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Country profile - Cuba

cuba

Cuba, a country dependent on its sugar industry, has had anything but a sweet history. Despite advances in health-care and education during the 1970s and 80s, Cuba's economy was severely affected by the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1989 resulting in an estimated 85% drop in exports, imports and foreign aid; a situation exacerbated by the tightening of the 28-year US trade embargo. Cuban agriculture, which was highly dependent on chemical imports from the socialist bloc, had to face the challenge of doubling food production, whilst halving inputs and also maintaining food export production to sustain foreign exchange. And yet, faced with these challenges, Cuban farmers and scientists have turned to a variety of traditional, alternative and renewable technologies in the production of food and energy in order to achieve a sustainable economy.

Geography

As the largest and most westerly of the West Indies archipelago, the country consists of one large island, Cuba, together with the Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth) and many small islets. Much of the main island is made up of fertile flatlands, where cattle are grazed and sugarcane, coffee and tobacco are grown The south-east of the country is more rugged with several mountain ranges. The southern coast is dominated by mangrove swamps whilst much of the northern coast is bordered by rugged beaches.

Cuba has a tropical climate moderated by north-easterly trade winds. The dry season lasts from Nov-April and the rainy season May-October. The east coast is subject to hurricanes from August to October and in general is affected by at least one hurricane every year. Droughts are common and the region is also prone to earthquakes.

The alternative model of Cuban agriculture

The transition from conventional intensive agriculture began as a result of the economic crisis in 1990, although Cuban researchers had initiated the alternative agriculture movement in the early 1980s.At that time, despite promising results, the technologies remained largely unused. However, this ecologically sustainable approach to agriculture was quickly incorporated into government policy during the early 1990s and tested techniques integrated into agricultural practice.

As a result of severe shortages in petroleum, pesticides and fertilizers, Cuba was forced to practice organic agriculture on a nation-wide scale. As a result, previously highly mechanized farming methods and monocultures of foreign crop species have been replaced with animal traction, crop and pasture rotation, soil conservation, organic soil inputs, biopesticides and biofertilizers. Cuba is one of the world leaders in the use of biofertilizers, including the standard Rhizobium inoculants for leguminous crops, as well as free living, nitrogen-fixing bacteria for use with non-legumes, and solubilizing bacteria that liberate phosphorus for uptake by plants. Cuba also produces a wide variety of formulations of bacterial and fungal diseases that attack insect pests and are applied to crops in place of chemical insecticides. Over 200 biotechnology centres are located on agricultural co-operatives and industrial production of these biopesticides is now under way for large-scale production of export crops.

The alternative agricultural approach has revitalised rural communities and helped to stem rural migration to urban areas.

The gardens of Havana

The success of Cuba's national transformation to sustainable agriculture is also evident in the achievements that have taken place in promoting and establishing urban agriculture in Havana. The city is the largest in the Caribbean and is home to almost 20% of Cuba's total population. As a result, food shortages have had the greatest effect in Havana particularly with the shortage of fuel to transport, refrigerate and store food available from the rural agricultural sector. Enhancing food security in Havana and other Cuban cities became a particular focus with an emphasis on developing urban agriculture, which has evolved into several forms, including private gardens (huertos privados), state-owned research gardens (organicponicos) and popular gardens (huertos populares). With over 8,000 hectares of urban farms, 25,000 urban farmers and hundreds of researchers and extension workers, Havana has become a world leader in urban agriculture.

Havana's popular gardens are the most widespread and accessible to the general public. The gardens are small parcels of state-owned land, ranging from a few square metres to several hectares, which are cultivated by individuals or community groups. A wide selection of produce is cultivated depending on family needs, market availability and soil type. In addition to fruit and vegetable cultivation, some popular gardens also cultivate spices and plants used for medicinal purposes. Intercropping is commonly practised and a popular combination includes cassava, sweet potatoes, and beans. Although advice is available from the Ministry of Agriculture (MINAGRI) and local horticulture clubs, the popular gardens have had to contend with the scarcity of water during the dry season, poor quality of urban topsoil, which is often littered with urban materials (glass and other building materials), pests and diseases and theft of garden produce. However, despite these constraints, Havana's popular gardens have generally yielded well and have provided essential vitamins and minerals to household diets as well as medicines and spices that are in short supply. The gardens have revitalised many traditional crops, particularly starchy root crops (viandas), and they have helped to reduce food dependency from outside sources.

Lifting of the US trade embargo?

The period since the collapse of the Soviet Bloc has been dubbed the 'Special Period In Time of Peace'. It is seen as an interval in Cuban history which will end with the lifting of the US trade embargo. With the current discussions in the US Senate about ending, or at least easing, trade sanctions, the incidence of food shortages in Cuba should decline. However, as Cuba enters a new global economy and foreign imports increase, how will current agricultural practices change? Will popular gardens continue in the absence of food shortages and, with the prospect of cheap imports of agricultural products from the US, will farmers be able to produce goods in a competitive market without returning to intensive agriculture?

Statistical information
  • Country: Republic of Cuba
  • Capital: Havana
  • Area: 110,860 sq km
  • Population: 11,096,395 (July 1999 est)
  • Population growth: 0.4% (1999 est)
  • Language: Spanish
  • GDP: US$20.3 billion
  • GDP per capita: US$1880
  • GDP composition by sector: agriculture 7.4%; industry 36.5%, services 56.1% (1997)
  • Major industries: sugar, minerals, tobacco, agricultural medicine & tourism
  • Land use: arable land 24%; permanent crops 7%; permanent pastures 27%; forests 24%; other 18% (1993)
  • Irrigated land: 9,100 sq km (1993)
  • Natural resources: cobalt, nickel, iron ore, copper, manganese, salt, timber, silica, petroleum
  • Agricultural products: sugarcane, tobacco, citrus, coffee, rice, potatoes, beans livestock
  • Export commodities: sugar, nickel, tobacco, shellfish, medical products, citrus, coffee
  • Major Export Partners: Russia; Canada, Spain

Date published: September 2000

 

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