Cuba is intent upon developing sustainable agriculture based on ecological practices. Learning to integrate the agricultural environment with all that surrounds it, and designing technology, processes, and a focus which allow for the development of improved practices are some the ideas being pursued in the country.
Agro-ecology is a science nurtured by popular knowledge, traditions, and local agricultural culture, based on meticulous, systematic study of each context, with the most modern scientific discoveries from around the world incorporated. This field brings together all this knowledge, to generate a highly contextualized, site-specific approach.
According to Dr. Roberto Caballero Grande, Coordinator of the Cuban Association of Agricultural and Forestry Technicians (ACTAF) agro-ecology program, developing the broad use of this science in any country requires the joint work of universities and research centers, and an effort to collect relevant international knowledge, which can be combined with that of farmers here.
To accomplish this, he states, a systematic focus is needed, one in which all factors are interconnected and the production process is given the highest priority. Dr. Caballero advocates the coordinated use material, natural, and human resources, to consistently allow for optimal yields, offering nutritious, safe products of good quality and appearance.
The expert likewise emphasizes the importance of reducing dependence on other countries, minimizing imports of food, supplies, and equipment.
Work is being done to ensure that plans and technology are as environmentally-friendly as possible, and that compensatory actions are taken when needed, including the recovery of degraded agro-ecosystems. Thus, food is produced based on a commitment to the safe delivery of amounts required, of adequate quality, made available to the entire population, the specialist explains.
"All of this together is what we have been doing. The best evidence of its feasibility, and the appropriateness of this focus, we have today in our system of urban and suburban agriculture, and the Campesino to Campesino Agro-ecological Movement, promoted by the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP), with results that are positive, and completely sustainable.
"There is currently more variety in crops being cultivated, and this has influenced the eating habits of the population. People are consuming more greens. The organic garden stands have increased sales of vegetables, and Cuba's natural resources and workforce are being better utilized," Dr. Caballero states.
The Primero de Julio farm is located off of Havana's Boyeros Avenue. Pedro Piñones Valdés has been working here for eight years and reports that more than 15 crops are grown at the site.
"Our production comes to around 100,000 pounds of vegetables. These are products we sell to the population at our own garden stand. We also allocate a portion for social consumption: hospitals, rest homes, schools, and childcare centers," Piñones states.
The ACTAF offers training, and Piñones notes that the experience has been very useful, explaining that workers like himself receive advice, attend courses, and utilize instructional pamphlets that allow them to put their learning into practice and be more effective at the farm.
"Promoting these organic gardens within the city contributes to better use of the soil, and is also an effective way to allow the population to consume a greater amount of fresh produce," he said when asked about the program's benefits.
SEEDS & GREENHOUSES
On these 28 hectares there are mango and tamarind trees, maracuyá, broccoli, tomatoes, and cucumbers - a great variety of quality fruits and vegetables. Years ago, this was small plot where traditional methods were used by a family to grow food for their own consumption, but the family grew, along with their desire to farm.
Alexander Alfonso Silva now directs the Piedras farm in Guanabacoa, a project begun by his parents and uncle. Today he is one of the area's most outstanding urban farmers. He provides produce to social institutions, as well as hotels and several stands serving the population.
Given the farm's success, they have now joined the PAAS project, a joint effort to support sustainable agriculture in Cuba sponsored by ACTAF, the Swiss International Cooperation Agency (COSUDE), and the Dutch non-governmental organization Hivos. The idea is to try out different varieties of seeds and determine their adaptability, with a view toward improving the quality of produce.
This is but one of the projects in which ACTAF is involved to support the development of sustainable agriculture. The organization works with international partners and manages funds, explains Yaneisi Grana Rivero, collaboration secretary in Havana.
"Among the projects are those related to animal production, and the networks of services meant to increase the level of production on urban farms," she said.
"Today, this farm is an example of the work being done in the country's capital with organic produce. It is the first experience, extended over several municipalities on the island, impacting several value chains, as is the case of fruits and vegetables," Grana reported.
Alexander Silva works in six greenhouses testing new tomato and cucumber varieties, which are very resistant to seasonal weather, he explains.
The goal is to certify the seeds and determine if they are in fact appropriate to meet the demand for these products during the hot summer months. During this experiment, he has also investigated the seedlings' response to organic fertilizers used, as well as adjusting irrigation according to the weather.
"We are going to work efficiently to achieve stable availability of produce over the summer. Thus far, the results have been satisfactory. This is a very good technique that allows for production the entire year," Silva said.
" Work is also now being done on the issue of training. Actions directed toward obtaining the production of organic vegetables and advancing the search for sustainable agriculture in the country," Grana added.
Fruit orchards in Cuba had practically disappeared. Today the variety of fruits available has increased thanks to the movement of fruit farmers, promoted by the urban agriculture program. La Ignacita farm, in the Havana municipality of San Miguel del Padrón, is an example. More than 10 kinds of fruit are grown here, although as much as 40% of the annual harvest went to waste in the past
A solution to this problem has been found and today workers at the farm are enthusiastic about a mini-processing plant being erected here.
The project, also conceived by PAAS, is intended to take maximum advantage of the farm's crops, and increase the production of food for local and national consumption, according to engineer Pedro Gavilanes Díaz, the organization's management specialist.
"The proximity of the mini-plant to the place where the fruit is grown, and even to other municipalities and farms near the cooperative, will allow all the surplus, which is at times lost, to be used productively.
"We want to sell a greater amount of fresh fruit, but what is not sold this way can be taken advantage of by processing it. The goal is to add value to the products, and that these are of good quality, hygienic, and safe for consumption," the engineer Gavilanes adds.
Already underway is the process of erecting the mini-plant, which is to include a pitting machine, a pulp remover, a cooking cauldron, as well as canning and labeling equipment. The start-up is projected to take place in time for the coming mango harvest, with a daily processing capacity of close to one ton.
The project, along with local support and working with the Ministry of Agriculture, will purchase supplies through the state logistics enterprise group (GELMA) for the plant, which is looking to process vegetables as well, in the future.
"Producer will increase their income, reduce losses, and more food for the population will be obtained," the PAAS expert Gavilanes emphasized with satisfaction.
CHALLENGES FOR AGRO-ECOLOGY
According to the ACTAF coordinator, the greatest challenge is finding technological solutions for large agricultural poles.
Dr. Caballero asserts that what is most lacking is the effective transmission of information generated in research centers to farmers. He therefore insists that structures must be created at the local level, to ensure that this knowledge is available in every municipality to support agriculture in the area.
"We are an under-developed country, but we have much human talent, with many institutions and systems in place. If we establish a focus and coordination among local actors, what we aspire to is easy to achieve, as long as we have the participation and support of research centers, universities, associations, the ACTAF, ANAP, and everyone working toward this end," Dr. Caballero states.
Municipal food self-sufficiency programs are today part of national policy, and expanding the use of agro-ecological practices contribute to such efforts. They likewise contribute to making more sustainable the country's large productive poles where large areas of land are cultivated to produce rice, beans, fruit, tobacco, and other crops.
"We believe that in the long run, it will also contribute to dignifying the work of campesinos, as well as that of technicians. In sustainable agriculture based on agro-ecological practices, they are much more important, because they must be capable of generating local knowledge, in accordance with the characteristics of their land.
"It is very important to clarify that we are not talking about generalizing something someone said, but rather reconstructing know-how in each location," Dr. Caballero insists.
Agricultural development is today gaining ground and experience, as well as joining forces with technology - indicative of the interest that exists in the country to obtain concrete results. Challenges lead to better solutions, and farming families are everyday more satisfied with their work, in a developing effort to make Cuba a more productive country.