Cuba used to have an industrialized agricultural system, exporting sugar and citrus to Russia and importing most of its food, as well as oil, machinery, fertilizers and pesticides. Then the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, which combined with a US trade embargo created a crisis that Fidel Castro named “The Special Period”. Suddenly cut off from all these inputs, the country turned to agricultural self-sufficiency, organic production and permaculture almost by default. Urban gardens sprouted around the island’s cities, encouraged by the government, and the end result is an incredible example of sustainable agriculture.
One of Havana’s largest and most successful urban gardens is the Organopónico Vivero Alamar, a Unidad Básica de Producción Cooperativa (Basic Unit of Cooperative Production). Covering 11 hectares in Alamar, a residential suburb, the allotment’s rows of vegetables are overshadowed by grey Soviet-style blocks of flats. Though small, the garden (really more of an urban farm) is incredibly productive. As well as fresh vegetables, fruits, ornamental plants, seedlings, timber and medicinal and spiritual plants, the cooperative also produces dried herbs, condiments, garlic paste, tomato sauce and pickles; vermicompost, compost and substrates; goat and rabbit meat and mycorrhizal fungi. The Organopónico also welcomes tourists and holds workshops and courses in organic agriculture. Products are sold to local restaurants and directly to community members from the farm shop.
The cooperative that owns the Organopónico has 150 members, with 17 employees. Miguel Angel Salcines López, one of its founders and the current president, says, “The sense of belonging is central to organic production, and in the cooperative form there’s even more a sense of belonging. We’re less vulnerable economically because we can adapt better to the economic conditions. And we can improve social conditions for members and their families.”
He says the cooperative is contributing to local development by facilitating access to healthy food at fair prices and creating jobs, especially for women and older people. They are also providing a beautiful example of how organic agriculture can be practiced in a city. Cuba’s shift to self-sustainability, at least in fruits and vegetables, and its wide-scale adoption of urban, organic food growing, offer plenty of lessons in how to cope with potential future oil shortages and how communities, when driven by necessity, will organize and find ways to feed themselves. In the words of environmentalist Bill McKibben, Cuba may be “the world’s largest working model of a semi-sustainable agriculture.”