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Unfinished Puzzle: Cuban Agriculture: The Challenges, Lessons & Opportunities

Unfinished Puzzle: Cuban Agriculture: The Challenges, Lessons & Opportunities

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by May Ling Chan, Eduardo Francisco Freyre Roach, Institute for Food and Development Policy (Oakland, Calif.) Staff

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Cuba is widely recognized for its social achievements including health care, education, social security, subsidized food and other benefits and opportunities, despite well-meaning, or sometimes not so well-meaning, international criticisms. For more than 50 years, this Caribbean island has defended and sustained these economic, political, social and cultural gains,


Cuba is widely recognized for its social achievements including health care, education, social security, subsidized food and other benefits and opportunities, despite well-meaning, or sometimes not so well-meaning, international criticisms. For more than 50 years, this Caribbean island has defended and sustained these economic, political, social and cultural gains, and has maintained a commitment to humanitarianism and international solidarity that persists to this day.

Part one of Unfinished Puzzle describes the socioeconomic context of Cuban agriculture, the natural environment that affect it and the international political context in which it has developed. Part two explores the unique agricultural policies Cubans implemented to confront the food and economic crises of the early 1990s. Finally, part three examines the lessons to be learned from the Cuban experience with respect to local development, sustainable agriculture, agroecology, food security and food sovereignty. It highlights the elements of the Cuban system most suitable for replication in other countries facing similar circumstances or challenges.

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Food First / Institute For Food & Development Policy
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Cuba is, without a doubt, a unique case: it is a multiethnic island state with a distinct political system that has evolved under a half-century-long economic blockade by the United States. These factors have influenced the country’s historical development and will continue to define its future course.
This report contributes to the analysis of fundamental questions relating to Cuban agriculture, and of the challenges and setbacks it faces. First and foremost, we hope to deepen the understanding of the context in which the country’s agricultural development unfolds.
Cuba navigates the turbulent waters of the dominant international economic and political order. Of course, “order” may be an overstatement, considering the proliferation of recent financial crises and oil- and food-price hikes that have affected rich and poor countries alike. In Cuba, the impact of these crises is magnified by the 50-year-U.S. blockade. Nonetheless, by 2010 Cuba had begun opening its economic doors thanks to its integration into the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR), Petrocaribe, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the Rio Group. The country currently practices bilateral trade with Venezuela, Vietnam, China, Brazil and other countries, including the United States.
Severe weather conditions have had a harsh impact on the island. Intense cyclones, accompanied by periods of prolonged drought, have ravaged the country. These natural disasters exacerbate soil erosion, thus making agricultural production increasingly difficult. Cuba has taken significant measures to minimize and mitigate these impacts.
In the last ten years, agricultural production has improved, but remains unstable and insufficient. Favorable results are seen with tubers, vegetables, fruit and small livestock. But persistent difficulties remain in the production of fresh milk, beef, chicken and, especially, sugarcane. Because domestic production has been insufficient to guarantee the island’s food security, it has had to import food and suffer all of the consequences that this entails. To counter rising food prices in 2007, the government instituted a policy of import substitution, especially in the subsidized food basket, which includes beans, rice, corn, milk, eggs and chicken. This approach has been somewhat successful in diversifying production, consumption and agricultural exports.
The Cuban government continues to readjust its agricultural policies in strategic ways. In the late 1980s, the country fell into a deep crisis as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Bloc. To make matters worse, the United States intensified its blockade. These events provoked the immediate reduction of oil imports by 53%, food imports by 50% and fertilizers by 80% (Sinclair and Thompson 2001). As a result, the government declared a “Special Period in Peacetime of total austerity." The implementation of this extreme measure didn’t mean that the government sat back and did nothing, however. The country was in urgent need of solutions. By the early 1990s, the government set in motion a series of transformations, both temporary and long term, in the agricultural sector. The goal, which remains to this day, was to overcome the problems caused by the input intensive, industrial trade agricultural model adopted in the 1960s. The changes implemented included:

• Granting vacant lands in usufruct to individuals, farmworker collectives or organizations willing and able to immediately make them productive in a sustainable manner;
• Strengthening cooperatives;
• Changing marketing regulations so that producers receive a higher price for their crops on the market, thus ensuring a greater availability and access to food;
• Readjusting (with some difficulty) the size and importance of the sugarcane sector.

The enormous challenges faced by Cuban agriculture are a source of intense debate on the island. On the one hand, since Cuba imports a large volume of food, some allege that the country is far from achieving food sovereignty. On the other hand, others argue that Cuba is in complete control of the decisions it makes about its food system. In fact, the government strongly supports Cuban farmers and promotes local self-sufficiency and sustainable agriculture as a matter of policy.
Organic production (regulated and certified) is booming in Cuba, especially when one looks at the production and export of organic citrus, coffee, honey and sugar. There is also strong debate about how to certify organic production and create differentiated markets for organic products without jeopardizing social equity.
Cuban research on genetically modified (GM) crops and animals has been highly controversial. In 2008 Cuban biotechnology researchers and genetic engineers produced a variety of transgenic maize resistant to the insect palomilla (Spodoptera frugiperda). The country began planting the GM maize on a small scale the following year, under regulatory oversight by the Biosafety Law, which regulates the planting and importation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). But many argue that Cuba can and must remain GM free in order to protect the government-supported model of ecological agriculture and to protect the island’s native seeds from contamination by GMOs.
In recent years Cuba has granted much greater support to locally managed development projects and sustainable agriculture. With the administrative decentralization promoted by the state, local actors have gained greater autonomy and decision-making power. As a result, a number of programs and development projects have been able to focus on:

• Building on local potential and local innovations.
• Achieving a high degree of institutionalization and popularization.
• Emphasizing community-based action, participation and management.
• Creating networks among the various projects—although there continue to be challenges in this area.
• Collaborating with the government and/or with NGOs.
• Promoting low-external-input farming methods.
• Facilitating dialogue and cooperation between traditional and scientific knowledge.
• Establishing incentives, recognition and awards for farmers.

These projects have indisputably made tremendous achievements in advancing sustainable agriculture in Cuba. For instance, researchers Peter Rosset and Martín Bourque (2001, xiii) note:
In the midst of a global food crisis with ecological, economic and social repercussions, there are numerous examples throughout the world of farmer-led, community-based development that are economically viable. However, Cuba is one of the few examples where these projects have translated into policy changes and where substantial government resources have been invested in supporting this movement.
Similarly, World Bank expert Dale Allen Pfeiffer stated in 2005, “Cuba has disproved the myth that organic agriculture cannot maintain a modern nation.” Richard Levins (2005) further added that, in Cuba, the ecologists have won the battle against the industrial model.
Cuban achievements in agriculture and sustainable development are recognized internationally. In 1996, the Cuban Movement for Organic Agriculture was awarded the Saar Mallinskrodt Prize by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM). Three years later, in 1999, it was awarded the alternative Nobel Prize, the Right Livelihood Award. According to the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report (2006), Cuba is the only country in the world that meets its criteria for “ecological footprint and sustainable development.” In 2010, the Goldman Prize, widely considered to be the “green” Nobel Prize, was awarded to the Program for Local Agricultural Innovation (PIAL) of the National Institute of Agricultural Science (INCA), for its contributions to biodiversity, agroecological innovation and local development.
Cuba continues to gain recognition for its ability to overcome the collapse of its food system in the 1990s and to maintain remarkable social achievements despite its isolation from international institutions including the IMF and the World Bank.
Cuba has rejected the neoliberal model, and fervently protects its political sovereignty. In 2001, World Bank president James Wolfensohn and head of the Data Management Group on Development, Eric Swanson, called Cuba an “anti-model” with the best health and education indicators in the developing world. And while the situation remains highly complex, Cuba’s agricultural policies continue to satisfy the nutritional needs of its population, while ensuring a high degree of social equity that meets the needs of both producers and consumers. As such, the island meets a number of development criteria that are recognized the world over (Sinclair and Thompson 2001).
Moving forward, it is useful to take into account not only the successes, but also the difficulties that have emerged along the way. Cuba today presents itself as an unfinished puzzle that must urgently be solved.

Meet the Author

May Ling Chan is CEO of Friends of the Earth-Hong Kong. She worked with Oxfam Hong Kong in Asia and Africa for over 12 years. Her research at the Agrarian University of Havana focused on agricultural policy, agroecology and incentive structures for sustainable production from 2005 to 2009.

Eduardo Francisco Freyre Roach, PhD has been a professor at the Agrarian University of Havana for 27 years, specializing in rural sociology, sustainable agriculture and bioethics.

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UNFINISHED PUZZLE: Cuban Agriculture: The Challenges, Lessons & Opportunities 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
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