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Tuesday, February 7, 2023
SAN JOSÉ DE LAS LAJAS, Cuba, Jan 20 2009 (IPS) - When Odaly Aroche set out from the mountains of Topes de Collantes in central Cuba to see what other women farmers were doing in San Andrés, 380 km west of her home, her neighbours told her she was crazy. But that didn’t stop her.
More than a year after her first trip, Aroche has become a leader in her community, where she has won admiration for her innovative ideas that have helped improve economic and environmental conditions in this rural area, which has thrown itself open to new farming techniques.
Aroche joined the Local Agricultural Innovation Programme (PIAL) as part of a potato growing project proposed by experts with the National Institute of Agricultural Sciences (INCA).
“I accepted even though my husband didn’t support me in it,” Aroche, 42, told IPS. “He told me it would be hard, but we planted 42 kinds of potato and then held a ‘diversity fair’ at my house, where the farmers selected the ones they liked.”
PIAL was launched by INCA in 2000, with the stated aim of “strengthening a system of agricultural innovation that recognises and incorporates the contribution and capacity of farmers in the generation of economic, social and environmental benefits for society, which promote agrodiversity as a strategy in favour of food security and sovereignty in the Cuban context.”
So far, the programme has benefited 50,000 people in nine of Cuba’s 14 provinces. In each case, it works through the Local Centres for Agricultural Innovation (CLIA), which make up networks of local actors interested in innovative techniques, of which farmers form the core.
According to Soil Institute statistics, nearly half of the topsoil in Cuba is of low fertility. Farmland in the country is affected by erosion, poor drainage, low moisture retention, and scarce content of organic matter.
“Now we’re working on the preservation of vegetables, based on what I learned with Zoyla and María,” said Aroche, who convinced several local farmers of the usefulness of growing vegetables other than the traditionally grown tomato, with the promise of bringing them a specialist in canning and preserving techniques.
Zoyla Placencia and María Valido, two farmers from San Andrés, were the pioneers in getting women involved in PIAL, in line with the gender perspective aspect incorporated into each of the five prongs of its working programme: training and communication, research, livestock production, diversification of seeds and integrated agricultural management.
“For me, the project was an awakening,” said Placencia at one of the sessions of the second PIAL national meeting, held Jan. 13-15. The 42-year-old Placencia is now president of a Credit and Services Cooperative made up of 48 men and just two women.
“A movement for the participation of women has to be generated,” Graciela Morales, national programme officer of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), said at one of the debates during the meeting.
Morales said female leadership should not be cast merely as a PIAL gender equality achievement, and called instead for a broader change in the model of the rural family.
Rural women represent more that 11 percent of Cuba’s 11.2 million people. At the national level, women make up 52 percent of the workforce and constitute 65 percent of the country’s technicians and professionals.
“The local farmers now believe I have brought them good ideas, and they even elected me to present the next project for a micro-loan,” said Aroche. “The women farmers say they will join in the preservation of food, because it will improve their lives.”
In its current phase, PIAL has the support of the SDC and Deutsche Welthungerhilfe/German Agro Action, one of Germany’s largest development and humanitarian aid organisations. It has also received backing from universities, research institutes, Cuban and international non-governmental organisations, development aid agencies and agricultural and environmental authorities.
“We thought farming was just for men, but that’s a myth,” said PIAL director Humberto Ríos. “Women are the ones who are most interested in innovation; it would be unfair not to give them a leading role,” he said at PIAL’s national meeting.
“If PIAL does not work with local families, it cannot sustain itself,” said Ríos, 46, who wants to expand the idea of “innovative families.”
In just a few years, PIAL has achieved significant results in the areas where it is active.
Exponential growth in agricultural yields, the diversification of crops and the use of organic fertilisers are all recent achievements in agriculture, which is in urgent need of increasing production.
In 2008, Cuba spent 839 million dollars more on food imports than in 2007, according to the Economy Ministry. Agriculture, which was devastated by three hurricanes in August and September, grew just 1.6 percent last year, far below the 18.8 percent growth achieved in 2007.
At her house in the hills of Topes de Collantes, Aroche is planning her next project: raising a local breed of chickens. She already knows who to buy the eggs from, and has persuaded local farmers to come on board.
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