Agroecological Farming in Cuba!
“We don’t inherit land from our parents, we borrow it from our children”
By: Maggie Donin, Beginning Farmer Specialist and Abby Portman, Community Relations Coordinator
Instead of travelling to visit family to eat turkey and stuffing, we chose to spend our Thanksgiving eating rice and beans and touring farms in Havana, Cuba. Thanks to the Vermont Caribbean Institute, two Intervale Center staff members were able to go to Cuba for an agroecology conference. The conference was hosted by ANAP, Asociación Nacional de Agricultores Pequeños, or the National Association of Small Farmers, a part of Cuba’s Ministry of Agriculture. The United Nations defines agroecology as “based on applying ecological concepts and principles to optimize interactions between plants, animals, humans and the environment while taking into consideration the social aspects that need to be addressed for a sustainable and fair food system.” Our hope was to learn more about the models for collaborative, ecological, and socially just farming in Cuba and apply it to our work in Vermont.
The conference had over 200 attendees from across the world. The larger group was split into smaller delegations of about 20. Our delegation consisted of people from Haiti, Belgium, the United States, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Argentina. For the first three days of the conference, each delegation traveled to different provinces across the island for farm visits. We spent the first part of the week touring urban and suburban farms in and around Havana. During these days, we visited cooperatives that sell farm products and support farm businesses through training and technical assistance, and visited the farms that are members of these coops. The farms were mainly producing bok choy, cabbage and other greens as well as bananas, yucca, mamay, and other forestry products. At each farm, we received incredibly warm welcomes filled with musical performances, food, coconuts, flowers, and more. The farm visits gave us the opportunity to speak directly with farmers, and see first-hand how agricultural cooperatives are run.
For the last two days of the conference the group came together as a whole for workshops on topics such as pest control, potato production, agricultural aid, youth in agriculture, and farming during a time of climate change. On the final day the group was hosted by the Cuban Ministry of Agriculture for panels on agroecology around the world and the Via Campesino movement across Latin America.
Cuba is not an easy place to understand. Many people you speak to, especially the farmers featured in the conference, are very happy with the life they lead in Cuba and speak highly of the revolution and the changes Fidel Castro brought to the country and its people. Others you meet in the city talk about the challenges of the Cuban economy such as affordability, the lack of opportunity, and isolation from the rest of the world. It is likely farmers may have benefited from the revolution and the “special period” more than many other people in Cuba. Agrarian reform was a large part of Fidel’s revolution and during the “special period” farms were forced to become more self sufficient due to lack of access to imports such as chemicals, equipment, and seed. Both of these significant changes led to the government handing over land to smaller farmers through long term leases or usufruct rights. Since 2008, 173,000 of the 193,000 Cubans who applied for land rights received them (www.foodfirst.org).
Although Cuba is obviously quite different from most of the United States, there are many overlaps with the work of the Intervale Center. One example is the Intervale Center’s commitment to providing farmers long term leases on land in the Intervale. We noticed many similarities between the Intervale model and Cuba’s small farm economy, both of which focus on cooperation and aggregation amongst farmers. The cooperatives in Cuba not only buy food from farmers and sell it to the government, but they also provide technical assistance and education for the growers. At the Intervale Center, our Food Hub aggregates food from farmers and sells it through a delivery model. Our Success on Farms program provides technical assistance, and business planning services to farmers. And, our Farms Program provides land and infrastructure for farmers to rent as well as an equipment sharing cooperative between the farmers. Many of the lessons shared from the Cuban farmers around the value of working together as farm businesses, sharing ideas and strategies, aggregating product, and gathering as farmers are similar to the work we do every day!
In Cuba, the food collected by the cooperatives is sent to social service organizations such as birthing centers, hospitals, schools, etc. This reminded us both of our Gleaning and Food Rescue program. Through the Gleaning Program, 22 sites in the community receive free fresh produce that is gleaned from farms for their clients. Both the Intervale Center, and the Cuban cooperatives recognize how important it is for the most vulnerable people within the population to receive fresh, nutritious food. The Intervale Center and the Cuban cooperative models share a common goal of bringing the community together. The cooperatives host meetings amongst farmers, agroecological classes, dinners, and parties for all community members. This is very similar to the Intervale Center. Through events such as Summervale, Wintervale, farmer meetings, gatherings of the equipment sharing group, dinners and parties, we strive to maintain a safe, comfortable space that can be utilized and enjoyed by the entirety of our community.
Throughout the trip, we reflected on what we were experiencing. We noticed things we admired about the Cuban style of agriculture, things we could bring back to the Intervale Center, and the ways in which we could better the work that we do. One of the most powerful realizations of the trip was the level of unity among all conference participants. We were 200 random people from around the world with a passion for food and agriculture, yet we were all united in solidarity for our shared vision of a better, more just food system.
As Intervale Center staff members, we are honored and humbled to spread the work we do with communities around the globe. Only through a unified voice and global collaboration will we build a more equitable and sustainable food system and work towards a more peaceful world.