The Cuban Gardening Revolution

By Clodagh and Dick Handscombe practical gardeners, authors and broadcasters living in Spain who made an informal study tour of Cuban vegetable and fruit growing areas four years ago.

Introduction

With changes under way within Cuba and other countries attitudes to Cuba one can only hope that the gardening and personal health worlds learn from the achievements of the Cubans following the post 1990 crisis when imported foods had to be rapidly replaced by home produced produce.

Five years ago we made a months visit to Cuba . Not to the international holiday resorts but to the inner city and countryside garden and agricultural areas. Fortunately we had the chance to meet many persons active in the Cuban Agricultural Revolution which in some ten years made Cuba almost self sufficient in the availability of fresh vegetables, fruit, herbs for natural medicines, and flowers. At the time we wrote up what we had learned which would be of benefit to Mediterranean gardeners and smallholders. As we often reflect back to that holiday we have dusted our original article for a wider audience. What we learnt is reflected in the development of our holistic/slow garden and some of the recommended practices in our books.

The need for Cuba’s dramatic vegetable growing revolution

In 1990 the important trading and aid relationships with the USSR collapsed and at the same time the USA tightened its trade embargo. The resultant dramatic reduction in the ability to import petroleum, agrochemicals, agricultural machinery and basic food products meant that throughout the country there was a major food crisis that threatened lives and the high level of health enjoyed by the average Cuban. In 1988 Cuba imported just under 60 percent of the total calories consumed by the population including 90 % percent of beans which are part of the basic local diet along with rice of which 50% percent was imported. In 1990 such imports dropped immediately by more than 50 % and even more in the next two years. The average daily calorie intake dropped from 2728 in 1990 to 1863 in 1993 including only 46 grams of protein. When we made our visit in 2003 it was back to around 2400 calories with 65 grams of protein a day – almost approaching the then government target of 2500 calories and 75 grams of protein .

What was done to achieve such changes.?

  1. Inexpensive food production and distribution was made the number one national priority and the production had to be ecological/organic.
  2. To rebuild the daily diet an increase in the proportion of proteins from vegetable versus animal sources had to be achieved.
  3. Agriculture was promoted as an important, honourable and appreciated profession with salaries comparable to teachers and the chance to earn more from production bonuses and the private sale of yields above production quotas.
  4. Individual families and groups of neighbours in flats were encouraged to start to produce vegetables and fruit in back yards, in patios, on roof tops and on any spare piece of ground in preference to flowering plants unless they had health benefits. More than 300,000 families were doing this in 2003 and we gather that this has since increased to over a million. Not bad for a country of only around twelve million people.
  5. Government assisted market gardens were established within major urban areas and on the outskirts of villages. Land on government farms was switched from sugar cane production to vegetables. Vegetable crops were even rotated between tobacco crops. Vegetable gardens were also established alongside factories, hospitals, office blocks and schools to supply the kitchens and for the sale of surpluses to employees. Flower and house plant nurseries were also encouraged for funerals, hotels and houses if sufficient.
  6. With a shortage of petroleum products and the stopping of imports of chemical fertilizers ,insecticides and herbicides production had to become essentially organic/ecological. Tractors had been replaced by 250,000 oxen bred and owned by the Government. At 17 years of age oxen were returned to the government to provide a meat supply to hospitals and schools.
  7. Scientific research resources were switched to agriculture and the country became the world leader in vermiculture. The large scale composting of collected urban waste was started in both cities and rural villages to provide natural compost and fertilizers for both private and government organic market gardens.
  8. Many patio and back yard gardens began to produce meat and organic fertilizers. Typically they had poultry, rabbits and guinea pigs and two pigs for new year and mid summer feasts. Some also bred catfish.
  9. Each production unit, community and even small mountain villages are supported by trained organic agricultural technicians. In the urban areas government shops provide /sell patio and small holding gardeners seeds, organic fertilizers, tools , and organic solutions to deter insects and fungal diseases .
  10. By the time of our visit the least efficient growing units have been weeded out and public parks and road verges that had been converted to emergency allotments were re-grassed to present a better picture to Cubans and tourists.
  11. Educational programmes stimulating the home growing of fruit and vegetables start in primary schools who often have school gardens that include popular natural remedy plants as well as vegetables and fruit.
  12. An amazing educational and support programme had been established to persuade families to start to preserve seasonal fruit, vegetables and herbs by home sun drying, bottling in salt and syrups and fermentation.
  13. Local family doctors were very active in running family workshops on diet and natural preventative remedies. Cuban pharmacies were roughly 50:50 natural and manufactured products. A holistic view of health was being taken which had raised Cuba to one of the healthiest countries in the world.

In our next article we will discuss what can be learnt from the Cuban food crisis for application in our Mediterranean gardens.

© Clodagh and Dick Handscombe May 2008.
Adaption of a previous 2004 article.