Viva la revolución: Cuban farmers re-gain control over land
As the state loosens its grip on food production, Cuban farmers and independent co-operatives will need support to help solve the country’s agriculture crisis
Alexa van Sickle
Tuesday 11 March 2014 16.08 GMT
Last year, Cuba spent over $1.6bn (£1bn) on food imports, an unsustainable amount for an economy that has been struggling since the end of the cold war and the collapse of its trading partner, the Soviet Union, through which it also lost 80% of its pesticide and fertiliser imports.
Today, Cuba still imports about 60% of its domestic food requirement, making it highly vulnerable to price increases, changes in food supply and the impacts of natural disasters.
Since 2007, President Raul Castro, noting its connection with national security, has made food security a priority. State farms hold over 70% of Cuba’s agricultural land; about 6.7m hectares. In 2007, 45% of this land was sitting idle. In 2008 Castro allowed private farmers and co-operatives to lease unused land with decentralised decision-making, and loosened regulations on farmers selling directly to consumers. Since 2010, Cubans with small garden plots, and small farmers, have been allowed to sell produce directly to consumers.
However, agriculture in Cuba remains in crisis. A government report issued in July 2013 showed that productivity had not increased. But there have been some successes and valuable lessons in the past few years that can help foreign aid organisations target resources and support.
Learning from successful co-operatives or farming initiatives is key, according to Christina Polzot, Cuban country representative for Care International.
“I think the greatest contribution is capacity building, especially as it relates to building management capacity at the local level,” she said.
One successful example comes from Cuba’s ‘urban’ agriculture. Urban farms are now thought to supply around 70% of fruits and vegetables consumed in cities such as Havana and Santa Clara. Vivero Alamar is an urban co-op just outside Havana that has sustained growth for 15 years. Co-op president Miguel Angel Salcines believes that the key to achieving food security in Cuba is to train agricultural workers with a ‘vocation’ for farming, and continuous upgrading of equipment.
The Cuban agricultural sector remains highly de-capitalised, but aid organisations can to some degree support it with agricultural materials and appropriate technologies. They can also boost the capacity of private farmers by training local farmers in sustainable agricultural practices, and helping co-ops develop modern business practices.
Canada, one of Cuba’s biggest donors, provides technical training in planning, environmental sustainability, and also gender equality for effective management of farming. It also helped increase Cuba’s forest cover by 1%, by planting 106,000 hectares of new seedlings.
Researchers can identify inefficiencies in the supply chain and where possible make recommendations.
Care in Canada also helped improve dairy production (pdf) – which has been a huge challenge for the country – by building and furnishing milk collection and conservation centres in co-ops, and advising on the supply chain. They also made infrastructure improvements for individual farms and created an exchange programme for Canadian and Cuban farmers.
In 2007, Castro had called the milk collection and distribution system “absurd” after finding that in Mantua in the west of Cuba, a few bottles of locally produced milk would make a long journey, but then return and be delivered to the house next door.
But Cuba has other challenges beyond the production system; it suffers from salinity, erosion, poor drainage, low fertility, acidity, low organic material content, poor retention of humidity, and desertification. One obstacle to increasing productivity has been a lack of knowledge among farmers about improving and conserving agricultural resources.
A pilot progamme implemented by Cuba’s Soil Institute and supported by the United Nations Development Programme, to improve the conservation of soil, water and forest land, gives 35 agricultural units training, technical assistance, and supplies – targeted at their own specific challenges. It includes planting forest trees on farms, searching new sources of water; no-till farming; live barriers to erosion made of plants and rocks, and using organic fertilisers.
Aid organisations in the country should also support agricultural initiatives in Cuba’s easternmost – and poorest – provinces, which are most vulnerable to coastal flooding.
Although the reform in agriculture has gone further than in many other sections of economic life, it may still be too early to gauge the effects. Polzot says it is possible that the reforms will increase autonomy because, for example, the more recent reforms have allowed private co-operatives to handle their own commercialisation.
But as yet, farmers are not allowed to import supplies or purchase produce at will. Armando Nova, a Cuban economist, suggested in a paper last year that the system would be more efficient if farmers did not have to wait for supplies to be assigned and delivered by the state; there are still delays in transport and a lot of spoilage.
There is concern among farmers that the government will at some point change its mind, scale back the reforms, and seize the land leased to farmers – and that it is unwilling to cede all control of the process.
In November 2013, the government issued a decree placing the management of food production entirely in non-state hands, to run experimentally in selected districts before going nationwide in 2015. For the moment, it seems the Cuban government is committed to its goal of putting Cuba on the road to food security. Aid organisations can help ensure that these initiatives are successful.
Alexa van Sickle is assistant editor of publications at
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