Food Sovereignty in Cuba: Cooperative Farming and Agroecology

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This post was contributed by Kim Kirkbride:

This past May I spent 18 days touring farms and urban gardens in Cuba as part of a Food First Food Sovereignty Tour.  I learned firsthand about the Cuban approach to sustainable agriculture and food sovereignty by visiting with farmers, food educators, and even the Minister of Agriculture.  Each day was capped off with discussions about what true food sovereignty looks like and where Cuba is at in the process.

Food Sovereignty is the right of all peoples to healthy, culturally appropriate, sustainably produced food, and to the resources needed to produce food.

Cuba’s unique political history makes it an especially fascinating study on food sovereignty.  And, I think, demonstrates a coordinated state response to agricultural policy that meets the needs of an increasingly degraded environment and food insecure world.  Specifically, I think the way Cuba is transforming land access for aspiring young farmers sets a stellar example for our own country where the average age of farmers is 57 years old, and land prices are rising by the day.

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It’s difficult to gloss over an incredibly fascinating path through history, but I could talk for days about Cuba’s revolutionary history and its influence on Cuban farming practices.  Alas, here are the highlights:

  • The Cuban Revolution of 1958-59 was a response to absentee foreign landownership and the absolute lack of rights Cuban peasants experienced under the latifundio system. Prior to 1959, 95% of Cuban land was foreign owned.
  • Two of the most important acts the revolutionary government put into place after the revolution were to address land ownership.  The First Agrarian Reform of 1959 reclaimed all foreign-owned land into state control with agricultural production as a top priority.  The Second Agrarian Reform of 1962 nationalized large idle land tracts held by Cuban latifundistas. These lands were operated as centralized state farms.
  • In the mid to late 1960s Cuba developed an inflated trade relationship with the USSR that lasted until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.  Soviets bought Cuban sugar at prices higher than the rest of the global market and supplied Cubans large, mechanized state farms with heavy machinery, petroleum, pesticides and inorganic fertilizers at very low prices.  The result was that most agriculture in Cuba from 1960 to 1990 was industrial scale monocropping that relied heavily on Soviet petrochemical inputs and export to the USSR.
  • With the collapse of the USSR, Cuba essentially reached peak oil and peak food overnight.  The economic depression that occurred as a result is known as the Special Period in Peace Time, because the country had to ration food, water, fuel and electricity as if it were at war. It’s estimated that the Special Period was up to 10 times worse than the Great Depression.  The average adult lost 20 lbs from 1991 to 1993.

How did the Cuban government respond to the crisis?  While the process was not without flaws, and Cubans endured great suffering for many years, the Cuban government took the long view and the bold step of undertaking its own food sovereignty as a means to rebuild the economy. This meant reinventing the industrial agricultural system into a low-input sustainable agriculture system (LISA) that aims to meet Cubans’ needs ecologically, socially and economically rather than the needs of the global market. It emphasizes agroecological practices, draft animal power and farmer cooperatives.

Land Use in Cuba

The first agricultural policy of the Special Period dissolved most of the large state farms into smaller worker-owned cooperatives (Decree 142 of 1993).  More recent policies include Decree 259 (2008) which grants essentially free access to land to anyone willing to cultivate it, in a process called usufruct.  Even more recently, based on farmer feedback, the usufruct policy has be adjusted to allow access to land indefinitely rather than for a period of 10 years.  The amount of land granted to each farmer has also increased to approximately 100 acres.

Taking the community approach to peak food and peak oil has been slow and requires the neverending cycle of learning, action and reflection.  The pace of the process has received much criticism from the United States, perhaps in part because Cuba chose not participate in the global debt system that “develops” poor countries while keeping them beholden to the economic interests of wealthy nations. Cuba is a real time example of how pursuing food sovereignty is the higher, but more winding, road out of a crisis.  Cubans still have a long way to go in achieving the major benchmarks of food sovereignty, but they’re on their way and the view looks promising.

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Any statistics are taken from my notes of conversations with Cuban farmers and the Minister of Agriculture, Juan José León. Dates of Agricultural Policies were found in The Unfinished Puzzle: Cuban Agriculture – The Challenges, Lessons and Opportunities by May Ling Chan and Roberto Fransisco Freyre Roach (Food First Books 2012)

Kim Kirkbride works as the WIC Garden Coordinator for the Virginia Department of Health. In this role she serves the New River Valley in southwestern Virginia.