Friday, July 10, 2020

3396. Book Review: Sustainable Agriculture and Resistance: Transforming Food Production in Cuba

By Kamran Nayeri, Review of Radical Political Economics, Summer 2007

Fernando Funes Monzonte in his agroecholgical farm, named after his mother Finca Marta, outside Havana.
Sustainable Agriculture and Resistance: Transforming Food Production in Cuba Fernando Funes, Luis García, Martin Bourque, Nilda Pérez, and Peter Rosset; Oakland, CA: Food First Books, 2002, 307 pp., $18.95 

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern European regimes at the close of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s, the Cuban economy experienced a severe external shock as it depended on relations with the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance for 85 percent of its imports and 75 percent of its trade, finance, and credit on a preferential basis. GDP, which grew by an average of 3.1 percent annually during 1965-1989, declined by 2.9 percent in 1990, 10.7 percent in 1991, 11.6 percent in 1992, and 14.9 percent in 1993, shrinking the economy to 65.2 percent of its 1989 size (Campbell 2000; Nayeri 1996). At the same time, the U.S. government intensified its campaign to isolate and choke off the country through the Torricelli Bill (Cuban Democracy Act) of 1992 and the Helms-Burton (Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity) Act of 1996. 

The impact on the daily lives of Cubans was immediate and grave. About half of the calories and protein for Cuban consumption was imported in the 1980s. Thus, per capita calorie intake was reduced by 40 percent, from 3,130 daily calories in 1988-1990 to 1,863 in 1993. Per capita protein intake was similarly reduced by 42 percent, from 79.7 grams to 46 grams (MINSAP 1994). From 1992 to 1994, more than 51,000 Cubans were affected by an epidemic of optic neuropathy associated with low levels of vitamin B1 and toxic habits. Many observers predicated widespread chaos and the collapse of the Cuban revolution. Food security emerged as the central issue facing the revolution (MINSAP 1995).

However, Cuban agriculture based on large-scale, capital-intensive monoculture with import coefficients of greater than 90 percent for fertilizers and pesticides had already begun to stagnate in the early 1980s. After the collapse of the Soviet bloc, import of fertilizers and pesticides dropped by 77 percent and 60 percent, respectively, while availability of petroleum was reduced by half. To survive, it was necessary to double food production while reducing inputs by half and maintaining export crop production to generate much-needed foreign exchange (Rosset and Benjamin 1994: 3–4). 

Cuba has proven uniquely prepared and capable to face this challenge. The book under review, the English edition of the Spanish version that was published by the Association of Forestry and Agricultural Technicians in Havana in 2001, explains how Cuba took up the challenge and in the process began to develop a Low Input Sustainable Agriculture model that has increasingly met the requirements of the economy, society, and environment. The book could gainfully be read as the sequel to The Greening of the Revolution: Cuba’s Experiment with Organic Agriculture (Rosset and Benjamin 1994), a report by an international scientific group that visited Cuba in November of 1992 to learn about its experiment with sustainable agriculture. That report documents how—given a supportive mix of institutional arrangements and public policy—Cuba was able to effect the transition to sustainable agriculture. The present volume, authored by Cuban pioneers and experts, provides an up-to-date and detailed account of the history, theory, and practice of sustainable agriculture in Cuba. As such, it also includes differing and largely implicit notions for Cuba’s developmental course, which require further elaboration and discussion. For reasons of space, these tempting issues will remain outside of this review. 

The book has three parts. Part 1 provides history and context, including some discussion of the socioeconomic and political structures within which the sustainable agriculture movement in Cuba has developed. Part 2 details certain alternative practices in Cuba’s new agriculture. Part 3 offers examples and case studies. 

The six chapters that make up part 1 place the movement for sustainable agriculture in the context of the evolution of the peasantry and its organizations as well as transformations in property and production relations in agriculture since 1959. Fernando Funes outlines a compelling overview of the intellectual, political, social, and institutional roots of the organic farming movement; he places the Cuban movement in its international context while emphasizing its unique characteristics. Armando Nova discusses land ownership before and after 1959 and agriculture production in the first three decades of the revolution to document the onset of the agricultural crisis in the 1980s. Marcos Nieto and Ricardo Delgado take up the question of food security. They indicate that by 1993, food consumption had declined by 30 percent, after which access to food has improved, and the Cuban state remains committed to ensuring the most equitable distribution possible. Lucy Martín examines transformations in agrarian relations with a focus on property, markets, and technical change to understand class formation in agriculture. She finds a tension between the role of the state as the protagonist in redistribution of wealth and the decentralized nature of fragmentations in property, opening of markets, and technological change. Mavis Alvarez addresses the critical role of small farmers in Cuba’s sustainable agriculture. This chapter is a must-read for anyone interested in the social organization of Cuban peasants. Finally, Luis García examines one form of state support: agroecological education and training. Together, these chapters provide information on how self-directed activities of peasants and agricultural visionaries have combined with supportive state policies to ensure the success of the movement for sustainability.

Chapters 7 through 11 constitute part 2: “Alternative Practices for a New Agriculture.” Nilda Pérez and Luis Vázquez discuss ecological pest management to reduce or eliminate synthetic pesticides. Ecological pest management began in the 1980s when Cubans learned of the extent of damage caused by the intensive use of chemicals. Twenty years later, Cuba has “a pest management policy which takes into account ecological, economic and social aspects of pest control” (136). Antonio Casanova and his coauthors discuss intercropping. Polycultures date to pre-Columbian times. The practice survived on personal plots of agrarian workers, runaway slaves, and campesinos. These practices survived thanks to the empowerment of the peasantry after 1959 and were studied by Cuban agronomists. Arcadio Ríos and Félix Ponce focus on mechanization versus animal traction in sustainable agriculture. Mechanization was largely undertaken after 1959 under the influence of what Cuban planners called the “classic model,” that is, Soviet industrial farms. Mechanization resulted in soil compaction, erosion and salinization, and poor drainage. Thus, Cubans turned to the use of draft animals and new technologies that combine with it. Soil management is examined by Eolia Treto and her coauthors. Soil degradation began under the Spanish on large-scale farms but accelerated under U.S. domination of the island. Despite adoption of the Soviet industrial farm model, the rate of soil degradation actually slowed—but degradation continued. Only since 1990 has a major soil conservation effort been undertaken using biofertilizers and biopesticides (microbial formulations that are nontoxic to humans). The final chapter by Marta Monzonte and her coauthors looks at integration of crops and livestock. The highly specialized and intensive model of agriculture separated processes of production of crops and livestock. Thanks to the social policies of the Cuban revolution, small- and medium-size farms survived, and with them the traditional mixed system of land use based on locally available resources. These served as the starting point for the current alternative agriculture.

Part 3 (chapters 12–16) provides fascinating examples of the benefits of sustainable agriculture. Mercedes García’s essay deals with green medicine, which has a long history in Cuba. Yet scientific study of medicinal properties of herbs is relatively new. Dr. Juan Tomás Roig y Mesa, considered the father of green medicine, studied Cuban flora in the middle of the twentieth century. More recently, the Central Laboratory of Herbal Medicine at the Higher Institute of Military Medicine of the Revolutionary Armed Forces has researched the medicinal properties of Cuba’s flora as part of the country’s defense strategy in the face of potential U.S. invasion. Thus, when the economic crisis of the 1990s arrived, there were herbal remedies ready to substitute for hard-to-produce or hard-to-purchase industrial pharmaceuticals. Ever since, the Ministry of Public Health and the Ministry of Agriculture have continued this line of research. Nelson Companioni and his coauthors discuss urban agriculture, which has grown in Cuban cities and suburbs ever since the early 1990s. The immediate goal of urban agriculture was to provide much-needed food. But its goals expanded to include organic farming, rational use of resources, and direct marketing. Urban agriculture is an important part of sustainable development. It has the potential of producing a large portion of food, especially the easily perishable, to feed the city population. The authors expect that “in the near future urban agriculture will satisfy a high percentage of the food needs of our population” (235). Urban agriculture also makes it necessary to rethink city planning and development in keeping with principles of sustainable development.

Miguel Socorro and his coauthors report on the Cultivo Popular (“Popular Rice”) program, a small-scale rice production program that requires little or no chemical fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides. Rice is one of the most basic components of the Cuban diet, and large-scale production of rice suffered with the onset of the economic crisis. Rafael Suárez and Rafael Morín discuss sugarcane production and sustainability. This is more like a think piece with important implications for sustainable development, not just sustainable agriculture, in Cuba. Sugarcane production has been the centerpiece of the Cuban economy for centuries. Since 2002, it has been recognized that sugar production, hence sugarcane farming, could not retain its historic role in the Cuban economy. This chapter discusses some alternative uses for sugarcane, including production of protein and energy from sugarcane molasses and biomass, respectively. The authors’ goal is to “show that the sugarcane industry in Cuba has all the necessary ingredients of sustainable industrial development” (260). In the final chapter, Niurka Pérez and Dayma Echevaría discuss the experiences of two Basic Units for Cooperative Production. Beginning in September of 1993, state farms were gradually transformed into Basic Units for Cooperative Production to create material incentives for greater output with the least use of resources. The authors show that the cooperative that grows tobacco has been more successful in developing organic farming methods while sugarcane production still depends on old methods and technologies. This is because sugarcane is a highly industrialized crop, produced on large plots of land where machinery is used to make the work easier on workers. Tobacco is a hand labor–intensive family crop produced on smaller plots and has a semi-artisanal production cycle requiring minimum use of machinery. The authors conclude that “there is still a long way to go for the development of organic production at the large farm level” (273). Perhaps sustainable agriculture would require a move away from such large-scale farms to an economy supported by family farmers (small producers) or cooperatives (medium producers).

In the prologue, University of California, Berkeley, agroecologist Miguel Altieri emphasizes the democratic and participatory nature of the sustainable agriculture movement in Cuba. It has been spearheaded by the Cuban Organic Agriculture Association, now called the Organic Farming Group, of the national Association of Agriculture and Forestry Technicians. And it involves all the national peasant organizations built after the 1959 revolution, in particular the National Association of Small Farmers. Peter Rosset (Stanford University) and Martin Bourque (The Ecology Center, Berkeley), who are coeditors of the present volume, note in the introduction that Cuba offers an example of how a fundamental shift in policy backed by meaningful resource allocation have supported the sustainable agriculture movement. “It is therefore important all people interested in developing food systems that are socially just, environmentally sustainable, and economically viable, pay close attention to current policy and technological development in Cuba” (xv). In the epilogue, Harvard ecologist Richard Levins caps the volume by drawing attention to the socialist course of the Cuban development. “What we see in Cuba is the emergence of a socialist society, with socialist patterns of production, demography, settlement, human relations, and relation with our habitat. Agriculture is one aspect of this process” (276).

While it is not possible to conceive of the successes of the sustainable agriculture movement in Cuba without acknowledging the 1959 revolution and the socialist direction of the revolution since, it is important to consider what the experience with the sustainable agriculture movement implies for socialist development strategy in Cuba and beyond. More precisely, what models of socialism are compatible or even mutually reinforcing with sustainable development? As Funes and Nova underscore in their respective contributions, the Soviet model of large-scale, high-input, import-dependent monoculture was unsustainable. By 1986, the revolution’s leadership had already criticized the Soviet developmental model adopted in Cuba in the 1970s as contrary to the interest of socialist development. In her discussion of transformations in the countryside, Martín notes, “The key is that the link with the state should not be one of dependence and subordination, but rather a two-way transmission between different mechanisms and centralized state planning” (67). But Martín has also pointed to social differentiation caused by differentiated property rights, market relations, and technologies. All this invites the challenge of designing a socialist development strategy that is truly participatory and egalitarian while promoting human solidarity and harmony with nature.

While in Havana in May 2006, I had the good fortune of attending two conferences that took place almost simultaneously. I attended the closing session of the Sixth International Congress of Organic and Sustainable Agriculture in Havana, May 2–8. The congress was attended by hundreds of organic farmers and sustainable development experts as well as representatives from Columbia, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mozambique, North Korea, Venezuela, and the United States. Some of these participants visited organic farms in the provinces of Havana and Santa Clara after the close of the conference. I also participated in the Third International Congress of the Work of Karl Marx and the Challenges of the 21st Century. There was little explicit overlap between the two conferences. But few of the participants in either conference would have disagreed that a central challenge of the twenty-first century is how to forge a sustainable society and that the work of Karl Marx has some bearing on theorizing and actualizing this critical effort. In the same spirit, I would recommend this book, perhaps in conjunction with The Greening of the Revolution, for courses or seminars with a focus on sustainable agriculture and sustainable development. It should also be required reading for courses dealing with the economic and social development of post-1959 Cuba. 

Kamran Nayeri 
Academic Planning and Budget 
University of California Office of the President 
1111 Franklin St., 11th floor Oakland, CA 94607-5200 

No comments: