Urban Agriculture, Cuba

Kristina Taboulchanas. Organoponico La Calsada

The Transition Town network started after a transport strike in Britain when the country was allegedly within 2 days of running out of food, so dependent are western countries on imports. 
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the further tightening of the US embargo, Cuba's intensive chemically-dependent agriculture sector also collapsed. We toy with visions of a world without oil, but Cuba was an island with hardly any oil: no transportation, little energy for food storage, freezing or refrigeration, no more fertiliser or pesticides and farmland largely given over to a cash crop: sugar for export.  The USSR took Cuba's sugar crop in support of the Socialist Revolution: once it was gone, so was Cuba's export sector. 

In what was known as The Special Period, the Ministry of Agriculture formed an urban agriculture unit which supports organic gardening methods for gardens on public and unused land:  27,000 such gardens in Havana alone.  Depending on the size, huertos populares employ individuals to community groups.  Old methods are used: manure, compost, worms, weeding, crop rotation and inter-cropping (crops under, on and above the same piece of ground).
With huertos populares and the state-owned organoponicos (raised beds full of compost on paved or infertile land), produce stays in its own neighbourhood, obviating transportation costs.  The Ministry of Public Health supports herbal medicine, so the production of medicinal herbs is an important sector.  Schools have gardens, hospitals grow their own food, individuals have chickens, gardens and fruit trees in their own yards.  The large collective farms still operate and supply staples particularly to Havana and Santiago de Cuba, which together have 3.2 million people and not enough urban space for total garden self-sufficiency.  However, no longer are Cubans dependent on state distribution of food.  The huertos populares and privados and the marketing of the produce are independent, once they are established and supported in their start-up by the Ministry of Agriculture. 

I think one could look to present Cuban agricultural policy to see what a world without oil might look like: traditional, co-operative, better food, a closer relationship to the land, even if it is a back yard stuffed with vegetables and fruit trees, less packaging, less transport of green tomatoes and rock-hard avocados, bananas that are ripened chemically in shipping containers. 

Of course Cuba has an unemployment problem, again because of the embargo which prevents a good many things, but also provides many hands to work these gardens. In 2003, the agricultural sector provided 22% of all new Cuban jobs.
 
There's the irony: the 'unemployed' are busy sustaining life, feeding people, cultivating the soil, making it all better, improving their communities, culture and bodies.  We have unemployed people, we even have homeless people: might we give them something valuable to do, making them valuable members of our towns and cities?