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CUBA: Urban Farming, More Necessary Than Ever

Patricia Grogg

CIÉNAGA DE ZAPATA, Cuba, May 30 2008 (IPS) - In spite of its soil being hard to plough, saline, shallow and stony, this Cuban municipality, the location of the largest and best preserved wetland in the Caribbean, has more than 140 farmers working in urban agriculture, a phenomenon that is important for the country’s food security.

“Here you have to make soil from scratch, and to begin with I had to bring it from Jagüey Grande,” Nibaldo Ortega, who joined the urban agriculture movement five years ago, told IPS. He plants his vegetables in beds, and between these he puts sawdust, “to carry on making soil,” he said.

His crops are few in number. “I grow tomatoes, beans and radishes, mainly. Now I’m planting fruit trees,” he says. But his real vocation is rearing pigs, rabbits, chickens and other farmyard animals included in the urban agriculture livestock programmes.

The 43-year-old Ortega began by “raising a few little pigs” with a friend, on a small plot some distance away from the neighbourhood of El Caletón in Ciénaga de Zapata, population 10,000, the largest and most sparsely populated municipality in the country, located in Matanzas province, east of Havana.

The farm now has more than 100 pigs, 292 laying hens, 30 rabbits and several Muscovy ducks, as well as other animals. “I’m the son of a small farmer, and I like this work,” he says, while continuing to massage a sow’s belly to help her farrow.

As his initial land area became too small, Ortega was given the right to use (but not own) another plot of about half a hectare, opposite his own. He is getting it ready, and has made a map of where he will put each sector. At the back he has reserved space for the “infirmary,” for the benefit of the veterinarian who looks after his animals.

“Some inspectors came and said, ‘don’t worry about how much you’ll make. As long as you’re producing food, there’s no problem.’ Before, it used to be viewed differently, they were afraid of people earning too much personally. But now there’s a different attitude to what you earn from your work. And there are certainly no days off here,” he said.

Ortega signed a contract with the state for raising pigs, under which he was given 10 breeding sows. He must sell the pork he produces to the state buyer, who pays for part of it at the official price and the rest at market price, which is four times higher.

“I think it’s a fair agreement and it’s good business for me, because as part of the contract they sell me imported fodder for the pigs practically at cost. Besides, it’s legally earned money,” he said. In his view, producers are more motivated now.

Luis Lazo, a People’s Power delegate for the barrio of El Caletón, said that previously people always had to go to other places to find pork and vegetables. “But now they can buy them nearby,” he said.

“Part of what is produced by urban agriculture provides food for social programmes, such as for low-income elderly people,” he said.

Alicia Abella, in charge of urban agriculture in Ciénaga de Zapata, told the local media that there are now 146 producers in this municipality, some of whom grow vegetables, fruit and grains, while others raise livestock and poultry.

The urban agriculture movement, which now involves some 300,000 producers all over the country, on state farms, cooperatives or private farms, is based on environmentally sustainable farming methods.

According to official figures, over 15 million tonnes of chemical-free foods – basically vegetables, fresh herbs, fruit and rice – have been produced in urban and peri-urban areas in the last decade.

As for the livestock programmes, available reports indicate that small-scale breeders in peri-urban areas produce 12,000 tonnes of pork a year, as well as 76,000 tonnes of mutton and goat meat, and 3,400 tonnes of rabbit meat.

Experts point out that another interesting aspect, from the agro-ecological point of view, is that the agricultural and livestock programmes are interdependent, so that livestock programmes, as well as producing food, supply more than 70 percent of the organic fertiliser used on the crops that are grown.

An annual 8.5 million tonnes of organic fertiliser are produced, of which 1.4 million tonnes are earthworm humus. These maintain the fertility of soils devoted to urban agriculture, and also supply the needs of organoponic and intensive vegetable farmers. Official reports say that 5,000 polluted sites, generated by unauthorised rubbish dumps and abandoned lots, have been eliminated by transforming them into organoponic and intensive vegetable gardens over the past decade, in more than 200 cities and towns.

Spurred by soaring international food prices, the Cuban government decided last year to restructure its agricultural sector in order to boost productivity and reduce food imports, which this year will cost 1.9 billion dollars.

The restructuring will include granting the use of uncultivated land to small farmers who wish to farm it, and decentralisation of agricultural planning which will focus on the local characteristics of each part of the country. The authorities have declared the food crisis a matter of national security.

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