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AGRICULTURE-CUBA: Waiting for Announced Reforms

Patricia Grogg

HAVANA, Dec 5 2007 (IPS) - While saving up for the extra expenses of the year-end holidays, Cubans are hoping that 2008 will bring reforms, at least in agriculture, that will result in a more varied supply of food, at affordable prices.

"I don’t know anything about economics, but I think these changes are inevitable. And Raúl (Castro, the interim president) announced them on Jul. 26 (in his Revolution Day speech)," said María Gómez, a regular customer at a farmers’ market in the El Vedado barrio of the capital.

"I can get everything here, but I can only afford it because my daughter lives in Italy and helps me out," she said.

Gómez said that every time she goes to the market, she changes 10 convertible pesos (CUC), the Cuban currency in circulation in place of the U.S. dollar.

"I spend nearly all of the 240 Cuban pesos that I get from CADECA (the state exchange shops) for the 10 CUC." One CUC is worth 1.25 dollars at the cash rate of exchange.

For people on the average salary of 385 pesos a month, the prices in the farmers’ markets are prohibitive. A head of garlic costs four or five pesos, a pound (450 grams) of onions costs 10 pesos, tomatoes are between five and 20 pesos a pound, depending on the season, oranges or grapefruit are a peso apiece and a head of lettuce costs five pesos.

The streets are abuzz with speculation about future transformations in the rural sector ever since Raúl Castro announced on Jul. 26 that "structural and conceptual changes will have to be introduced where they are necessary" in order to make the land more productive.

The Agriculture Ministry must make its report to the National Assembly (parliament) during its last sessions this year, which usually take place in the second half of December, but nothing has been announced with respect to what measures may be taken to jump-start the stagnating farming sector, which has shrunk for three consecutive years.

Experts say forecasts for this year of 9.5 percent growth in the agriculture sector were frustrated by the effects of two tropical storms and heavy rainfall and floods in the east of the country, while a hot, wet summer has produced a 35 percent fall in the potato harvest.

In 2006 there were no hurricanes and the rainfall pattern was favourable, yet agricultural production (excluding sugar cane) fell by 7.3 percent with respect to 2005, when a severe drought hit the island.

According to economists, natural disasters have only accentuated the problem, which is basically due to a range of causes, including the lack of incentives for small farmers, whether in the private or the state cooperative sectors, the lack of investment to increase the quantity and quality of produce, and excessive administrative centralisation.

Armando Nova, a researcher at the Centre for the Study of the Cuban Economy (CEEC), said the priority must be to continue the reform of the farming sector begun in the early 1990s, and to take new steps to encourage development of the forces of production.

The reforms in the 1990s included the creation of Basic Units of Cooperative Production (UBPC), in which members were given indefinite use of the land rent-free, and a programme granting the use of parcels of land for families to grow their own food, and to produce extra food for the Cuban domestic market.

These new forms of land-holding and production were added to the Credit and Services Cooperatives (CCS) and Agricultural Production Cooperatives (CPA). The CPAs were the original rural collectives introduced in Cuba at the time of the first agrarian reform in 1959, which distributed land to 200,000 people, and authorised private ownership of approximately 20 percent of the country’s farmland.

In an analysis that Nova provided to IPS, he lists a number of initiatives which could rescue the farming sector from stagnation. At present the agriculture industry is unable to produce food in the quantities and at the prices the island needs, yet half the available agricultural land is not in use.

In Nova’s view, the UBPCs, CPAs, CCSs and other agricultural and livestock producers should have the autonomy to decide how to acquire the means of tilling and fertilising the soil and other productive resources, and what to produce and whom to sell it to, and should also be allowed to make a profit.

The expert also considers that producers should have direct access to markets, and be allowed to sell most of their produce according to the laws of supply and demand. At present they are obliged to sell about 75 to 80 percent of their crops to the state.

Giving producers access to markets as direct sellers, individually or collectively, would simplify the chain of supply and mean that most of the product value accrues to the producers, as an essential element to stimulate increased production, Nova argues.

The expert says it would also be advantageous to increase foreign investment, especially in agriculture and livestock sectors that could be rapidly revived for food production intended for the domestic market, and that would substitute for imported goods.

Cuba has a little more than 6.6 million hectares of agricultural land, occupying over 60 percent of its surface area. But its cultivated area amounts to just 3.1 million hectares, nearly 1.3 million of which are devoted to sugar cane, 180,000 hectares to rice, and 806,300 hectares to assorted products including fresh vegetables, roots and tubers, and grains.

According to the National Statistics Office (ONE), a further 104,000 hectares are devoted to plantains and 169,200 hectares to citrus and other fruits. The remaining cultivated land is used for growing coffee and tobacco.

Of the total surface area under cultivation, over 2.4 million hectares are outside the state sector, in the hands of the UBPCs, CPAs, CCSs and private farmers. According to ONE, 2.3 million hectares of uncultivated land are natural pastures and the rest is lying fallow.

This land not being farmed due to the lack of financial resources, since the agricultural sector is highly dependent on imported fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides, and because of environmental problems, as an estimated 75 percent of the agricultural land in the country is degraded in one way or another.

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