At the end of October 2014, thirteen delegates from the Schumacher Center for a New Economics traveled to Cuba to study its progress in developing sustainable food systems.
We visited family farms in the Pinar del Rio Province, a large cooperative farm in the Alamar district on the outskirts of Havana, and the gardens of an ecological village in the Sierra del Rosario mountains, receiving a warm welcome everywhere we went. We met with agricultural agencies and their research counterparts. We even received an unexpected request for a meeting with the Foreign Ministry. We ate well; listened to exceptional music in the troubadour tradition; danced late into the night; and were amazed by the range and sophistication of Cuban contemporary art. We fell in love with the landscape of the countryside and the architecture of Havana. All of which gave us a chance to witness an economy and culture in transition.
Greg Watson, then the Massachusetts Commissioner of Agriculture and now Director of Policy and Systems Design for the Schumacher Center, was part of the delegation. Below are excerpts from his report on lessons learned from the trip and his suggestions for the Schumacher Center’s continued exchange with the people of Cuba:
I was impressed with what I saw of the Cuban agricultural system: beautiful, healthy fruits and vegetables being grown on urban, suburban, and rural farms without petroleum inputs.
The fact that Cuba’s decades-long validation of farming without petroleum inputs was not initially driven by environmental concerns in no way diminishes its role as a world leader in ecological or organic and urban agriculture. What that country has been able to achieve transcends politics and ideology.
Much of this can be attributed to the adoption of decentralized agrarian policies that encouraged individual and cooperative forms of production beginning in the 1990s. Overly bureaucratic state-run farms were replaced with thousands of new small urban and suburban organoponicos, parcelas, and patio gardens, and millions of acres of unused state lands were made available to workers for small-scale farming.
Equally impressive and more surprising were the candid conversations regarding the changes taking place in the country. People spoke openly of the economic failures of socialism while also reminding us of the ethical shortcomings of capitalism. Cuban intellectuals, government officials, and activists are searching for a new economic model somewhere between these two poles, which is certainly an over-simplification of an incredibly complex challenge. The agricultural cooperatives may offer a glimpse of such a model.
Forty-five days after we concluded our visit to Cuba, the media was abuzz with the news that the United States and Cuba had agreed to re-establish diplomatic relations. This new relationship will unfold while Cuba is in the process of reinventing its economic system.
Our original goal was to share experiences in our respective efforts to develop sustainable food systems. The prospect that the economic embargo on Cuba might be lifted, though a bold and positive step in many ways, could place the country under pressure to revert to an industrial agriculture to meet new export markets. What role might we play in supporting achievements already in place?
Cuban farmers, researchers, and government officials have over the years developed what is arguably the most comprehensive, time-tested system of agroecology in the world. They have also refined the Farmer-to-Farmer method of communicating information. Troves of technical reports have been amassed. U.S. farmers in search of tools that can help enhance their efforts to build economically viable sustainable farm businesses could benefit from the Cuban experience. In exchange, U.S. farmers could share tips on marketing and distribution that could be helpful to Cuban farmers and cooperatives.
Sharing the lease agreements of the community land trust, as one tool in a new economics tool kit, could provide a method of achieving more ownership opportunities in buildings and crop production for Cuba’s farmers without taking the land itself out of the commons.
Cooperatives are key to the survival of the Cuba’s agroecology system within a new economic environment that will unfold rapidly. The cooperative models have demonstrated that Cuba can integrate some aspects of private enterprise into their society without compromising fundamental social values – in essence an ethical economics based on the premise that people and the environment matter more than profit.
The full text of Greg Watson’s report can be read here. He will continue to connect the sustainable agriculture community in the U.S. with its counterparts in Cuba to share experiences and strengthen each other’s work. Our thanks to the Christopher Reynolds Foundation for its decades of work in Cuba that established the groundwork for this project.