Growing It Alone: Urban Organic Agriculture on the Island of Cuba

By Mark, Jason | Earth Island Journal, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview
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Growing It Alone: Urban Organic Agriculture on the Island of Cuba

Mark, Jason, Earth Island Journal

The Alamar district in eastern Havana is a typical example of Soviet-style housing. Perfectly rectangular apartment blocks march in formation, one after another. The plazas between the buildings are spacious, yet somehow eerie in their geometric severity. The uniform architecture is meant to erase class distinctions, but the effect--as in the public housing complexes of the US --serves mostly to erase creativity and liveliness. The monotony of the layout seems to check morale.

Until, that is, one discovers Vivero Alamar--Alamar Gardens. Surrounded on all sides by seven-story apartment buildings, Vivero Alamar is a kind of oasis, a 27-acre working farm set right in the middle of a bustling city of 2 million people. The farm is everything that the surrounding architecture is not--polyform, versatile, organic.

Founded in 1994 on a smaller nine-acre parcel of land, Vivero Alamar today is a 140-person venture growing a wide range of fruits and vegetables. A patchwork quilt of orchards, shade houses, and row crops provides a steady harvest of bright green lettuces, carrots, tomatoes, avocados, culinary and medicinal herbs, chard, and cucumbers. The crops are healthy-looking, well tended, and all grown without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides. Vivero Alamar is a completely organic operation.

Upon harvest, the farm's produce is sold to the neighbors at a colorful farm stand. Vivero Alamar also sells a range of organic composts and mulches for families' use, as well as a broad selection of patio plants, propagated on site. In 2005, this neighborhood-managed, worker-owned co-operative earned approximately $180,000. After capital improvements and operating expenses are taken into account, that translates to about $500 per worker annually; not bad, considering that the Cuban minimum wage is $10 per month.

Noel Pena, the 41-year-old production manager of Vivero Alamar, is quick to describe the farm's benefits. "First, it's a job opportunity for the people. Second, it provides a flesh food supply to the community. Third, it has many economic benefits for the families. And I could mention a fourth, which is that an ugly place in the city has been turned into a beautiful garden."

Vivero Alamar is just one example (albeit a best-case one) of a revolution in food production that swept Cuba in the early 1990s and continues today. From Santiago de Cuba in the east to Pinar del Rio in the west, thousands of urban gardens like Vivero Alamar are blossoming. In community food parks, backyard patios, and larger urban farms like the one in Alamar, some 300,000 Cubans are busy growing their own fruits and vegetables and then selling the surplus to their neighbors.

This innovative system has distinguished Cuba as a model of urban, organic agriculture; the Cuban government and Cuban NGOs have won numerous international awards for their agriculture system. While the experience of this tropical nation of 10 million people is not entirely replicable in US communities, the Cuban experiment nevertheless offers important lessons. For the Cubans' recent history proves that, if driven by necessity, people can and will organize grassroots, community-based ways to feed themselves. At the same time, the Cuban experience shows that even a modest amount of government support and investment can greatly amplify community efforts. If--as a growing number of academics warn--industrial 'nations ever face food supply disruptions due to climate change or peak oil, such lessons will be vital.

Because, in one crucial aspect, the Cuban story is universally applicable. After all, everyone eats.

Things fall apart

The Cubans did not come to their exalted status as organic pioneers through some benevolent ecological epiphany. Their conversion to organic agriculture was, quite simply, the result of scarcity. The Cubans ran out of money and oil, and then they started to run out of food.

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