This is a paper I wrote for my Anthropology 350 class on Human Ecology. So, In the spirit of noding homework, I present:

Cuba's Agricultural Revolution

How does a small, isolated, island country cope when, seemingly overnight, it loses 85% of its imports, exports, and foreign aid? How does such a country deal with a near-impenetrable trade blockade that forces them to become almost totally self-sufficient? These are some of the questions the Cuban government had to ask itself with the collapse of the Soviet Union/Eastern European Bloc and the consequential loss of trade that came along with its collapse. In this paper I plan to argue that, as a result of Cuba’s past dependence on the Soviet Union to provide a majority of imports and financial support during the United State’s embargo, the collapse of the Socialist Bloc forced Cuba to move away from an intensive industrial system of agriculture to a more ecologically stable “organic” system.

Why was Cuba dependent on the Soviet Union?

For over forty-one years the population of Cuba has endured economic sanctions imposed against it by the United States. These sanctions, initially installed in 1960 by former U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower, have become increasingly stricter through to the present-day. Why was this embargo imposed upon Cuba? The U.S.’s original reasons for imposing the embargo were to overthrow Cuba’s revolutionary president, Fidel Castro and to retaliate against the nationalization of U.S. property in Cuba that occurred after the revolution. However, as time went on the people of Cuba gained a stronger sense of nationalism brought on by country’s common enemy, the United States. The increased nationalism in turn led to more support for Castro, thus somewhat negating one of the goals of the embargo. Also, during the early years of the embargo the Soviet Union began offering economic support to Cuba to replace Cuba’s former dependence on trade with the United States. These two factors, the increased nationalism and increased trade with the Soviet Union, led to even harsher economic sanctions by the U.S. in hopes of breaking Cuban-Soviet ties (by financially over-burdening the Soviet Union). The Soviet Union continued to feed more money and goods into the Cuban economy despite Cuba’s increasing dependence on them.

Cuba’s profound losses

So, when the Socialist Bloc disintegrated in the late 1980s/early 1990s what all did Cuba lose? As stated above, almost 85% of Cuba’s total trade was with the Bloc. Along with that, 57% of the Cuban population’s raw caloric intake was from imported foods from these countries. With the loss of that food there was a 30% drop in average protein intake by the Cuban people. Imported foods weren’t the only problem however. Foods and export crops grown domestically were struck with a heavy blow as the country’s intensive industrial agricultural system proved unstable when its pesticide and fertilizer imports dropped by 80% and petroleum imports dropped by over 50%. This caused state-run farms to become much less productive, as crops could not be maintained in giant monocultures without heavy use of chemicals and petroleum-fueled tractors. Cuba needed a more efficient, sustainable, self-sufficient method of farming to make up for the enormous losses it had incurred.

The problem with intensive industrial agriculture

Why was Cuba so reliant on intensive industrial agriculture in the first place? Cuba’s reliance on this type of agriculture stemmed from its use in harvesting massive amounts of sugar cane for export, using machines to cut and process the cane. Soon, these methods were employed in its food production as well. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides became the norm as trade relations coalesced with the Soviet Union:
"Cuban agriculture was based on large-scale, capital-intensive monoculture, more akin in many ways to California’s Imperial Valley than to the typical Latin American minifundia or small-scale farm. Agrochemicals and tractors replaced human labor, leading to a rural exodus, just as had occurred in the United States and other countries with industrialized agricultural systems." (Rosset)
This rural exodus is seen in the 20% decrease in population of rural areas between 1960 and 1990. The use of harsh chemical fertilizers and pesticides also lead to contamination of food and water resources. Topsoil erosion is also an important concern in intensive practices like this. The loss of topsoil in an area destroys its productivity. It takes approximately 500 years for nature to produce 1 inch of topsoil. Every 28 years, 1 inch of topsoil is lost as a result of intensive industrial farming practices. Topsoil erosion is an obstacle that must be overcome in any long-term agricultural system. Finally, in what is perhaps a less tangible problem of this system, is that of workers being removed from the final product of their labor. In highly mechanized farming situations the jobs that require human attention are often very specialized and repetitive. This makes for tedious and dissatisfying jobs because the worker is just one small cog in the farming machine.

How did Cuba cope with its losses?

Luckily for the Cuban people the government had been doing some research on sustainable farming practices prior to the fall of the Soviet Union. In the early-1980’s experimenting had been done with rotating livestock and food crops on uncultivated parts of sugar cane plantations. This proved to be a useful way to both provide food and maintain soil fertility for the sugar cane. This system was never implemented on a large scale though because it was unnecessary due to strong Soviet support at the time. Another favorable factor for Cuba was the island’s large population of scientists:
"With only 2 per cent of Latin America's population but 11 per cent of its scientists and a well-developed research infrastructure, the government was able to call for 'knowledge-intensive' technological innovation to substitute for the now unavailable fertilizers and pesticides." (Cunningham)
Now, in cooperation with the agricultural community, “the nation has 218 biocontrol centers spread throughout farming regions. They monitor pest outbreaks and breed and release natural enemies” (Meadows). The scientists who work in these centers have discovered and improved upon many ingenious and ecologically sound methods of replacing chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Often times they’ll find creative ways of using locally occurring insects and microbes to combat pests. One method involves luring a colony of lion ants into the stems of bananas and then placing these stems in a plot containing sweet potatoes. These ants then ward off their natural prey, the sweet potato weevil. Certain microbes, found to be deadly against pests but benign towards humans, have also found a place in Cuba’s new regiment of pesticides. Other microorganisms have been mass-produced for their nitrogen producing capability (a key ingredient for plant growth). Another bio-fertilizing method now utilized by Cubans is vermicomposting. Composting organic material has always been a good way to provide rich, fertile soil. Vermicomposting, which involves introducing earthworms into composting process, greatly increases the speed of the composting and the amount produced. Cuba is among the leaders in large-scale vermicomposting operations.

Not all advances have come from science though. Cuba has a rich agricultural history and many traditional methods of farming are resurfacing. In reaction to the petroleum shortage, oxen have reappeared as a replacement for tractors. Oxen have a couple benefits over tractors besides the fact they don’t use petroleum. First, their manure is used to fertilize the fields they plow. And secondly, where tractors often get stuck in the mud if they try to plow during the rainy season, oxen do not. This great benefit because it allows some farmers to have three different growing cycles instead of only having two. Inter-cropping has also returned as Cuba looks for ways to move beyond monocultures. Inter-cropping involves growing alternating rows of plants within a field. This allows for increased use of limited field-space. Finally, there has been a resurgence of many traditional Cuban crops, especially certain roots and tubers that can be used as solid staple foods in the population’s diet. With all these revivals of traditional farming practices there has been much call for reaching out to Cuba’s elderly population to share their knowledge of these methods. "We had to hire some old campesinos from nearby villages as consultants to teach us how to hitch up an ox team and plow with them," a farm manager said. "It’s amazing how much those old guys know about farming." (Rosset)

State-run farms, which operated 80% of Cuban farmland, were much too dependent on intensive farming techniques to be maintained efficiently after the collapse of the Soviet Union. So, in 1993, in an effort to reconnect farmers with their land and to encourage less intensive means of growing crops, Cuba broke-down all their state-run farms and leased the land, at a very low cost, out to the workers to create small farming cooperatives. These cooperatives, or Basic Units of Cooperative Production, were still required to fill quotas for certain important crops, but, instead of the state owning the crops produced, they are owned by the workers. Any surplus crops produced could be sold freely on the newly reopened farmers’ markets. These markets provide the population with a larger diversity of food than the staple items handed out by the state.

Another aspect of Cuba’s organic farming revolution was its creation of gardens within and surrounding urban areas of the country. These urban gardens, referred to as organoponicos or agroponicos by the Cuban populace are found in at least 169 different municipalities across the island. The gardens found inside of the cities often replace vacant lots and undeveloped areas and are worked on by residents who live near them. In these gardens, one will usually find a variety of vegetables, herbs, and medicinal plants all grown side-by-side creating a diverse and productive environment. “Many state enterprises, schools and hospitals grow some of their own food and raise livestock, while the government has helped thousands of families and individuals to set up home gardens, plant fruit trees and raise chickens and rabbits”(Kovaleski). The surplus produce is sold in farmer’s markets at below the prevailing market value:
"On weekends in Havana, long lines spill onto the sidewalks in front of urban gardens, where customers wait to buy vegetables that are fresher and apparently more bountiful than in state markets, which on any given morning can run out of produce in a matter of hours. (Kovaleski)
These gardens are astoundingly productive. Some neighborhoods grow up to 30% of their own food. Residents in Havana alone produced over 540,000 tons of food in 1998. Along with the increased food production, there are many other benefits to come from the gardens. For example, a large amount of organic garbage goes straight back into the gardens as compost reducing the overall amount of garbage produced in the cities. The population is eating many more vegetables now than it has in previous years thus they are acquiring many more needed nutrients and calories and are somewhat healthier. The fact that the many of the vegetables are being grown in and sold directly from the gardens in which they are grown makes for zero transportation costs (petroleum and refrigeration) and very little goes bad because most vegetables are sold within a day or two of picking. Also as a result of the popularity of urban gardens there has been the creation of hundreds of horticulture clubs. Members of these clubs share gardening information, tools, and, when necessary, garden guarding duties. These clubs make for a strong sense of solidarity and community among its members.

Cuba’s future, after the embargo

What does the future hold for Cuba? Presently, Cuba’s organic revolution is going at full speed. There are, however, two schools of thought on the future of organic farming in the country. One group sees organic farming as merely a creative holdover to sustain Cuba until the U.S. trade embargo is lifted. When the embargo is lifted they feel it would be best to return to the previous, intensive, system of agriculture. The second group feels that organic farming should continue indefinitely. They feel it the most efficient way to grow food without destroying the people who grow it and the land it grows on. If the first group succeeds then, the moment the embargo is lifted, U.S. agribusiness will probably flood the Cuban market with cheap food of poor quality and displace many thousands of farm workers, as their jobs will become unnecessary (as it has with other Latin American countries). Alternatively, if the second group wins out hopefully the newly opened market will allow Cuba to export its organic food surplus to Europe and the United States where there is a strong demand for organic foods, thereby strengthening their economy to allow them to continue to be self-sufficient.

Cunningham, Shea. “Cuba: Organic Farming Offers Hope.” Canadian Dimension Vol. 29:3, pp. 25.

Kaplowitz, Donna Rich. Anatomy of a Failed Embargo: U.S. Sanctions Against Cuba. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 1998.

Kovaleski, Serge F. “Cuba Goes Green: Government-Run Vegetable Gardens Sprout in Cities Across Island.” City Farmer. 1 December 1999. Canadian Office of Urban Agriculture. 24 March 2001

Meadows, Donella. “Our Food, Our Future.” Organic Gardening Vol. 47:5, pp. 53

Levins, Richard. “Predatious Ants Patrol Sweet Potatoes in Cuba.” Harvard School of Public Health, Department for Population Studies. 24 March 2001.

Rosset, Peter. “Kicking the Chemical Habit.” New Internationalist May 2000, pp. 20-1.

Rosset, Peter. “The Greening of Cuba.” ACLA Report on the Americas Vol. 28:3, pp. 37-41.

Schwab, Peter. Cuba: Confronting the U.S. Embargo. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.

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