Another great Cuban day. Hot again but with a wind that made the heat much easier to deal with. The day started at INIFAT with a great session on saving seed from Maria Benitez. The session was particularly good as the majority of the practice I was learning about was transferable directly to the UK. Hurrah!
María began her seminar with the statement:
“La semilla es el principio y el fin.” – “The seed is the beginning and the end.”
She carried on with the fact that vegetables grown from seed represent one of the most important food sources in the world. With a seed being defined as a concentration of life and a method of reproduction, multiplication and diversification of species, that conserve genetic information and maintain species and varieties for the future.
We discussed the way that if you control seed supplies you are able to also control a great deal of global agricultural practice – which is what has been done by companies like Monsanto and other large multi-nationals. It is for this reason that INIFAT have done a lot of work around seeds as if people are able to control their own seed supply and production they are also able to take a much more meaningful supply of their own food chains. They have also done a great deal of work developing seed stock that is specifically suited to tropical conditions, whilst also paying respect to the work of local campesinos who have played a crucial part in the maintenance of local species that are essential to long term food security.
The final part of the seminar was a visit to the seed lab within the main INIFAT building that is a national resource in the development of seed stocks in Cuba. This visit was fascinating on a number of levels. Firstly it was amazing to see how dilapidated the INIFAT building was. The building itself was a beautiful colonial structure that was originally a hospital and that was built around a central courtyard that is now full of palm trees. As María pointed out, the building was now almost impossible for them to maintain as they do not have access to the necessary financial or physical resources that would be necessary to do so.
The seed lab itself was something quite amazing. Obviously it was a functional lab, with world-class work being developed there, but the room itself looked like it could have been lifted straight out of the 1950s. And that is a predicament that is kind of reflective of lots of aspects of contemporary Cuban life. Beautiful 1950s furniture is held together by Cuban care and inventiveness, hard work and good fortune. Furniture that would have been discarded in any other part of the world and replaced with something newer, that would now not have the historical value that many of these 50s pieces would have in any other part of the world.
Take the Cuban National Seedbank that is also hosted at INIFAT and that is another great example of the Cuban determination to get things done despite the challenges that they face. Typical to seed banks anywhere in the world this is a temperature controlled facility. In Cuba this means refrigeration in order to maintain a temperature between 2*C and 5*C – in reality this means a big walk in fridge like you’d get in the storage area of a supermarket. Obviously electric is essential to do this, but the supply at INIFAT is not reliable enough to maintain a consistent and guaranteed supply. The rise in temperature that a loss of electricity would cause would be disasterous for the seed collection so, in order to minimize the risk of this happening, the facility is joined to the electricity supply at the international airport 3km away. There may be days when INIFAT and Santiago de las Vegas will have no power but it would have to be a pretty dire situation for the airport to have none.
And on the subject of energy, once again talk returned to the theme of the Special Period and how much it had changed the life for people in Cuba. Now life was so much more difficult for many people as a direct result of the changes that had taken place as a result of this period in history. The unreliable and fluctuating energy supply was a perfect example of these changes. Frustratingly Cuba would be an ideal country for all sorts of solar energy but lack of resource internally and support internationally make any kind of investment in this kind of development virtually impossible.
After the seminar a group of us went to visit the house of María to have a look around her beautiful roof garden. Like Marisol, María lived very close to INIFAT but her 1950s, Florida style flat in a gorgeous two storey buliding was a very different experience to the flat that Marisol and her family were living in on the outskirts of town. To get into María’s house, which she shared with her father, eldest son and daughter-in-law you climbed graceful stairs to a plant filled, first floor terrace. From there you went through the front door into an airy and spacious flat. The space was snug for the number of adults living there, and would certainly be very tight if María’s son decided to have children, but it was well designed and well maintained and certainly looked like a pleasant enough place to live.
To get to María’s roof garden we had to got out to a further terrace where there was an outdoor sink and area for washing and drying clothes, and cooking that was typical in Cuban houses. From there we took fairly death defying steps, that would have been thoroughly unsuitable to anyone with vertigo, up onto the beautiful roof terrace.
On the flat roof of the building María had used scaffolding poles to build a surrounding structure which is covered by netting to stop birds getting at the plants and to take some of the strength out of the rays of the sun. She had even covered the central area with sheets of cardboard to ensure that the table and chairs up there were suitably shaded from the heat of the day. In this relatively small space María had an aviary for birds, a number of cages for to keep rabbits for meat and animal manure and beds and beds of plants including edibles like lettuce and cabbage and a whole variety of ornamentals. Alongside this there was an area to collect water and to make compost. María also explained that the only time she had to move things off the roof was when there was a possibility of hurricanes – then every single thing apart from the heavy metal frame was dismantled and moved to the safety of the downstairs terrace. The garden had survived more than a couple of hurricanes so this was clearly a system that worked. It was a gorgeous little garden so it was no penance to have time to sit up there, relax and enjoy the space.
As we sat up there the group started talking about our planned trip to Varadero the next day – in case you don’t know Varadero is one of the most famous beach resorts in Cuba and is the place that many visitors experience when they spend time on the island. When María was asked if she had ever been to the resort she said yes, but only with a group of visitors to INIFAT as part of her job and never with her family. She explained that the problem for Cubans with this and many other things is transport, which is either very expensive or non-existent. Our group would, of course, travel to the beach in a fancy air-conditioned coach but this was not the type of experience afforded to the average Cuban who would have to attempt to get at least three different buses in order to travel from Santiago de las Vegas to Vardero up on the Northern coast and well over 100km from INIFAT.
Then conversation moved to Tropicana that is in Havana and is thought to be one of the oldest night clubs in the world. Kind of like a Latin American Moulin Rouge. Some of the group really wanted to visit and started asking María questions about this and if she had ever been there. However, a single entry to Tropicana cost around 70CUC – three months wages for an average Cuba. Unsurprisingly, on this basis, most Cubans, including María, had never been there. Another example of the division of access between Cubans and foreign visitors.
After about an hour on the rook we went down to the living room where we learned that it was María’s birthday. She shared an amazing birthday cake with us – the type of big cream cake I had often seen people carrying through the street – and soft drinks. Refrescos as Cubans call them. Then it was time to say goodbye to María and head back to INIFAT for our evening meal.
Unusually that evening there was also a party in our hotel for one of the departments from INIFAT who had just won an award for their work. This meant lots of salsa and a taste of what Cuban nightlife really looks like – not the kind of experience that you got in the fancy bars in clubs in Havana and other tourist resorts, that’s for sure.