Archive for the ‘Cuba’ Category


Five Cities and the Organizations That are Making Them Green

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By Jenny Beth Dyess

Currently over half of the world’s 7 billion live in urban areas and according to the United Nations (UN), that number is expected to reach 65 percent by 2050. Dramatic population growth strains food resources and raises the challenge of feeding urban dwellers, particularly the poor. According to the UN, poverty is now growing faster in urban areas than in rural areas—there are currently 1 billion people living in urban slums.

Urban agriculture is cropping up in major cities worldwide. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Today, Nourishing the Planet highlights five cities and the organizations that are helping these cities become food-sufficient.

1. Dar es Salaam: Over 45 percent of Tanzania’s 2.3 million unemployed people live in the commercial capital, Dar es Salaam. Studies by the Tanzanian Department of Rural Development and Regional Planning have found that there is significant reduction in poverty among residents who practice urban gardening in Dar es Salaam. In 2011, 68 percent of residents are growing food and raising livestock in the city. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, 90 percent of vegetables and 60 percent of the milk supply are produced locally.

Dar es Salaam in action: The Mikocheni Post Primary Vocational School is training students how to make a sustainable living and grow food in the city. The vocational school has become a learning center for waste separation, composting, and urban farming. The composting chambers are built by the masonry students, the cooking and carpentry students contribute organic waste to the compost, and all students take turns attending the gardens. The school also offers free training seminars on composting to the local community.



Our Man in Havana: Sustainable Agriculture Thrives in Cuba

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By Fred Bahnson

Miguel Salcines Lopez (photo: Fred

Miguel Salcines Lopez (photo: Fred Bahnson)

Miguel Salcines Lopez is a farmer of the 21st century. With a stylish jean jacket and rakish cowboy hat adorning his six-foot frame, Miguel looks more like a Cuban John Wayne than a stooped, tired farmer. That’s part of his game: he wants to make agriculture attractive, especially to the younger generation.

Miguel is the president of Organoponico Vivero Alamar, Havana’s largest and most successful organic garden. Actually, at 11 hectares, it’s more of an urban farm than a garden. Recently, I visited Vivero Alamar with several other Kellogg Food & Society fellows. “In the past,” Miguel told us, “agriculture in Cuba was demonized. People preferred to do anything but agriculture.” But today, Cuban farmers—especially urban farmers—have become respected members of society, some earning three times as much as doctors.

Why the sudden shift in cultural values and pay scale? I asked that question at each of the three Havana organic gardens I visited in mid-February. Mostly, the answers I heard contained exalted phrases like, “Organic agriculture is the privilege of the Cuban people,” which sounded to my Yanqui ears a bit like socialist propaganda. Cubans did seem proud of their organic gardens and had ample reason to be. But in my view, the country’s sudden shift to organic agriculture, and the accompanying shift toward more respect and better pay for farmers, can best be described in one word: necessity.

At one time, the Soviet Union was Cuba’s main trading partner, supplying the island with not only meat and grains but also fertilizer, pesticides, tractors, and oil—all the standard trappings of industrialized agriculture. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuba was left scrambling to feed itself. Food disappeared from the shelves. Over the next three years, which Fidel Castro euphemistically dubbed “The Special Period in a Time of Peace,” the average Cuban lost 30 pounds. Cubans had to learn to grow food without all those inputs simply because they had to. Call it organic-by-default.

And judging by the success of places like Vivero Alamar, they’re doing an amazing job. The garden is a cooperative, which Miguel describes as a “private ownership model with socialist, egalitarian tendencies.” Of the 164 workers, 22 have university degrees, two of which are doctorates. Seventy percent of the profit is distributed among the workers, 20 percent goes to farm infrastructure, and 10 percent goes to the state. The vegetables and fruit grown at Vivero Alamar are sold six days a week to the people in the neighborhood, and the garden also has contracts with Havana hospitals, rest homes, and schools.

Miguel describes the benefits: working hours have been reduced to seven hours a day in summer and six hours a day in winter. There are coffee breaks and free lunches, and workers can take home 1.5 pounds of vegetables each day they work. Workers can also gather after work for a beer at the on-site cantina, and bring their families there on weekends. The garden is both workplace and community center. “We even have hairdressers and manicurists for our women workers,” Miguel said. Women hold prominent leadership roles. “We men get easily ruined by rum and cigars,” Miguel laughed. “Women are better workers.”

As you might gather, there is a waiting list to work here.

In 15 years, Cuba has become “the world’s largest working model of a semi-sustainable agriculture,” according to U.S. writer and activist Bill McKibben. At least in terms of vegetable and fruit production like the kind I witnessed at Vivero Alamar, Cuba is a model to emulate, demonstrating how an entire society can convert its agriculture to organic methods and thrive.

Granted, Cuba still imports between 76 and 85 percent of its food and is far from being food-secure. But in the city of Havana, nearly all of the vegetables and most fruit now come from within a 30-mile radius, an accomplishment of which few cities in the world can boast. Talking with Miguel, it’s also clear that whatever crisis led Cuba to organic farming in the first place, there are few backward glances.

Fred Bahnson is traveling as a Kellogg Food & Society fellow at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. His writing has appeared in Orion, The Sun, and Best American Spiritual Writing 2007 (Mariner). He lives with his wife and two sons on a farm in Transylvania County, North Carolina.


The Cuban Agro-Ecological Revolution: A Look Behind the Curtain

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An example of an urban farm in Kibera, Kenya. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

An example of an urban farm in Kibera, Kenya. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

By Fred Bahnson

After a few shots of freshly squeezed sugarcane juice, we follow Miguel Salcines Lopez into the fields of what is the most stunning urban farm I have ever seen: Vivero Alamar in Havana, Cuba. The produce list is long: guavas, mangos, sugar cane, noni, figs, papaya, grapes, avocadoes, and citrus, not to mention dozens of vegetable and medicinal crops.

But it’s not just the overall agricultural diversity that is amazing to behold; it’s the diversity found in each field, plot, and bed, a mix that turns out to be a key to this farm’s success.

I ask Miguel how he and his 163 co-workers grow such healthy, blemish-free organic produce on their 11 hectares in the tropics. One trick is to plant in color bands, Miguel says. Insects orient themselves by color. In a natural forest, the mix of colors prevents insects from destroying any one species, so the farmers here mimic the forest in their planting patterns. Rather than plant a whole area in lettuce they plant one of their raised beds in lettuce, another in broccoli, the next in carrots, and so on.

Miguel described other insect controls: nearly every one of the hundreds of raised beds, elevated for better drainage, has chives or bunching onions growing along the outside border, plus marigold and basil on the ends. Such inter-planting goes a long way toward deterring harmful insects. For the really nasty critters, the farmers have an arsenal of pesticide “teas” made from neem tree oil or tobacco, both of which grow on site. They also inoculate each plant with mycorrhizal fungi. These fungi form a symbiotic relationship with the plant’s roots, helping it fend off insects and disease as well as improving nutrient uptake by 40 percent.

Plant health is first and foremost a function of soil health. A healthy plant grown in healthy soil will be much better positioned to resist insect damage, disease, and drought. “Feed the soil not the crop” is Miguel’s philosophy, and next he shows us what his soil eats: worm compost.

In the vermiculture area, he points to 10 concrete beds, each 4 feet wide and 60 feet long. Vermiculture is the art of using worms to turn organic matter into natural fertilizer. Worms will ingest manure, kitchen scraps, chopped-up crop residues—almost any form of organic matter except oils and citrus rinds—and excrete the remains as “castings.” Worm castings are rich in plant nutrients and also aid plants in disease and pest resistance. Miguel digs under the black soil and pulls out a writhing mass of California redworms. It takes 70 days to make a batch of worm compost. One square meter produces 1,000 pounds of compost per year, which is 10 times more productive than if the parent material were composted without worms.

The feedstock is cow manure—a waste product at the dairy farm down the road, but a valuable resource here at Vivero Alamar. “To dominate in organic agriculture, you have to be a shit specialist,” Miguel grins. “That’s what drives it all.” But, he warns, it takes a trained person to know how to make good worm compost. “You can’t just dump a load of shit down and throw three worms on top. You must have discipline.”

An agronomist by training, Miguel was once a mid-level functionary in Cuba’s conventional agricultural system. “I just sat at a desk pushing papers. I hated it.” When Cuba lost it agricultural inputs from the Soviet Union, his training was of little use to him or any other Cuban. Having seen how useless “the revolution of Monsanto” is when confronted by Peak Oil, Miguel will never go back to using oil-based pesticides and fertilizers. “The Green Revolution is an agriculture of recipes,” Miguel said. “You don’t need to know much about farming other than what fertilizers to apply and which pesticide to use.”

Agro-ecological farming, however, requires the farmer to be knowledgeable in climate, weather patterns, soil types, and plant needs. “It’s a much more complicated form of agriculture,” Miguel concludes. “It needs people who not only have an education but have passion. Agriculture of the 21st century will not be the same as the 20th century. We have to work more intelligently, not harder.”

Fred Bahnson is traveling as a Kellogg Food & Society fellow at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. His writing has appeared in Orion, The Sun, and Best American Spiritual Writing 2007 (Mariner). He lives with his wife and two sons on a farm in Transylvania County, North Carolina.