Castro and Cuban Agriculture

Published on December 6, 2016   ·   No Comments

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“Use all science for a more sustainable development that does not contaminate the environment. Pay the ecological debt and not the external debt. Fight hunger not people” – Fidel Castro

(Quoted from the speech given at the UN Conference on Environment and Development, Rio de Janerio, Brazil, 1992)

By Dr. Parakrama Waidyanatha

Following its liberation in 1959 by Fidel Castro and his comrades who launched a successful revolution against the unjust and exploitative Batista regime, Cuba suffered two drastic economic crises, one in 1962 with the imposition of the trade embargo by the US and in 1989 due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Socialist bloc. The USSR’s aid to and the very favourable trade terms that it had with Cuba came to a virtual halt plunging the country in to a total economic chaos. In fact, USSR was ‘mollycoddling’ Cuba for obvious reasons. For example it is reported that USSR paid 5.3 times the world price for Cuban sugar! Cuba was largely dependent on USSR for much of its agricultural inputs and food. Of the fertilizer, 98% was imported as manufactured or raw material. Similarly 98% of the pesticides and 97% of animal feed were imported. So was petroleum, tractors and spares. Similarly, bulk of the food was imported: cereals (79%), beans (99%), meat (21%), fish (44%), milk and dairy products (38% )and oil and lard(94%). The collapse of trade with the Communist Bloc led Cubans to near starvation. The per capita daily calorie intake which was nearly 2900 in 1988/89 dropped to 1200 two years later, which was comparable with that during the 1959 revolution.

Export crops and import food!

The reason for this fiasco, largely, was that the country was heavily biased towards production of export crops to the neglect of food crops. Together with sugarcane, beef, tobacco and pineapple were the other major exports. At the regime change in 1959 and even thereafter, sugarcane continued to be the main crop. It was the key export earner occupying 30% of the agricultural land and 75% of the most fertile. The arable (food) crops occupied a meagre 12% and livestock 44%. Bulk of the land holdings were held by the rich with 9% of them owning 62% of the land

The Cuban agricultural setting is very different from that in other Latin American countries. The rural economy was dominated by export plantations, the farm operations of which being highly mechanized, labour use was low compelling rural people to migrate to cities. This trend, in fact, intensified after the revolution, and by the 1980s 69% of the people lived in urban dwellings. This is to be expected as some 80% of the lands were state farms, only 20% being in the hands of peasant producers, split equally among individuals and cooperatives. The state farms and cooperatives were modernized with irrigation, mechanical and agrochemical technologies in use. It is often said that they resemble farms in the Californian valley or the Soviet state farms rather than those in comparable Latin American countries.

Agrarian reforms and

food production

Two agrarian reforms in 1959 and 1962 brought substantial changes in land ownership. Under the first, most of the unproductive sugar plantations and cattle ranches were converted to state farms and under the second the state took over 63% of the total cultivated land. They had, however, little impact on food production, and much of the food production rebound was due to the adoption of further agrarian decentralization since the 1990s that stimulated production both in individual and cooperative farms. Also the inefficient state companies were dismantled creating 2,600 new small urban and suburban farms, and the distribution of user rights of some three million hectares of underused state lands among the people.

Transition from conventional to

agro-ecologcal and organic farming

In the desperate scenario of near total disruption of inputs for conventional farming, in 1989,the country had no option but to seek solace in agro-ecological and organic farming technologies. Even before the crisis set in, there was concern in Cuba about the overdependence on external inputs and the deleterious effects of chemical farming, especially among the young scientists.

The country also felt that the heavy economic reliance on the Communist Bloc was risky. The Cuban leaders as did others of other Latin American countries realised that heavy dependence on light industries and export of raw agricultural commodities will not usher in economic development. In the early 1980s Fidel Castro and other Cuban leaders realised the need for high tech and training of human capital.

Cuba invested 12 Billion USD over the remainder of the decade in developing human capital and infrastructure in biotechnology, health sciences, computer hardware and software, the result of which is evident in the quality of manpower that has been generated. Whilst Cuba has only 2% of the Latin American population, it has 11% of the scientists, engineers and doctors! As far back as 1982 even before the crisis began, young scientists were critical of the Cuban agricultural model for its heavy dependence on external inputs, and the official research policy began to favour a major change. At the conference on pest management held in Havana in 1987, the vast majority of the research papers were on alternatives presented by younger scientists However, it is said the older ones yet favoured the conventional methods.

Apartment from his overall commitment to science and technology, Fidel Castro was heavily involved in the promotion of food production and associated agro-technologies. Addressing the 5th Congress of the National System of Agricultural and Forestry Technicians in 1991, Castro made some vital remarks in this regard: “The food question has number one priority. We should not permit any lack of calories and protein … Our problems must be resolved without feedstock, fertilizers or fuel. We have bred 100,000 oxen; we are breeding hundreds of thousands more … We cannot eat oxen because we need them to cultivate land … We will achieve miracles with intelligence and sweat. Scientists will create resources which one day will be more valuable than sugarcane; they are developing bacteria that will capture nitrogen from air….” No more than ever “economic independence has meaning. We will achieve it through miracles of intelligence, sweat, heart and the consciousness of humankind” His political will and leadership gave the impetus and the sense of commitment to all, scientists, managers and most importantly the farmers, now that most of the latter had land usufruct rights.

There were some vital factors that led to the tremendous achievements made in food production. Firstly, the farmers’ access to land lead, in particular, to the vast expansion of the production of vegetables and tuber crops (‘viandas’); the latter are an integral part of the Cuban diet (see Table 1). Whereas mechanised mono-cropping was the practice in state farms, multiple cropping which substantially increased cropping intensity and land productivity increased crop output in small farms. Secondly, there were substantial achievements in the development of both biological pest control and microbial fertilizer technologies; the latter for providing nitrogen and dissolving soil-bound phosphorus. It is argued that most Cuban soils are rich in phosphorus (P) and P- solubilising bacteria improved plant P uptake. To what extent these technologies met the crop nutrient needs is another matter; they probably met a part of the nutrient demand.

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It is reported that a brewer’s factory was converted to a nitrogen fixing bacterial(Azobacter) production unit and millions of samples were supplied to farmers! More importantly, over 200 Centres called CREES were established for the production of microbial pathogens that controlled many pests across the country. They were manned by trained farmers’ children. Integrated pest management had been widely practised even prior to the crisis. Thirdly, organic matter collection and compost production were extensively practised; worm composting was a feature in most farms. Fourthly, there was tremendous increase in cattle farming which provided, apart from milk, animals for traction and manure; and prohibition of cattle slaughter replaced beef with pork which became a main source of meat. Pigs were fed largely with household and farmyard refuse. Table 2

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Fifthly, although crop yields remained relatively low (Table 2) because of input limitations, the fact that nearly 40% of Cuban croplands are highly fertile, and the high land-man ratio was a positive asset in food production. For example, whereas the population of Cuba is half ours the country is twice as large, implying that its land-man ratio is four times ours. Finally, the Cuban cities and suburbs are relatively less crowded than in most countries, and the government encouraged organic farming in all available land (see photo) which became quite a success producing nearly all its vegetable requirements. Chemical pesticide and fertilizer use here is strictly prohibited. Some farms even supply vegetables to the hotels.

In conclusion, the country has been able to produce a substantial quantity of its food on organic and agro-ecological technologies. Bulk of its vegetable oil, oil crops, cereals and pulses, however, continue to be imported. Crop yields continue to be low as evidenced from Table 2. The country is not totally organic, there being some use of chemical fertilizers though low, being only 50kg/ha nationally compared to, for example, ours which is 170kg/ha. Glyphosate is extensively used in weed control in orchards and sugar plantations, and the writer saw this happening during a visit in November last year. In fact one company (Juan Rodriguez Gomez in Artemisa Municipality) in Cuba is even manufacturing it. As to be expected, farmers are craving for chemical fertilizers for higher yields. So are some of the policy makers, and President Obama’s visit some months back raised expectations among many, as a prelude to lifting trade sanctions, enabling returning to chemical farming in a larger measure , amongst other things! That is yet not to be !

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