June 29, 2011

Cuba’s “Special” Period, Actually An Improvement On the Impending Norm

Filed under: American Revolution, Food and Farms, Relocalization — Russ @ 10:19 pm


Cuba’s “Special Period” has been the time since the collapse of the Soviet Union forced it upon the path of food self-sufficiency with minimal fossil fuel inputs. Cuba had previously exported sugar and other products to the USSR in exchange for heavily subsidized oil (the USSR carried Cuba for political reasons). Cuba responded by adhering to the Stalinist/Green Revolution corporate agricultural model of commodified monoculture, its production maximized by heavy fossil fuel inputs. Now the oil binge was over. There would be no more cash crop exports in return for oil and heavy machinery. Cuba had to figure out how to feed itself without oil or starve.
Cuba’s answer has been agroecology and relocalization, especially for urban agriculture.

One of the serendipitous results of the Cuban crisis has been the forced change from conventional farming practices to organic farming. Cut off from favorable trade agreements with the Soviet Union and its allies a decade ago, and unable to afford buying on the international market, Cuba has become a gigantic laboratory for farming without petroleum and petroleum derivatives. From pest control to fertilization to soil preparation, chemistry is out and biology is in.


The serious development of urban agriculture in Cuba began simultaneously with the disappearance of petrochemical inputs, such as fertilizers and pesticides, from Cuban markets. Consequently, urban production uses only biological fertilizers and biological and cultural pest control techniques. The limited quantities of petrochemicals available are employed for a few non-urban crops such as sugar, potatoes, and tobacco. In Cuba, the distinction between organic and urban is hardly worth making, as almost all urban agriculture follows organic practices.

Cuba’s motto for urban growing has been “Production of the neighborhood, by the neighborhood, for the neighborhood”, all of it emphasizing agroecological techniques making use of natural services for soil nutrition and pest and weed control. A similar transformation has taken place in the countryside.
Cuba has given proof of principle for the equation, post-fossil production = organic = agroecology.
We can add that it also means an emphasis on cooperative production. Cuba was formerly as beholden to Stalinist agriculture with its fetish of maximum production at all costs as the USSR was, and as globalized capitalism still is. But Cuba shed this antiquated model, broke up the big state farms and many idle private holdings, and gave them to individuals (called parceleros, because they became stewards of parcelos, plots) and co-ops with the proviso that they grow food. A new organization called the Urban Agriculture National Movement administered this program of land reform. So Cuban communism has admitted the state/corporate farm model doesn’t work post-oil. Therefore it’s far more innovative than capitalism.
The food is distributed through thousands of on-site stands or stands maintained by the growers. This comprises around 60% of the national produce. There are also two types of agricultural markets, one run according to the “free market” and charging what the market will bear, the other state-run and charging lower subsidized prices. Then there are programs for the producers directly supplying schools, hospitals, universities, and other facilities. 22% of the produce is consumed by the producers themselves.
So here we have the demonstration, the proof of principle, that post-oil agriculture has to mean breaking up all industrial forms and relinquishing the agricultural means of production to smallholders and co-ops. It turns out the old Populists, SRs, and anarchists were right after all. Centralized agriculture was a feature of the Oil Age, that’s all.
So how does the system work?

Eighty percent of Cuba’s population is urban. The Cuban government, acting through its Ministry of Agriculture, the Department of Urban Agriculture (created in 1994), and the National Urban Agriculture Group established soon thereafter, started promoting the approach of creating “new land” for cultivation as a way of finding local solutions to the food problem in Havana and elsewhere.

For this purpose it created three kinds of “new” land. The first of these, termed organoponicos, were gardens consisting of raised-bed containers filled with compost and manure-rich soil (often transported from elsewhere) constructed on lots that had been paved over, compacted, or were otherwise infertile.

The second form of land creation was to bring existing fertile land currently lying fallow, in vacant lots and parks or belonging to enterprises/collectives, into food production. Such land is usually already in state hands, in which case it is put to use by granjas (farms) and empresas estatales (state enterprises) to produce for the market or to fulfill ration and other commitments by the state, or as gardens for autoconsumo, that is, to meet the needs of the workforces associated with various state enterprises such as factories, farms, sugar cane complexes, schools, and hospitals.

The third form of new land included cultivating the patios and yards next to people’s houses.

Another innovation has been the huerto intensivo (intensive garden), which employs intensive gardening methods to maximize yield in small areas. Vegetables are planted close together on raised beds enriched with organic matter to provide adequate nutrition for the plants, but without retaining walls.

These initiatives are typically run by the state, collectives or cooperatives. However, local governments also assign rights to land to private individuals in the form of parcelas, so-called popular gardens, for as long as they are kept in production. Even privately-owned land can be assigned to would-be gardeners or farmers, unless the owner brings the land to a productive state within six months.

Finally, there has been a proliferation of backyard gardening, the so-called patios, propelled by campaigns led by a mass-based neighborhood civic organization, the Committee for the Defense the Revolution (CDR), and reminiscent of the victory gardens movement in the United States during the Second World War. By the summer of 2003, the number of patios in production had exceeded 300,000, with a goal for the future of over half a million patios, primarily aimed at increases in fruit production.

By the end of 2002, the goal of providing every settlement of over fifteen houses with its own food production capacity—whether organiponicos, group gardens, or individual plots—had essentially been met, and over 18,000 hectares were being cultivated in urban agriculture in and around cities.

This has been supplemented with extensive use of greenhouses and the new Cuban-pioneered technique of semi-protected cultivation, which involves the tactical deployment of rain-permeable ceiling-screens over the organoponicos and intensive gardens, to protect them from the worst of the sun’s rays and thereby further boost yields. There’s also an extensive urban reforestation program.
The results of these new ways of growing have been spectacular. In the early 90s, as Cuba was abruptly cut off from the oil, production plummeted and with it caloric intake, going below the FAO recommended minimum. But the crash agroecology program soon turned things around. By the latter 90s production was often doubling every year. By 2005 all provinces, even the most urbanized, were well above the minimum guidelines for calorie production. Havana’s production of vegetables went from 20.7 thousand metric tons in 1997 to 264.9 in 2004. This averages to a 38% annual increase. People who had involuntarily lost weight in the early 90s gained it back and then some. For the whole country, vegetable and herb production from 1994 to 2005 went from 4000 tons to 4.2 million, a thousandfold increase.

While I focus on Havana here, there have been many important accomplishments in this area throughout Cuba. In the urban agriculture program there are twenty-eight subprograms: twelve in crops, seven in animal husbandry, and nine in support areas such as organic manures, seeds, irrigation and drainage, marketing, and technical education. Over 350,000 new, well-paying, and productive jobs have been created in these subprograms over the last twelve years.

A similarly intensive process has taken place in rural areas, where the land has been redistributed for food production, much of it using teams of oxen to replace the idled tractors. Such agroecological techniques as the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) are used to replace petrochemical pesticides. Here are grown Cuba’s remaining export crops, mostly tobacco, coffee, and sugar, which are one of the ways Cuba earns dollars to import the few remaining things it still needs for its agriculture, such as irrigation equipment.
Everyone involved, growers and government, emphasize that the first priority of all this production is feeding the Cuban people. (The goal of feeding people barely exists at all for corporate agriculture, let alone as the top priority.)
The new agroecology has been superb for creating hundreds of thousands of good jobs. In addition to its effect on food production, the Special Period also brought on a general recession and the loss of many jobs. But the redistribution of land and the formation of hundreds of co-ops created new, often better jobs. The growers are often partners in the endeavor, receiving shares as well as salaries. The work conditions are benevolent and dignified. Workers are often fed from the produce of the operation.
An important point is how the system has engaged in PR campaigns to stress that agroecology is in fact skilled labor requiring a great deal of knowledge. The result has been that neither workers nor the public regard agricultural work as mere manual labor fit only for backward peasants. It’ll be critical to try to achieve this sea change in attitude in our countries. I’d like to study the Cuban PR material, if I can find examples of it.
This knowledge-intensivity was critical to enable the Cubans to so rapidly and effectively embark upon a post-oil crash course in the first place. Cuban agroecological R&D goes back to the 1970s. For many years it was relatively neglected, but still allowed to continue. The government leadership was aware of it. So when the crisis came, the knowledge cadre was already in place, their idea “lying around waiting to be picked up”. Castro picked it up, the researchers rapidly trained thousands of farmers, bureaucrats, agronomists, and technicians, and the thing hit the ground running. So it’s with good reason that the marketing of the system emphasizes the skill aspect of the work, and that such a high proportion of the workers are highly educated but don’t feel that they’ve fallen in the world. The system achieves a high level of job satisfaction, in addition to successfully feeding the people. Imagine the level of fulfillment humanity could feel working in a fully cooperative way under true Food Sovereignty.
It’s not yet Food Sovereignty, as the Cuban system is still controlled by a centralized government. But Cuba has achieved food security, and provides us all with a real-life model for what agroecology and partial cooperation can do where it has the support of centralized government. In principle we can do the same thing everywhere, except that we want to go all the way to full Food Sovereignty and economic democracy, and besides even if we wanted central government support, the chances of that ever happening are infinitesimal.
Another motto of the Cuban program has been: “Produce while learning, teach while producing, learn while teaching.” This can also be a watchword for the democratic relocalization movement everywhere.
So Cuba offers a model we can adapt as a blueprint for what we’re trying to achieve.


  1. We have a lot of work to do. The relevant “knowledge cadres” are still very much on the fringes. By the time people realise what’s necessary, hopefully we can have a more established “academy” of our own. “Produce while learning, teach while producing, learn while teaching.” – this is a fantastic motto. Teach while producing, in particular, is something we’re going to have to take to heart. There aren’t many opportunities for inexperienced city folk to acquire the relevant knowledge for this transformation at the moment. Establishing networks between various relocalisation movements so that when someone says “Hey, I want to do what you’re doing”, we can refer them to a smallholder-teacher who will give them those skills (and doing the teaching thing ourselves) will be critical.

    Comment by paper mac — June 30, 2011 @ 4:31 pm

    • You’re right, paper mac. Teaching while producing is what a lot of the people I know are trying to do.

      That’s what we’re trying to center around with the farmers’ market, the community garden, the medicinal garden, the time bank, and our other projects.

      I think we’re gradually making some headway.

      Comment by Russ — June 30, 2011 @ 8:06 pm

  2. Very, very interesting. I have been thinking about a “social network” for urban farms, community gardens and backyard gardens such as sharing info, organizing work hours and exchanging extra produce. I would like to share the rough idea if you’re interested. I’d be interested in your experience with time banking with the goal of integrating time banking as a means of exchange for claims on production. I’m thinking I will develop this in coordination with the new urban farm.

    Comment by Ross — July 1, 2011 @ 1:02 pm

    • Sure, we’d love to hear some ideas, Ross. Thanks!

      My own experience with time banking is just beginning, but I have high aspirations for it.

      Comment by Russ — July 1, 2011 @ 3:55 pm

  3. Haitian protests against Monsanto seeds:

    Comment by Lidia17 — July 3, 2011 @ 6:40 pm

  4. […] From Russ, on his “Volatility” blog: […]

    Pingback by Learning from how Cuba’s farming adapted to the end of Soviet support | The Bovine — July 6, 2011 @ 8:41 am

  5. […] can’t be intermingled or concurrent. They’re all based on the same principles.)   The wondrous experience of Cuba’s post-oil agroecology can be an inspiration and practical example to us all. One of the elements going into their […]

    Pingback by Labor and Agroecology Day « Volatility — September 5, 2011 @ 3:50 am

  6. […] been extensively studied, and in Cuba has already been partially deployed.   I’ve previously told the story of how Cuba had to embark upon a crash program of post-oil agriculture following the collapse of […]

    Pingback by Redeeming the Pavement « Volatility — October 19, 2011 @ 2:01 am

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