Civil Society, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

CUBA: Faith, Farming and the Environment

Dalia Acosta

CÁRDENAS, Cuba, Oct 24 2006 (IPS) - Cuban pastor Raymundo García surveys the well-tended fields of crops, the artificial lake and the ancient trees that he managed to save from felling, and dreams of extending the limits of El Retiro (The Retreat) and turning the dry fields around it green.

“We want to rescue these lands and make them productive,” the Baptist pastor told IPS. He is the founder of the Christian Centre for Reflection and Dialogue, one of the most active Cuban civil society organisations in the city of Cárdenas, 150 kilometres east of Havana.

Since the state granted them the use of the lands that now comprise El Retiro five years ago, the members of the centre have worked the land and benefited surrounding villages by producing biogas and holding workshops on natural medicines, food preserving, craft work and visual arts.

Cárdenas, a city of more than 100,000, suffered heavily from the economic crisis of the 1990s: its shipyards and four sugar mills closed down, and the pulp and paper mill cut its output by half. As a result, the nearby Varadero, Cuba’s leading tourist resort, became an attractive source of employment.

El Retiro has also emerged as an important alternative source of employment – and lifestyle. The land, once covered with stones and tall grass, now yields crops thanks to the labour of more than 70 people involved in two of the centre’s projects: rural community development and caring for the environment.

Founded in 1991, the Centre “is a fraternal, religious institution with profound social objectives – an inclusive, non-profit organisation” whose mission “is to foster culture, humanism and the very best of Christian virtues.” Everyone is welcome to take part in its activities, without distinction of creed. That includes declared atheists.

Eight kilometres from Cárdenas and very close to the rural communities of El Cerro, Merceditas and Máximo Gómez and to the José Smith Comas sugar mill, El Retiro produces nearly 50 different crops. Its fields sprout cabbages and other vegetables, 15 species of medicinal plants and a great variety of flowers.

The farm also raises rabbits, sheep, goats, cows, geese and bees.

The herbs grown there supply the municipal laboratory of natural medicine, which manufactures herbal products. Agricultural products, fresh or preserved, are given to children and elderly people at 11 municipal social institutions, through a contract with the local Ministry of Agriculture authorities.

“Primary schools, pre-schools, the nursing home, the diabetic clinic, the special school and the maternity home receive pickles, fruit salads, tomato and pepper sauces, jams and fruit juice, as well as vegetables and meat,” agronomist Rita García, who coordinates the project, told IPS.

In spite of having been hit by a major storm on Apr. 26, El Retiro was awarded recognition as a “national centre of excellence” by the Ministry of Agriculture’s National Urban Agricultural Group in the middle of this year.

It had previously won recognition by the group as a “national reference centre.”

“We promote organic agriculture. It’s a complete cycle, from seed-time to harvest, and involves avoiding the use of chemicals or things that harm the environment. We even produce biogas and our own fertiliser,” explained García.

As well as its agricultural work, the farm has distinguished itself by constructing more than 200 biogas plants, with a capacity ranging from 14 to 42 cubic metres, for rural workers, schools, preschools and a manufacturing unit at the nearest sugar mill.

“Up to a few years ago, the rural people knew nothing about biogas, but now they know how useful it can be. We already have 200 more orders,” the project coordinator said.

In her opinion, “it’s not just a solution for energy demand. It’s about health: toxic fuels like kerosene can be avoided, and animal waste is put to use. The final product does not smell bad and doesn’t attract flies.”

While they dream of making inroads into wind and solar energy, technologies that are still too expensive for them, the members of the centre are carrying out a reforestation project, the first phase of which involves planting 100,000 fruit and timber trees in the area.

According to the executive director, the region has still not recovered from the impact of several hurricanes over the last few years, like hurricane Michelle in 2001. “Many people had fruit trees in their yards which were toppled by the wind; time passes, and they have not been replaced,” said pastor García.

“We have observed, also, that we’re losing native species of fruit trees. We are looking all over the country for seeds, to make a small forestry reserve with species like the breadfruit tree, which is unknown in Cárdenas and can only be found in some remote areas in the east of Cuba, and also with the anacahuita (wild olive) which has been similarly sidelined, and a specific variety of mandarine orange.”

In spite of all the hard work, El Retiro does not turn a profit because of the dual monetary exchange system in force in Cuba since the early 1990s, which creates a dual internal market, one in the local currency and one in hard currency.

According to García, the farm can make up to half a million Cuban pesos a year, but that is cancelled out because it has to buy all its raw materials and implements in hard currency from the state.

García quoted the example of the biogas plants: “We pay for all the materials to manufacture them in convertible currency, and we sell them in national currency, on reasonable terms – in other words, whenever they can pay us. Some buyers are so poor that they only have their cows and pigsties,” he said.

In these circumstances, he said, “We always lose out, there’s no way we can make a profit.”

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