Small farms thrive under Cuba’s unique blend of agrarian reforms, farmer autonomy and state support
The son of two pioneers of the Cuban agroecology movement, Fernando Funes-Monzote has been steeped in sustainable farming his entire life. Two years ago, he decided to take his knowledge to uncharted territories. He wanted to prove that diversified, agroecological farming can not only be sustainable on good soils, but can transform poor soils into productive land. In a country known for its top-down policies, Funes-Monzote is a testament to the bottom-up, experimental nature of family farmers everywhere.
When Serápio, a 93-year-old farmer, was no longer able to work, he granted Fernando access to eight hectares of his land, about forty minutes outside of Havana. Fernando deliberately chose to carry out his experiment on rocky, hilly lands with poor soils overrun by marabú—an invasive species of thorny bush that covers close to 2 million hectares of land across the island. After removing over 6,000 bushes by hand, Fernando and a small team began to measure the land, plot contours, build fences, dig a new well and plan out the farm.
After only two years, Finca Marta—named after Fernando’s mother—is buzzing . . . literally. From one beehive in the first year to thirty hives and over three tons of honey in 2013, Fernando now has a contract with the state to maintain 20–30 hives on the land. The government furnished the equipment for the hives and provides a guaranteed market for the honey.
Rows of lettuce, peas, spinach, herbs, sugarcane, coffee, cedars, bananas and yuca line the farm along with sheep, oxen and cows. The agroecosystem is vibrant, biologically diverse and highly productive. The farm supports six salaried workers and plans to pay off all the initial investments by the end of its fifth year. This success has come by way of much sacrifice and dedication from the whole family. Fernando’s wife Claudia stays in Havana with their two boys during the school week and travels with them to the farm on weekends.
Fernando is not the only one eagerly pursuing an agricultural life in Cuba. The “Special Period”—following the fall of the Soviet Union and the country’s loss of access to agrochemicals—initiated a new era of state support for sustainable agriculture and repopulation of the countryside. In recent years, new government policies are bringing even more Cubans back to the land. In the past five years, over 184,000 people have been given land in usufruct, which grants individuals and cooperatives the right to produce on otherwise idle land for a period of ten years and twenty-five years, respectively.
It’s no wonder the state is keen to support family farmers: these diversified farms are highly productive, even more so than centrally-planned, state-run cooperative farms. While small farms cultivate only about 25 percent of the agricultural land available, they are responsible for more than 65 percent of domestic food production.
As Juan José León Vega, Ambassador for the Ministry of Agriculture, is quick to assert, “Latin Americans fight and die struggling for a piece of land; in Cuba we are fighting to get even more people on the land.” While he acknowledges the state doesn’t have as many tools available to disseminate to farmers as it would like, many farmers join cooperative structures to share collective resources, credit and knowledge.
Since the ’90s, the shift toward decentralization of land and decision-making continues to fuel local autonomy in Cuba, largely through the leadership and structure of the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP). Founded in the years following the 1959 revolution, ANAP is a powerful and well-organized force for agrarian reform. Through its many local chapters, the organization is the political voice of the peasantry, training leaders across the island—and around the world—in agroecological practices and farmer-to-farmer (campesino a campesino) knowledge exchange.
While Cuba still relies on food imports, small farms and cooperatives have made significant gains toward food self-sufficiency and sovereignty. Unlike anywhere else, the Cuban state is an active partner in realizing these goals by creating policies that not only provide access to land for would-be farmers, but increasingly encourage local autonomy and decentralized decision-making. As Fernando points out, this shift doesn’t happen overnight and the government needs to continue prioritizing training and infrastructure for small farmers: “To give the land to the people is not a definitive measure; people need financial support and capacities to build their own systems. This is a long process.”
As we enter the International Year of Family Farming, we would do well to look towards Cuba as a unique example of agrarian reform and state support for agroecological food production. But perhaps the greatest lesson Cuba teaches us is the need for state policies to evolve; to respond to farmers’ needs; and to grant them the autonomy to experiment, thrive, and contribute to local and national food sovereignty.
Travel to Cuba with Food First and visit Finca Marta this May on our Food Sovereignty Tour Cuba: Organic Revolution and Evolution. Visit us online for tour details, sample itinerary and to register for the tour. Register soon – deadline approaching!
Christina Bronsing-Lazalde is a community organizer, researcher and Food First Tour Coordinator. She co-led a Food Sovereignty Tour to Cuba this past January and will lead another trip in May 9-19th, 2014. For more information or to register to join the delegation, write to [email protected]
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The mission of Food Sovereignty Tours is to build the global movement for food sovereignty through solidarity travel and immersion learning. Food Sovereignty Tours is a project of Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy, called one of the country’s “most established food think tanks” by the New York Times.