mexican corn species and their cultivation.
Alejandro – corn producer.
Miguel – a small holder interested in returning to more traditional and sustainable forms of agriculture.
Paula - a vet.
Alfredo – a corn producer.
Grasila – worked in community development with particular focus upon urban agriculture.
Alejandra – worked in commercialisation of vermiculture systems.
The day began with Maritza who co-ordinates international programmes at INIFAT giving an introduction to the work that they do there. This was followed by a presentation on the basic foundations of Urban Agriculture in Cuba from Dr Nelso Companioni who founded the Urban Agriculture programme at INIFAT and who remains one of the leaders in the field.
Typical urban farming site in Cuba
Nelso explained that Urban Agriculture was a key form of agriculture for the future in Cuba. As well as having a role providing food within communities it was also thought to have a role in public health and the preservation of the health of the soil and the environment. It focuses upon native crops where possible, as these are generally easiest to grow using organic methodologies. He also explained the support system that has been put in place to make Urban Agriculture possible on the island, and highlighted the fact that all of this was seen within a context of sustainable development.
The key factors within Cuba’s Urban Agriculture Strategy were explained as:
1. Making use of mechanisms that incentivise and give interest to people to produce food and to develop their skills.
2. Supporting a rational and intensive use of all available land, with each area having its own defined programmes and specialities.
3. Cultivating the maximum diversity of species and varieties in each garden, patio…etc… in order to create a strong base of cultivation that will guarantee seeds for future growing.
4. Elevating the culture and knowledge of food and the environment through a programme of outreach education for the public and for food producers.
5. Developing a wide basis of support and co-ordination on a national level.
He also outlined his ideas on the key foundations of success and support in Urban Agriculture in Cuba:
- Inclusive participation on all levels with integration and collaboration at the heart of everything.
- The development of outreach and community support as crucial to driving the national programme forward.
- The development of a National School (where I was at INIFAT!) as crucial in its support of producers, as well as those managing urban agriculture programmes. The school has also helped develop Urban Agriculture around the world with “extensionistas” from the school allowing for the transfer of knowledge, as well as constructing a vehicle for excellence within development.
- Commercialisation is key in form that is flexible and easy with no more that 2 or 3 stages between the producer and the customer.
- Investment from the Ministry of Agriculture in an ongoing strand of research so that Urban Agriculture is developing constantly and so that it is supported with a system of control and evaluation.
Then in the afternoon Dr Rosalía González took us through the fundamentals of Agroecology within the context of Urban Agriculture. She began by introducing the concept of the Cuban Green Revolution that occurred in Cuba in the early 90s as a result of the Special Period. In their case this revolution was reflected in a desire to change the agricultural systems and technologies that had lead to misuse of chemicals, energy, mechanisation and monocultures. It also recognises the crucial link between man, the environment, society and the physical world. Finally it bases itself upon a foundation of sustainable development:
“Development that satisfies the necessities of this generation without compromising the capacity of future generations to satisfy their own needs.”
In reflection of this definition Urban Agriculture in Cuba is regarded as a crucial part of the sustainable development of cities. The system of a city is traditionally linear and not reflective of natural systems that are circular. It is the integration of Urban Agriculture into this system that makes the creation of a circular, and therefore sustainable, system in a city possible. Rosalía then went on to explain how agroecology complemented and supported this thinking in a variety of ways:
- Through the optimisation of the use of locally available resources, combining them as part of a system.
- By reducing the use of external resources, and resources that do not contribute to the health of the producer and the consumer.
- By combating causes and not symptoms.
- By asking “what is available locally to use and to support what we want to achieve?”
- By considering the relation between the design of cultivation, its potential productivity and the local environment.
- By working to value and conserve biodiversity and make optimum use of the biological and genetic diversity of species of plants in surrounding areas.
- By valuing the practices and knowledge of local people even though this knowledge is rarely scientifically verified.
And what was the biggest revelation of everything that I had learnt on that day? That, rather excitingly, I actually managed, more or less, to follow what was going on. How good did that feel? After all the years of studying Spanish I could actually understand and be understood in the gorgeous language that I had invested so much time in. Good stuff! Good stuff indeed!
After the day’s seminars I had a bit of time in the evening to start getting to know the Mexicans, who seemed to be a lovely bunch of people. It was interesting to hear their experiences of cultivating food in a huge variety of places in Mexico City. Like Ale for example, who supported her family by growing lettuces on her roof using hydroponics. A wholly inspirational day at INIFAT.