- Created: Tuesday, 14 April 2009 15:09
- Written by FRFI
FRFI 205 October / November 2008
Cuban agriculture: a sustainable path
Roberto Perez, Cuban biologist and permaculturist [permaculture is the study of sustainable, organic, small-scale agricultural production], toured Britain in September with the Permaculture Association to promote Cuba’s achievements in organic agriculture and urban farming. While in Britain, he spoke to FRFI.
FRFI: To what extent can the example of Cuba’s achievements in sustainable agriculture be applied to capitalist countries?
Perez: I believe that capitalist societies are too based on individualism to allow these necessary changes. But as the crisis escalates, people will be forced to organise in this way. There will be no alternative faced with the combined effects of climate change, biofuels and peak oil [when oil reserves begin to run out]. Extreme climatic events – floods, droughts and rising sea levels – will affect everyone. If business as usual continues, it will exhaust resources. This situation cannot be solved with technological gadgets or market solutions. It’s necessary to go down a sustainable path of community-based solutions, social awareness and social justice.
Recent agricultural reforms in Cuba, allowing greater use of land by individuals and families, have been interpreted in the British press as a step towards capitalism. What is going on?
This change is only allowing more people to use land on the basis of usufruct – allowing the use of the fruit to the people that work the land. They are producing food for the people, not to make a lot of profit. Conventional agriculture – using chemicals, heavy machinery, lots of energy – was not guaranteeing the food security that we need under the US blockade. So if right now small producers are more efficient and more sustainable they are also part of the revolution. It’s not capitalism. They are revolutionary people and they are helping the country to go forward.
Cuba currently imports most of its food, and increasing domestic food production has been identified as a priority. Will this limit further gains in sustainable development?
To say we import most of our food does not reflect the reality. Cuba needs to import food for social consumption, such as wheat and other food that we cannot produce because of our tropical climate. But we are producing more food than ever before. We eat a lot of pork and it’s all produced locally. Some cities of Cuba produce 70% of the vegetables that they consume. So we are on the road to self-sustainability, but based on efficiency.
We can’t produce everything in the country because we only have limited arable land and a lot of our land is degraded as a result of capitalist development up to 1959. 85% of the ecosystem was destroyed and this was exacerbated by the conventional agricultural system that was applied between 1965 and 1991. We need to keep a balance between the exports produced in the country, like tobacco, coffee and other products, and what we produce for ourselves. The blockade limits our ability to exchange goods and because of that we have to keep increasing domestic production.
If the price of food keeps increasing it will be very bad, not just for Cuba but for any poor country, because people depend on imports to eat. It could make some governments look for conventional alternatives and use chemicals to increase yields in the short term. I think that after 18 years of success in organic farming and urban farms we need to keep persisting. We have proved that sustainable agriculture can feed millions of people. The sustainable agriculture movement will eventually face a challenge in Cuba, because now we have allies like Venezuela that provide affordable oil and oil products. After the hurricanes we need to recover so I think it will be necessary to have a balance. There needs to be an internal discussion in Cuba.
What effect has the Energy Revolution had on Cuba’s energy security and emissions levels?
Apart from increasing by 10% forest cover above the 1959 level, thereby making our small contribution to having carbon sinks without the big money of the IMF or World Bank, we have engaged in the Energy Revolution. This included the decentralisation of energy generation so that now we don’t depend on big plants for electricity. There are new generators throughout the whole country. They burn oil or diesel, but they are very efficient. They can be switched on or off according to demand and create small closed circuits so that they can guarantee supply after disasters like hurricanes.
We changed all the incandescent bulbs in the country for energy saving bulbs, supplied by the government. People can also change, at affordable prices, their old inefficient fridges, air conditioning and cooking appliances.
The government is committed to powering the more than 100,000 households that are off the grid with renewable energy, so many family doctor clinics and schools in rural areas are solar-powered. Micro-hydro-electricity is promising in the mountains and wind turbines are being installed as the capital needed to set them up becomes available.
What is your view on the use of biofuels in energy generation?
What we are seeing right now are not biofuels, they are agrofuels. Agribusinesses has found a new commodity and they don’t care if people are starving. Cuba’s position is that this will cause hunger for a lot of people. It’s criminal to produce ethanol from cereals like corn because the energy it takes to produce it is more than the energy it will give. Even though Cuba has crops like sugar cane, not one hectare of our land will be used for agrofuels if the food is needed.
Cereal reserves are currently at their lowest level for 40 years, and this practice will make food prices even higher, which is already causing riots for food in some poor countries. You can see how difficult the situation is in Haiti, with people so desperate they are eating mud. If we can use some of the resources that people in rich countries just waste, then we can save a few million people on this planet every year from hunger.