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Cuba: organic vegetables and urban gardening

Revolution and organic vegetables

Urban gardening with success

What does a Cuban city dweller do when he is hungry and cannot buy fresh vegetables? He grows them himself. During the 1990s, out of necessity, the citizens of Havana obtained their fruit and vegetables from city gardens. Since then, the project has grown and grown. In this report, Julia Feldhausen explains how urban agriculture has developed over the last 20 years and why there is talk of an organic boom in Cuba.

Havana – The market stall of Finca Huerto Japonés is well patronized. Underneath the tall trees at the edge of the street his customers stand in a queue for the rusty metal scales, waiting for their vegetables to be weighed. Thick yellow pumpkins line up in the crates alongside aubergines, cucumbers, sweet potatoes and plantains – all organically-produced and fresh from the fields. Something that is now a part of every day life in Havana and the rest of the country would have been unimaginable just 20 years ago.

During the economic crisis, the residents of Havana began to produce food using every available patch of land.
During the economic crisis, the residents of Havana began to produce food using every available patch of land.
City gardens in and around Havana have been producing organic vegetables for nearly 20 years.
City gardens in and around Havana have been producing organic vegetables for nearly 20 years.
Vegetables on the balcony, rabbits on the roof – the start of Cuban urban agriculture was unorganised.
Vegetables on the balcony, rabbits on the roof – the start of Cuban urban agriculture was unorganised.

In 1993 all food supplies in Cuba were depleted

The beginning of the 1990s was a time of extreme scarcity in Cuba. The food, goods and oil imports from the Soviet states on which the country depended vanished overnight with the collapse of the union. As a result of the shortage of fuel and replacement parts, agricultural production came almost entirely to a standstill. Tractors and harvesting machines lay idle and any food still being produced could not be transported into the city. By 1993 food supplies were almost entirely exhausted. In March of the same year, heavy flooding led to considerable and widespread destruction. The supply situation was critical. The disastrous state of affairs – particularly in the capital Havana -  caused an international outcry. Manfred Hochwald, a Welthungerhilfe employee, was staying in Haiti at the time and made the snap decision to travel to Havana and see the situation for himself. By chance he encountered Elio Perón, the then president of the Asociación Cubana para la Producción Animal (ACPA). From their first conversation it was clear: there was a need for action.

From food aid to urban agriculture

“The biggest problem, naturally, was the provision of food. Together we analyzed the situation and developed a strategy for the initial period. First, an emergency relief project was put into operation: 50,000 schoolchildren in Havana between 1994 and 1996 received a daily school meal. During this period the residents of the capital city began to produce food, using every available patch of soil. “People planted vegetables on the patio and on the balcony, they kept rabbits on the roof and bred chickens in garages”, remembers Elio Perón. “It was here that the urban agriculture movement began. At the beginning it was completely unorganised.” In Welthungerhilfe’s second Cuban project, this movement was supported at a grassroots level. The new city farmers were equipped with seeds, spades, wheelbarrows and hoses for watering.

The market stall belonging to Olga’s family - Huerto Japonés in 1997.
The market stall belonging to Olga’s family - Huerto Japonés in 1997.
Welthungerhilfe helped with seeds, know-how and materials: here is a greenhouse for the seedlings. © Creutzmann
Welthungerhilfe helped with seeds, know-how and materials: here is a greenhouse for the seedlings. © Creutzmann

From wasteland to city gardens – a movement in the right direction

Olga Oye lives with her family in south west Havana, in the La Lisa municipality. During the worst shortages, she and her family began to cultivate the plot of land behind the house. “That was a very, very difficult time for us. We had a single hoe, we tilled the land all day and we got up in the middle of the night to water the plants.” Olga’s garden, the Huerto Japonés, is the first and oldest city garden supported by Welthungerhilfe. In 1995 a fountain and irrigation system were installed, the family received tools, seeds and – most importantly – training in cultivation methods and ecological agriculture, as most of the new producers were not farmers.

“We had the land behind the house, but without tools and knowledge we could only cultivate a small part of it. If we had sown seeds and then it rained, the fresh seeds were washed away. Welthungerhilfe gave us the materials for a greenhouse, in which we could grow the seedlings until they were big enough to survive outside.” With these means, Olga’s family transformed the wasteland behind their house into a fertile city garden with organic fruit and vegetables. And there on the street where they used to stand and sell their vegetables out of wheelbarrows and sacks, a small market stall was erected.

Liberalisation and new possibilities

That small stall is today a proper shop. Other things have changed too. The salad still comes into the shop fresh from the field, however it is not merely the half hectare behind the house being cultivated now, there are 13 more hectares on the edge of the city as well. The family has been given use of this land by the state – in return, a portion of the harvest is given back to the state. Meanwhile, there is also a central market where farmers can purchase products that they themselves do not produce in order to sell them on. As such, today you can also buy pork in the Huerto Japonés shop. Olga is happy: “The demand is so high that we now employee people just to look after the purchase and sale side of things.”

In recent years, the agricultural sector in Cuba has become increasingly liberalized. Welthungerhilfe accompanies the farmers through the changing conditions and helps them to make use of the new opportunities.

Since 1994 Welthungerhilfe has run more than 60 projects with a total value of 40 million Euro – always in collaboration with its Cuban partner organisations. You can find out more about our current project work in Cuba here.

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