Cuban agriculture
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Cuba years ahead in "eat local" movement

Cuba years ahead in "eat local" movement
Fri Dec 19, 2008 11:03am GMT
By Esteban Israel

(Reuters) – After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba
planted thousands of urban cooperative gardens to offset reduced rations
of imported .

Now, in the wake of three hurricanes that wiped out 30 percent of Cuba's
farm crops, the communist country is again turning to its urban gardens
to keep its people properly fed.

"Our capacity for response is immediate because this is a cooperative,"
said Miguel Salcines, walking among rows of lettuce in the garden he
heads in the Alamar suburb on the outskirts of Havana.

Salcines says he is hardly sleeping as his 160-member cooperative rushes
to plant and harvest a variety of beets that takes just 25 days to grow,
among other crops.

As he talks, dirt-stained men and women kneel along the furrows,
planting and watering on land next to a complex of Soviet-style
buildings. Machete-wielding men chop weeds and clear brush along the
periphery of the field.

Around 15 percent of the world's food is grown in urban areas, according
to the U.S. Department of , a figure experts expect to
increase as food prices rise, urban populations grow and environmental
concerns mount.

Since they sell directly to their communities, city farms don't depend
on transportation and are relatively immune to the volatility of fuel
prices, advantages that are only now gaining traction as "eat local"
movements in rich countries.


In Cuba, urban gardens have bloomed in vacant lots, alongside parking
lots, in the suburbs and even on city rooftops.

They sprang from a military plan for Cuba to be self-sufficient in case
of war. They were broadened to the general public in response to a food
crisis that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba's biggest
benefactor at the time.

They have proven extremely popular, occupying 35,000 hectares (86,000
acres) of land across the Caribbean island. Even before the hurricanes,
they produced half of the leaf vegetables eaten in Cuba, which imports
about 60 percent of its food.

"I don't say they have the capacity to produce enough food for the whole
island, but for social and also agricultural reasons they are the most
adequate response to a crisis," said Catherine Murphy, a U.S.
sociologist who has studied Cuba's urban gardens.


In Alamar, the members get a salary and share the garden's profits, so
the more they grow, the more they earn. They make an average of about
950 pesos, or 29 pounds, per month, more than double the national
average, Salcines said.

The co-op, which began in 1997, now produces more than 240 tons of
vegetables annually on its 11 hectares (27 acres) of land, which is
about the size of 13 soccer fields.

The gardens sell their produce directly to the community and, out of
necessity, grow their crops organically.

" is going to play a key role in guaranteeing the
feeding of the people much more quickly than the traditional farms,"
said Richard Haep, Cuba coordinator for German aid group
Welthungerhilfe, which has supported these kinds of projects since 1994.

When the Soviet Union fell apart, Cuba's supply of oil slowed to a
trickle, hurting big state agricultural operations. Chemical fertilizers
were replaced with mountains of manure, and beneficial insects were used
instead of pesticides.

Unlike in developed countries, where organic products are more
expensive, in Cuba they are affordable.

"We have taken organic agriculture to a social level," said Salcines.

Some experts fear that rising international food prices along with the
destruction of the hurricanes will return Cuba to the path of
agrochemicals. The government is planning to construct a fertilizer
plant with its oil-rich ally .

But , who replaced ailing brother Fidel Castro as
in February, has also borrowed ideas from the urban gardens as he
implements reforms to cut the island's $2.5 billion in annual food
imports, much of it from the United States.

Castro has decentralized farm decision-making and raised the prices that
the state pays for agricultural products, which has increased milk
production, for example, by almost 20 percent.

And, in September, the government began renting out unused state-owned
lands to farmers and cooperatives, measures that met with approval of
international aid groups.

"Decentralization and economic incentives. If those elements are
expanded to the rest of the agricultural sector, the response will be
the same," said Welthungerhilfe's Haep.

(Reporting by Esteban Israel; Editing by Jeff Franks and Eddie Evans)

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