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CUBA: Economic Independence for Rural Women

Dalia Acosta

SAN ANDRÉS, Cuba, Jan 11 2008 (IPS) - María Valido has stopped thinking of herself as a simple farmer devoted to traditional household chores since becoming involved in an agricultural innovation programme that has changed the lives of hundreds of families in rural regions of Cuba since 2000.

The Local Agricultural Innovation Programme (PIAL), initially led by a multidisciplinary scientific team from the National Institute of Agricultural Sciences (INCA), is aimed at revitalising the agricultural sector and promoting greater participation by campesino (small farmer) communities in Cuba’s food production policies.

"In the past we had no motivation," Valido, 47, told IPS. "Now we get up in the morning eager to do things to show others, to participate in exchanges with other producers."

The arrival of the INCA experts came as something as a surprise to Valido and her husband, Agustín Pimentel, who have a small farm in San Andrés, located in a valley surrounded by flat-topped hills known as mogotes in the province of Pinar del Río, 125 kilometres west of Havana.

"At first it all seemed kind of strange to us, but then we started to innovate with the seeds they brought us, and it turned into something really serious," said Valido. The initial experiments culminated in a project for the development of locally produced animal feed, through the promotion of different varieties of cowpeas, soybeans, corn and sorghum.

By producing their own feed for raising pigs, Valido and her husband have increased their household income, and no longer depend on state supplies of animal feed. Improved techniques for soil preservation and the introduction of different varieties of root and garden vegetables have also brought economic benefits.

Exchanging experiences with other participants in the programme motivated Valido to start up her own garden and to begin preparing homemade preserves with foods like tomatoes, mangos and citrus fruits, for the family’s own use.

"Women who join up can improve their economic independence, because they don’t have to depend on the market," said Valido. "Now I only buy what I can’t produce here, and it’s much healthier because I do everything without chemicals."

San Andrés has a total population of over 3,500 inhabitants. Some are grouped together in small hamlets, while the others are scattered among roughly 200 remote, isolated houses, a quarter of which do not have electricity. The main activity is subsistence agriculture on land degraded by improper farming practices, shortages of water and the local conditions.

The possibility of selling preserves and condiments as a new source of income is what inspires 42-year-old Zoila Plasencia, another campesina from San Andrés. "I think that when production increases and there’s a place to sell our products, it will really benefit the women here and the community in general," she commented to IPS.

Plasencia is recognised as an active promoter of the production of home preserves and condiments for local consumption. Her ideas could be materialised as a small-scale agribusiness operation that would offer new sources of employment to young people and women.

"In this community, there are very limited opportunities for paid work for women, who mainly devote themselves to household chores," commented Ania Yong, an INCA expert and coordinator of the second Local Agrarian Innovation Festival, held in San Andrés in December 2007.

Yong came to this region with the goal of promoting the cultivation of ornamental plants and fruit trees, but instead she discovered a strong demand for training in the production of preserves and condiments.

"Given the potential for saving money and the health benefits, this initiative has been embraced by the women here, who can now produce what they need and in some cases even sell what they produce," noted Yong, who also emphasised the programme’s significant impact on the self-esteem of rural women.

Roughly 47 percent of rural dwellers in Cuba are women, and rural women make up just over 11 percent of the country’s total population of 11.2 million.

Since its founding in 2000, the PIAL initiative has expanded to nine of Cuba’s 14 provinces, with support from universities, research institutes, Cuban and international non-governmental organisations, development aid agencies, and government authorities from the agricultural and environmental sectors.

The programme encompasses five main areas: training and communication, research, animal husbandry, seed diversification, and integrated agricultural management, with the incorporation of a gender perspective in all five areas.

"The idea is to give women the opportunity to participate in each one of the thematic areas, to provide them with access, control and use of the programme’s resources, while closely monitoring how they benefit from the programme," said Nénsida Permuy, who is responsible for ensuring a gender focus within the PIAL initiative in the province of Holguín, located some 690 kilometres east of Havana.

Permuy and the rest of the team at the Local Agricultural Innovation Centre in Holguín initiated their work in the rural community of Las Caobas, where "women fulfil their reproductive role in the home, while the men go out into the fields and bring in the money," she told IPS.

"We try to promote balance in communities, so that women are not economically dependent on men," explained Permuy, who recognised the difficulty of incorporating a gender perspective, even among professionals, because "machismo is so ingrained in all of us."

While Permuy acknowledged that there have been no major changes yet, she stressed that more and more women are joining agricultural cooperatives, while others are pursuing further studies or venturing into new activities to increase their contribution to family incomes.

"I have faith in the community and I’m confident that we are going to achieve a change in mentality – the most difficult change of all," she declared.

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