Learning from Cuba’s green revolution

Cuban-style city gardens could be the answer to South Africa’s food and employment problems, says Michèle Schubert. Roelof Bezuidenhout chats to her about the origin of urban agriculture in Cuba and the potential implication it could have for our country.
Issue date 8 June 2007

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SA could learn from CUBA’S organic production system, says Michèle Schubert, an agricultural development technician and consultant who recently visited Cuba to study their efforts at attaining food ­security via a specially created ­department for urban agriculture. She says that, by 2005, more than four million tons of food had been produced from organic ­gardens or urban agriculture in Cuba.

According to Michèle, 75% of all imports and 53% of oil imports simply fell away when the Soviet bloc collapsed. “The ­biggest impact was on food as the Cuban population had relied heavily on imported food. In addition, their monoculture-type agriculture depended on 80% of all pesticides and fertilisers being imported from the Soviet bloc,” she explains. The solution was to turn all available open city land into gardens and to grow food organically. “By 1998, 8 000 officially recognised gardens had been developed in Havana, cultivated by over 30 000 people and covering some 30% of available land. By 2004 these Havana city gardens were producing 300 000 tons of food, from 28 000 gardens ­employing 100 000-plus people,” Michèle says.
What helped Cuba was that the country has a highly skilled, educated ­population and although it only has 2% of the Caribbean population, it has 11% of all the scientists in the region. Many of them, says Michèle, were influenced by the ecology movement and were critical of the intensive agricultural system. “But as they had started developing alternatives to chemical dependency, they were eventually given the green light to continue and expand. This led to the establishment of over 200 biocontrol agents countrywide who assist farmers with pest control,” she says.

The focus on urban agriculture stems directly from a popular movement that was started in the early 1990s to address health and nutrition issues. It was a government decision that Cubans start getting a sizable part of their caloric intake from fresh vegetables, fruits and nuts. Today, children’s nutrition is a top priority.
“Within the urban areas, beside the vegetable and fruit production, there is also honey production and bees are bred for pollination purposes. Farmers combine vegetable production with chicken-keeping and keep other animals in or near the gardens to supply the manure needed for compost production. Biopesticides/botanical pesticides are produced and used. No harmful chemicals are applied because these gardens are urban and have to be safe for people working in and living near the gardens.

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“Cuba’s organopónico (disused demonstration hydroponics plants) and the heurtos intensivos (intensive gardens) cultivating salads, herbs and vegetables in raised beds with a high ratio of ­compost to soil, are run like businesses. As the products are sold and the profits paid out, the ­people have an incentive to work. The land is made available by the state for as long as it is being cultivated, and for the ­workers it makes economic sense to produce quality food for the local population.
“In SA, many government departments grapple with the transition from directly giving food parcels to the insecure and vulnerable towards enabling food production. If we were to establish Cuban urban agriculture in the form of city/township gardens in the Western Cape, for example, we would have to concentrate on ­compost production, either vermi-composting (using earthworms) or ‘hot’ compost using an effective activator like manure and/or comfrey. Increasing soil fertility breeds healthier, more pest-resistant plants and gives better results,” says Michèle.

However, she points out that community food producers would only be spurred on to work in such gardens if good results are achieved. “Finance would have to be raised for the initial job creation and wages. Also, mechanisms need to be developed so that interdepartmental job creation and nutritional improvement can be effectively worked out and implemented,” she says.

Contact Michèle Schubert on 082 718 4334. |fw