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CUBA: ‘Green’ Farming Techniques to Boost Production

Patricia Grogg

POZO REDONDO, Cuba, May 13 2008 (IPS) - The application of agroecological techniques and the salvaging of traditional farming methods have revolutionised food production in rural areas along the southern edge of the Cuban capital.

Cuba is currently facing the urgent challenge of boosting agricultural productivity because of the rise in global food prices.

A number of farms in the outlying Havana district of Batabanó that are taking part in the Programme for Local Agrarian Innovation (PIAL) have seen improvements in their harvests and livestock.

The key seems to lie in efforts to capitalise on natural conditions in the area and in the openness to innovative ideas, particularly with regard to crop diversification.

“We used to have big problems with animal feed,” 39-year-old Jorge Bársena told IPS. “But today we don’t need to buy hay, and we supply our own meat and eggs,” said the farmer, who owns the La Otmara farm and is president of the 9 de Abril small farmers cooperative.

Bársena joined PIAL over four years ago as part of a seed improvement project involving small farmers that was developed by the National Institute of Agricultural Sciences (INCA). He has since experimented with the cultivation of soybeans, wheat, beans, sorghum, millet, barley and rice.

“Now we are working heavily with soybeans, which are the future of animal feed here,” he said. The success of his experiments with protein-rich soybean varieties has helped foment livestock-raising in this area, around 50 km south of Havana.

Bársena has also made incursions into the use of “green fertilisers” – plants like jack beans (Canavalia ensiformis), blue pea vine (Clitoria ternatea), velvetbean (Mucuna sp) and hyacinth bean (Lablab purpureus), which improve the chemical and biological properties of soil while helping to fight weeds.

Since PIAL’s inception in 2000, more than 8,000 farmers in nine of Cuba’s 14 provinces have benefited from the programme, whose central aims are to give greater participation to farmers in food production and to decentralise the introduction of innovations in agriculture.

INCA is supported by universities, research institutes, Cuban and international non-governmental organisations, aid agencies and local agricultural and environmental authorities.

“I have obtained highly resistant and productive varieties,” Ovidio Llanes, a tomato farmer in the Batabanó district of Pozo Redondo, told IPS.

Llanes said he joined PIAL in 2004 “because I needed to improve my varieties of tomato, which were highly susceptible to diseases, drought and heavy rainfall.”

He began working with 36 varieties of tomato, 46 kinds of beans, 13 kinds of wheat and several different kinds of triticale (a hybrid of rye and wheat).

“I have earned good profits from tomatoes in 16 harvests, which would have seemed impossible to me before,” said the farmer, who is well-known in the area for his work with tomatoes.

Llanes has organised four seed fairs, the most recent of which took place on Apr. 18, in which he has exhibited the results of his work in crop diversification. “For farmers, seeing is believing, and they take these messages away with them from the fairs,” he said.

“The fairs are an informal exchange among farmers that help salvage lost elements of their traditional culture,” Manuel Ponce, coordinator of the local PIAL centre (CIAL) in the province of Havana, told IPS.

These new spaces for participation by farmers provide them with access to crop diversity generated by scientific institutes, which are generally far removed from those who work the land. “There are good methods that are applied in many parts of the world, but since they are not part of the traditions here, they are rejected,” said Ponce.

PIAL, through the local CIAL centres, has put new species and varieties into the hands of farmers, while providing funds and training aimed at giving a boost to innovation in agriculture with a strong accent on participation by local farmers.

Ponce said excellent yields can be achieved without the need for costly fertilisers and herbicides. “Here in Batabanó there are many ecological farmers who will not go back to chemical products, because even though yields are slightly lower with (organic techniques), the expense is greatly reduced,” he said.

“If they start to distribute land, I believe we would no longer have to import food,” said Ponce. “Rice, corn, soybeans – everything that is imported now could be produced here, with more land and a few inputs.”

Last year, Cuba spent some 1.6 billion dollars on food imports, a figure that is expected to grow to 1.9 billion dollars this year due to the sharp rise in global food prices. Meanwhile, around half of the country’s arable land is currently lying fallow.

The Cuban government is studying the possibility of distributing idle land to private farmers – a process that is already underway in the case of tobacco and coffee production – according to remarks made by the president of the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP), Orlando Lugo, to Cuban state television in March.

“There are many farmers who need to expand their farms,” said Bársena. “I don’t think major funding is needed. What is needed instead is agroecological management, based on our natural conditions, the climate, and growing seasons – traditional elements that have been lost.”

“Nature cannot be ignored; we have to work with her, because she is our guide,” said the farmer.

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