Deva Armoogum : When Permaculture Saved Cuba

Fidel Castro’s demise is an opportune time to reflect on one of the most tragic but also one of the most exciting and inspiring stories on food security. A story that is likely to end as America opens its arms to the country, signifying perhaps a kiss of death to three decades of permaculture practice which saved the country from famine.

With the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, there began a ‘special period’, as the Cubans themselves called it, which was a state of food deprivation so severe that it resulted in the calorific intake declining from 2600 to 1250 and the average weight of the population dropping by 30 pounds.

During the communist heydays, Cuba was benefitting from high subsidies on its sugar monocrop, earning foreign exchange to buy all its commodities from the Russian block. In 1990, with an income per capita of $2,750, the Cubans were enjoying a relatively high standard of living. With 80% of its economy depending on the Russian block, the collapse of the communist regime, compounded by the US embargo, was devastating for Cuba. Trade dropped by 50%, and GDP plummeted by 35%. The country was deprived of the large amount of food it was importing, and far worse, of access to oil and agricultural petro-chemical fertilisers and pesticides. This resulted in all farming activities grinding to a standstill.

Indeed, without fuel, tractors and farm equipment became useless. Without fertilizers, land which for years have been sucked of all natural nutrients became totally unproductive. With the grim prospects of starvation, the population was forced to look for alternative ways of producing food. It was fortunate that, in anticipation of a food crisis, the Cuban government had in the late 1980s invited a group of permaculturists from Australia to run the first PDC (permaculture design course), and very soon the permaculture movement spread rapidly to all corners of the country, but principally in urban and peri-urban areas. In just a few years, the food crisis was averted and there was even abundance and excess production in many towns and villages.

How could such a miracle happen and what was the impact on agriculture, food habits and lifestyles makes a compelling study for many researchers, but first of all what is permaculture all about? The word was coined by two Australians, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the mid 1970’s, and while the original definition was ‘an integrated, evolving system of perennial or self-perpetuating plant and animal species useful to man’, this later evolved to embrace a much larger concept. Permaculture is now described as ‘consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs’.

It is grounded on certain key assumptions regarding the depletion of natural resources, peak oil crisis and the environmental damages that excessive production and consumption are causing to the earth’s capacity to sustain life. The scientific foundation is quite varied, and includes such areas as systems ecology, geographic landscape and ethno-biology, woven together into a symbiotic whole through systems thinking and systems design.

Like in all human endeavours, ethics plays an important part in permaculture, and acts as ‘constraints on survival instincts and the other personal and social constructs of self-interests that tend to drive human behaviours in any society’. The ethics of permaculture revolve around three broad maxims, which are: Care for the Earth, Care for people and Fair Share.

These are the principles and values that helped to drive the agricultural revolution Cuba and took it out of the food crisis. With fuel not being available for even short distance mobility, the people had to resort to bicycles or animal driven carts for their movements and transportation of goods. Food production moved to the proximity of consumers, avoiding long distance transportation, and giving form to what is called urban permaculture. Necessity became the mother of invention. Indeed it was in Havana that organoponics was first mooted. Contrary to hydroponics, which uses water soluble fertilizers, composts became the primary source of plant nutrients. All the Russian supplied hydroponic farms became useless without chemical fertilizers, so all the troughs were filled with composts and used as the medium for growing vegetables. Government provided all the inputs needed, including technical knowhow, seeds, bio pesticides, and even beneficial insects for pest control, and soon the practice extended to all towns and villages. Today in Havana alone, there are more than 40,000 gardeners, some as individual parceleros (parcel or plot owners) and others grouped in cooperatives, all involved in organoponicos, covering more than 35,000 hectares of space that was not utilized before.

The outcome of this paradigm shift in agricultural methods would today be the envy of many countries. Today more than 80% of food production is organic, which no doubt contributes to Cuba being able to boast health indices that rival those of the industrialised countries. Consistent with permaculture principles of farm to table, distribution was based more on community support and farmers markets rather than on conventional channels, creating a greater sense of solidarity and cohesion in society.

Unfortunately all good things are destined to come to an end. There are today fears that with multinationals swarming in and the reinstatement of market based systems, farmers would lose the incentive to maintain the permaculture methods which helped the country move from hunger crisis to abundance. An agricultural system that was sustained over nearly three decades and producing a rich diversity of organic food will be replaced with industrial farming with its limited range of products to suit modern technologies and economies of scale, as well as export demands. There will be once more reliance on fossil oil and petro-chemicals will be back on the table. Urban agriculture, which today accounts for 70% of total food production will make way to large scale farms. Such concerns were raised in the 2013 International Permaculture Convergence which was held in Cuba, and there were lots of discussions about the mainstreaming of permaculture as a substitute to industrialised agriculture. Only the future will tell how long and how strongly the Cuban people will resist the tantalising calls to switch back to the consumer society which has become the global norm.

In the wake of climate change and environmental concerns, the Cuban model, derived from Permaculture, provides a unique and largescale example of an alternative to industrial agriculture, and which can function with a much reduced dependence on oil supply and global markets. In a relatively short time, the country moved from hunger crisis to food abundance. It replaced food poisoned by petro-chemicals by healthy organic food, and reduced income inequality by providing employment to a maximum number of people. Above all it shows the tremendous human powers of creative adaptation and resilience in a situation of crisis, and no doubt, it is a fertile ground for research for all those who feel inspired to create a sustainable habitat for our future generations.

Capital Media

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