Lettuces of Lead
Lettuces of Lead / 14ymedio, Rosa Lopez
Posted on March 2, 2015
14ymedio, Rosa Lopez, Havana, 1 March 2015 – The raised bed exhibits its
curly lettuces a few meters from the rough concrete building. There is
an hour to go before the urban organic garden near Hidalgo Street in the
Plaza township begins its sale, but already customers are thronging to
get fresh vegetables and lower prices. None of them knows that the
products they will buy here are neither organic nor very safe for their
Urban agriculture is a phenomenon that dawned in the nineties with the
rigors of the Special Period. In the words of a humorist, “We Havanans
turned ourselves into peasants and planted leeks even on balconies.” The
economic crisis and the inefficiency of state farms required taking
advantage of empty lots in order to cultivate greens and vegetables.
The initiative helped all these years to alleviate shortages and has
many defenders who emphasize their community character, so different
from the mechanization of modern agriculture. Nevertheless, together
with the undeniable merits are hidden serious problems that point to the
contamination of the crops with wastes characteristic of urban areas.
Nationwide, about 40,000 people work in urban agriculture projects on
some 83,000 acres (130 square miles) that are divided into 145,000
parcels, 385,000 patios*, 6,400 intensive gardens and 4,000 urban
organic gardens. These last under the leadership of the Ministry of
Agriculture, although with some autonomy for crop management.
With these lands planted in populated areas, it has been the goal to
reduce food insecurity, offer greater access to fresh produce and to
expand green spaces in urban zones.
Havana has 97 high yield urban organic gardens. One of the best known is
located in the Alamar neighborhood and is currently managed by a
cooperative of 180 members. The capital also has 318 intensive gardens,
with crops sown directly in the ground, in addition to 38 crops that are
semi-protected and in enriched soil.
The soil enrichment uses a technique known as vermicomposting, which
consists of transforming solid wastes by the action of earthworms and
micro-organisms. The problem is that many of the urban wastes that serve
as a basis for the process are gotten from residential trash and carry a
big load of heavy metals that with time accumulate in greens and vegetables.
A study carried out in 2012 by several researchers from the Institute of
Soils and that included samples from urban organic gardens in Havana and
Guantanamo brought to light that “the compost obtained from the urban
solid wastes originating in household trash extracted from landfills
without prior sorting, and the subsoils prepared from them, contain
heavy metals, especially cadmium and lead, above the maximum permissible
The lack of an effective system of trash sorting and processing works
against us, because much of the waste used for compost in the urban
organic gardens has had previous contact with materials like cans,
paints, and batteries, thrown indiscriminately into landfills all over
Furthermore, the process to achieve compost often is not carried out
properly, so that the pathogens contained in the wastes are not
destroyed. Although part of the material used in this process comes from
the garden itself, trash from nearby settlements, market wastes and
agro-industrial refuse are also added.
Family gardens account for close to 90% of the greens consumed by the
population, so ingestion of high doses of heavy metals could be
affecting a great number of Cubans.
Irrigation of the urban organic gardens aggravates the problem because
the water comes from the population’s supply network and affects the
amount of water available for human consumption, besides also being
unsuitable for crops because of the high content of chlorine and other
The proximity of streets and avenues to the crops worsens the pollution
because heavy metals also arrive through the ground and the air. Add to
that the use of pesticides and fungicides for control of pests in the
urban organic gardens. An un-confessed but widespread practice.
Most alarming is that the Ministry of Agriculture keeps silent about
this matter and does not promote research into the presence of chemical
agents harmful to health in produce that consumers imagine fresh and
organic. Complicity or apathy? No one knows, but there are many reasons
to distrust that bunch of lettuce with its attractive green leaves.
*Translator’s note: “Patios” in this context refers to home gardens
producing food primarily for family consumption.
Translated by MLK
Source: Lettuces of Lead / 14ymedio, Rosa Lopez | Translating Cuba –