Sustainable agricultural tour report

Campaign News | Saturday, 1 January 2011

North London CSC member Brian Precious reports on the recent visit of Cuban agronomist Fernando Funes Monzote

Last October, North and South London Cuba Solidarity groups hosted the final date of the national speaking tour by Cuban agronomist Fernando Funes Monzote. Fernando was the guest of CSCs Cuba Organic Support Group, which supports organic farming in Cuba.

Speaking to a packed meeting at London's Marchmont Centre, Fernando - initially sporting a Norwich City scarf given to him at a previous date in that City! - began by outlining the Cuban Sustainable Agricultural Model, developed in response to the end of the USSR, Cuba's deforestation and the degradation of Cuba's soil and biodiversity, and Cuba's low food self-sufficiency and high external dependence on fertilizers, fuel and so on.

From the 1959 revolution onwards, Cuba developed the most technologically advanced agriculture in the 'third world', but 10-11% of her forests had gone,and much food was grown for export while Cuba was still dependent on food imports. In short, Cuba's agriculture needed to go beyond a structure of dependence. Associated with this were the socio-economic problems of a country which had gone through one of the biggest and fastest demographic changes of any society in recent history: In 1959, 75% of Cubans lived in the countryside and 25% in the city. Just 15 years later this demography was completeley reversed, with 75% of Cubans in the cities and just 25% on the land - with only a small proportion of that 25% actually working the land.

Subsidies absorbed the costs incurred by industrialized agriculture's effect on the land but, of course, didn't reverse these effects. Forests continued to recede and the soil needed external inputs to prevent it's complete exhaustion, for example. The fragility of industrialized agriculture became apparent when this system collapsed after the demise of the USSR and the chemical and technical inputs therefrom. It's inefficiency was shown since too many external inputs were required to produce a given amount of food. Add to this the loss of traditional agricultural experience in a populaton now mostly living away from the land, and a change of course became essential.

Cuba met this challenge by decreasing the area of land dedicated to production for export, emphasising her food self-sufficiency and environmental protection, and by initiating major changes in her land tenancy structure.

Monoculture has been replaced by a system of diversification, such as 'polycropping', where different crops are grown side by side in the same field. For example, the insects found by one crop make an efficient insecticide for the crop next to it, thus avoiding external input of insecticide, saving money and avoiding potential pollution.

Large state farms have been replaced by the development of a much larger number of cooperatives, and using the principle of 'usufruct'. This means that you may use a piece of land or machinery and so on, providing you return it to the working condition in which you found it. Usufruct is common ownership with common sense conditions! Private farmers have increased the area of land they farm, and the emphasis is now for local food production for local consumption and not for export. Small farms are now in the cities, using such techniques as organoponics: Havana is now self-sufficient in food.

Chemical fertilizers have been replaced by natural biological fertilizers - compost, mulch, worm culture -, pesticides and herbicides by natural agents for pest control, and the need for petrol has been replaced by an emphasis on the use of animal draught, and pasture is replacing imported feed concentrates.

The transformation has been led by the farmer himself, the 'promoter', who is then facilitated by technicians and policymakers. This structure is the very opposite of the 'we-know-best' technocratic approach we have seen so often in other parts of the world, with it's , predictable, consequences.

Farmers develop their own irrigation devices needing little or no fuel, and the Participatory Plant Breeding program now involves 40,000 farmers comparing notes on the best seeds they themselves decide to use.

But, Fernando told us, it remains to be seen whether the authorities in Cuba will see the agro-ecological model, described here, as an emergency measure to be used when traditional resources are scarce, or whether they will see it as the future of agriculture in Cuba and ,indeed, the world.

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