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Rural-Urban Migration and the Stabilization of Cuban Agriculture

by Lisa Reynolds Wolfe, Ph.D.


This report centers on the following questions: How has the transformation of Cuba’s agriculture from a system based on techniques associated with the “green revolution” to an agroecological system affected food security in the island’s cities? Has it been a factor in lessening the heightened rural-urban migration of the 1990s? The report presents five findings, concluding that urban and rural farmers outside of Cuba would be wise to consider Cuban agricultural policy regarding the following: the promotion of organic agricultural and forestry use of vacant municipal, state, and private lands; recycling of all “green waste” material into compost; and the creation of a variety of markets for local produce.

Author’s note:This report builds on work done on four previous research trips to Cuba since 1997.


1 Cuba’s countryside has been stabilized –despite insufficient rainfall and recurring drought in eastern areas– through the introduction of agroecological techniques.

2 Because of the introduction of urban agriculture nationwide, urban residents no longer are forced to rely primarily on rural areas for fresh produce.

3 Small farmers working on privately owned farms and in cooperatives have made major contributions to the successful implementation of agroecology in the countryside.

4 The introduction of a diversified market based system for food distribution has spurred increased productivity among agricultural workers.

5 While agroecological techniques hold great promise for rural areas outside of Cuba, their successful implementation in other locales is not assured.

Acknowledgments: My gratitude to Food First and Global Exchange for sponsoring the research delegation. A special thanks to Cuban colleagues for their gracious hospitality at SIGA 2004.


Seventy-four percent of Cuba’s eleven million people now live in urban areas largely due to heavy rural-urban migration. In 1956, 56 percent of the population was rural. By 1989 that percentage had dropped to 28 percent. Therefore, the transformation of Cuban agriculture in little more than a decade holds great promise for a world where urbanization is thought to be out of control. The world’s current population is split about equally between cities and rural areas, with urban areas expected to surpass rural areas in population around the year 2005. By 2015 about 26 cities in the world are expected to have populations of 10 million or more. To feed cities of this size today – for example, Tokyo, Sao Paulo or Mexico City – at least 6,000 tons of food must be imported on a daily basis. What guidance can the Cuban model provide an international community looking for ways to address issues of food security in the context of rampant urbanization? The findings of this report provide insight. But, first, it is necessary to understand the background driving Cuba’s agricultural transformation.


End of the Cold War and Collapse of the Soviet Bloc

The end of the Cold War meant the total collapse of Cuba’s principal trade agreements with the Soviet Bloc. At the roughly the same time that Cuba was coping with this crisis, the United States tightened its economic blockade against the island. In 1992, the Torricelli bill was approved, barring shipments of food and medical supplies by overseas subsidiaries of US companies. In 1996, the Helms-Burton Act restricted foreign investment in Cuba.

As early as the late 1980s, the introduction of glasnost and perestroika in the Soviet Union – along with the democratization of Eastern Europe – led to Soviet unwillingness and (eventually) inability to fulfil trade obligations. Because Cuba’s economy was so intertwined with that of the Soviet Union, the impact of change could not be gradual. Rather, it was a shock that permeated every household in Cuba. The absence of oil imports, especially, threatened the viability of the country’s industrial, transportation, and agricultural infrastructures.

Under agreements with the former Soviet Union, Cuba had been an oil driven country, insensitive to energy conservation or efficiency. In fact, 98 percent of all Cuba’s petroleum had come from the Soviet bloc. In 1988, for example, 12-13 million tons of Soviet oil were imported and, of this total, the Cubans were able to re-export two million tons onto the world market. In 1989, Cuba was forced to cut the re-exports in half and, by 1990, oil exports were cut entirely since only 10 of the 13 million tons promised by the Soviets had been received. By the end of 1991, oil imports had fallen still more. Cuba received only 6 million of a promised 13 million tons and, by this time, the shortfall in oil and associated factors began to severely impact the nation’s economy.

While oil was critical, other losses were also important since 85 percent of all exchanges (including agriculture) were with the Soviets. In terms of exports, 66 percent of all sugar and 98 percent of the country’s citrus fruits had been exported to the Soviet Bloc. As for imports, aside from oil, 66 percent of the country’s food, 86 percent of all raw material, and 80 percent of machinery and spare parts came from Soviet dominated trading partners. Consequently, when the support was withdrawn, factory closures became common, food scarcity was widespread, and an already inadequate technology base began eroding.

In early 1990, a survival economy was put in place. Food became increasingly scarce. This was not surprising since, as mentioned, 66 percent of all the island’s food had been brought in from the Soviet bloc. In 1989 alone, 51 percent of all calories and 57 percent of all proteins had been imported. In early 1990, 100,000 tons of wheat normally obtained through barter arrangements failed to arrive and the government was required to use scarce hard currency to import grain from Canada. Bread rations were cut from 200 grams to 180 grams per person per day, and the price of a 400 gram loaf of bread in Havana jumped from 30 to 35 cents. At the same time, the price of eggs nearly doubled, increasing from 8 to 15 cents. Tens of thousands of tons of citrus fruits that were to be exported were diverted to domestic shelves at the expense of hard currency earnings. By early 1992, the price of many foods –potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, beets, and bananas– had doubled as pressure mounted for the state to reduce its subsidies. Overall, food consumption was said to show a decrease of 20 percent in calories and 27 percent in protein between 1989 and 1992.

Clearly the Cuban population could not sustain life at such a minimal level indefinitely. Nevertheless, Cuba’s leadership was determined not to sacrifice the social and redistributional gains of the Cuban revolution. They, therefore, decided to go beyond the survival economy to a second stage which would, if successful, allow the government to better living and working conditions. The strategy was to concentrate on the three priorities which the government felt could sustain the country and, at the same time, continue the advances of the past thirty years. These priorities were agriculture, acquisition of hard currency through tourism and biotechnology, and continued Defense of the Revolution.


Issues associated with Cuban rural-urban migration have always been related to problems associated with agriculture. Before the revolution, the majority of investment in construction and services occurred in Havana, spurring those seeking a better life to migrate to the capital. In 1953, Havana’s net migration was 22,801, rising to 43,578 by 1959. With the success of the Cuban revolution, the new government set out to reverse this trend by expanding opportunities in rural areas. A number of specific measures including the First Law of Agrarian Reform, the Second Law of Agrarian Reform, and various bills dealing with Cuba’s housing emergency were designed to redistribute income, eliminate rural-urban inequities, and address the ‘urban crisis.’ At the same time, the regime worked diligently to incorporate and mobilize the poor, dispossessed, and unemployed. Since problems in the countryside were considered to be the root cause of the urban crisis, the government focused on what it called the ‘urbanizing of the countryside and the ruralizing of the urban population’ through a process of concentrating formerly dispersed inhabitants in small towns, and building new cities and towns. It was hoped that improved conditions in the countryside would make migration a less attractive alternative.

Rural-urban imbalances diminished a great deal during the decade of the 1960s, although the demographic growth of Greater Havana continued until 1963. After this time, decentralization slowed the rate of Havana’s annual population growth which had previously included the arrival of 17,000 immigrants from the interior of the country, others coming from countries outside of Cuba, and a natural increase of 23,000. Over the period from 1970-1980, Havana’s growth trends were the reverse of other cities in Latin America and, indeed, in the Third World as a whole. Nevertheless, by the late 1990s, despite Havana’s slow growth policy, planners estimated that about 80,000 individuals lived in Old Havana (alone), compared to approximately 70,000 at the time of the revolution. More than one-half (40,000) of this number are internal migrants. Of this group, one-fourth (10,000) arrived between 1990 and 1995 when investment in Cuba’s rural areas became more limited and migration to the capital increased once again. By 1994, the net migration to Havana (as a whole) was 16,541 individuals, more than any year since 1963. By 1996, the figure had reached 28,193 migrants and was, thus, at the pre-revolutionary level. The reason was clear. As one migrant stated: “Since the start of the Special Period things have gotten really tough back east . . . There are shortages of food and medicine and gasoline there, and that is what has driven us here. We’re desperate to improve our situation.”

Obviously, there has been a great deal of concern over both the increase in rural-urban migration, and a continuing trend suggesting that internal migration is escalating rapidly, with larger numbers of internal migrants than in the past setting their sights on the capital city of Havana. This is in direct contrast to much of the revolutionary period when migrants chose to settle in secondary cities or small towns rather than in the capital itself. There has also been concern over an emerging trend which indicates that migrants are beginning to leave closely adjacent provinces –and even outlying counties of Havana Province– for the capital. This, again, is in contrast to the more geographically distant origins of prior arrivals, and suggests a diminishing of jobs and services even for those living fairly close to the core of the city itself. Consequently, for a time in the mid 1990s, it appeared that, in a period of scarcity, pre-revolutionary patterns were reasserting themselves. In fact, the trends discussed above were most probably understated because many newcomers avoid registering their move with the appropriate authorities.

Policies to stem the inflow were put in place in 1997, but not before the average population density in the capital reached 3,000 inhabitants per square kilometer compared to 2,200 inhabitants per square kilometer at the time of the revolution. And, while restrictions of 1997 worked to contain the increased movement of individuals from the countryside to the city, it is clear that the transformation of Cuban agriculture, in both the countryside and the cities, has had significant impact.

This report concludes that two methodologies, in tandem, have worked to stabilize both urban and rural areas, with positive affect on the problem of rural-urban migration and on food security in both rural and urban environments. The innovations are first, an organically based urban agriculture; and, second, the introduction of agroecological techniques in the countryside. This report will now present findings which will be stated and discussed.

FINDING #1: Cuba’s countryside has been stabilized – despite insufficient rainfall and recurring drought in eastern areas – through the introduction of agroecological techniques.

Largely due to necessity, agroecological methods have been introduced into Cuba’s rural communities. However, while acknowledging necessity, it is important to note that the appropriation of substantial government resources, state supported research, and fundamental policy shifts at the highest levels of government have supported the movement.

The collapse of trade with the Soviet Bloc required Cuba to adopt an alternative approach to agricultural production. Methods were introduced that emphasized an input substitution approach, relying heavily on locally produced biopesticides and biofertilizers to make up for a lack of imported inputs. However, the Cuban interpretation of agroecology goes well beyond the use of low-input technologies to minimize dependency on external inputs. The emphasis is on the design of complex agrosystems that take advantage of ecological interactions, and synergisms between biotic and abiotic compounds which enable soil fertility enhancement, biological pest control, and higher productivity to be achieved through internal processes. Today, hundreds of Cuban farms are managed using the concepts of agroecology which include: increased recycling of nutrients and biomass within the system; addition of organic matter to improve soil quality and activate soil biology; soil and water conservation to minimize resource losses; diversification of agrosystems in time and place, including the integration of crops and livestock; optimization of biological interactions and synergisms among functional components of biodiversity to provide key ecological services; and integration of farm components to increase biological efficiencies and preserve the productive capacity of the agroecosystem.

NOTE: Each technique listed below was observed while traveling on the Food First/Global Exchange research delegation. Various methods will be discussed in more detail in sections of this report dealing with site visits.

The diversification of agroecosystems is a key strategy. Cubans have used a variety of techniques such as crop rotations, green manures, polycultures, agroforestry, and crop-livestock integration. The challenge is to discover the most efficient crop, tree, and animal combinations that match the environmental potential of each area. This process is dependent on the application of agroecological concepts and principles including: the optimization of local resources and promotion of within-farm synergisms through plant-animal combinations; reliance on the ecological services of biodiversity in order to minimize the use of external inputs, whether organic or conventional; matching cropping systems with existing soil and climatic potential; conservation and use of crop and non-crop biodiversity within and around farms to maximize utilization of biological and genetic resources; reliance on the knowledge and wisdom of local farmers as a key input; and promotion of participatory methods in research and in the extension and implementation process. A good example of the above is the UBPC, Maniabo, a worker-owned cooperative enterprise that allowed us to see the principles of agroecology in practice.

(The discussion on agroecology relied on information presented in two chapters of the Food First Book Sustainable Agriculture and Resistance: “The Principles and Strategy of Agroecology in Cuba” and “Lessons of Cuban Resistance.“)

Site Visit: UBPC Maniabo

Maniabo is a Basic Unit of Cooperative Production (UBPC) located in the municipality of Las Tunas. Its 248 workers, including 42 women, are former state farm workers, each earning between 600-700 Cuban pesos monthly, a high salary by Cuban standards. The facility was founded on December 17, 1993 and, since its inception, it has had high levels of productivity. Its first priority is milk production. With a total area of 1,369 hectares, it has 1,549 cows that produced a total of 1,440,700 liters of milk in 2003. The milk is picked up twice daily as there is no onsite refrigeration.

Maniabo is characterized by diversified production. During 2003, in addition to milk from cows, it produced livestock, eggs, various vegetable crops, and worm compost. Red beans are raised as a monocrop, with the growing area rotated to a different crop yearly. And, while the main focus of the farm is dairy, the farmers try to grow as much of their own food as possible.

The cooperative is particularly proud of its pedestal technology, an intensive rotational pasture system. This technology increases the surface area for cattle grazing by integrating grazing areas and legume cultivation. Because the grasses reseed, resowing is not necessary. Because of prolonged insufficient rainfall in Las Tunas province (only 400 millimeters of rain have fallen so far this year compared to 1100-1200 millimeters in a normal year), both bermuda grass and high producing legumes require intensive irrigation. The area is irrigated for three hours every seven days all year round. Gravity driven rainwater catchment technology is employed as is scientific methodology designed to measure the amount of food and water given each cow relative to the amount of milk produced.

Farm workers are also proud of their worm composting production. Cow manure is used to feed the earthworms. The resultant compost is mixed into the soil or used as top dressing on the farm, but the worm humus also provides additional income through sales to tobacco and vegetable farmers in the area. There is also high demand for the product from urban agriculture producers in the city. The compost is sold in both Cuban and convertible pesos, selling for about $14.00 US dollars.

Conclusion: Integrated production provides a more rational use of natural resources and is more effective in reducing external dependencies than other agricultural techniques.

FINDING #2: Because of the introduction of urban agriculture nationwide, urban residents no longer are forced to rely primarily on rural areas for fresh produce.

In 1990 (as in 1960), the government’s first obligation was to feed the Cuban people. Since agriculture had been centered around state enterprises designed on the oil-driven Soviet model, a revamping of the country’s agricultural system was necessary in order to make up for the absence of the petroleum-based products previously used in agriculture.

As previously mentioned, throughout the 1960s, there had been an effort to ruralize Cuba’s urban areas and urbanize the countryside in order to make cities more self-sufficient in food production. This strategy was abandoned – especially in Havana – when the capital regained renewed importance during the decade of the 1970s. With expanded Soviet patronage and an ample supply of oil, agriculture was increasingly mechanized and petroleum reliant. Even the provision of adequate quantities of fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, and seeds was a function of the Cuban relationship with the Soviet bloc. As one Cuban noted, “we traded sugar for everything else.”

In 1990, when the regime began to lay out an agricultural strategy based on smaller units of production, the new tactics began to impact Havana almost immediately. For example, seventeen organiponics (organic farms) were developed in which manure and animal traction were used in the cultivation process. Meanwhile, idle lands in the metropolitan area were brought under cultivation at the community level, and land associated with the workplace was also farmed. All these changes were a concerted attempt to alleviate the transportation costs that were required to bring food produced in the provinces to Havana. The program also sought to divert workers displaced in other sectors to the agricultural sector. For instance, thousands of state employees in the construction and agricultural ministries were reassigned to state farms in 1991 and early 1992. Efforts were moderately successful and, by March 1992, there were significant increases in the availability of vegetables and some fruits in Havana where “over 20,000 residents were mobilized to harvest and supplement distribution.”

Nevertheless, while early attempts at agricultural diversification (sugar cane versus all other crops) and cultivation for self-consumption were said to be encouraging, they were not sufficient to ensure that every urban resident had an adequate food supply. Consequently, in 1994, the government allowed the implementation of radical measures by revolutionary standards, re-introducing private farmers’ markets that would enable producers to sell their goods at whatever price the market would bear. By early 1995, a wide variety of high quality food products began to circulate on the private market as producers responded to the stimulus. In fact, many products which hadn’t been seen for decades were suddenly available for those who could afford to purchase them, most often a privileged group made up of those individuals with links to the dollar economy.

The urban agriculture that we observed on the Food First/Global Exchange research trip falls into a variety of distinct production systems.

Organiponics and Intensive Vegetable Gardening: These two systems have been the most important methods used in past years. Organiponics are generally located in areas with infertile soils or with production constraints. They are often built on artificial surfaces in raised beds filled with a mixture of organic matter substrate and soil. The intensive vegetable garden, on the other hand, is developed on parcels of relatively good soil without using raised beds. Organic matter is applied directly during preparation for planting.

Small Plots, Patios, and Popular Gardens: Here, the area cultivated is very small and is determined by how much useful or arable space exists between buildings, houses, and streets, or in a patio, or a state-owned urban space that can be converted to gardens. At this point, there are over 104,000 parcels and patios under production, covering an area of more than 3,600 hectares. These areas produce more than organiponics and intensive gardens combined. The small plots, patios, and popular gardens have had positive impact. They have made it possible to feed the urban population, spurring development of an urban culture favorable to agriculture and eliminating the abandoned spaces which in the past may have been breeding grounds for disease vectors and rodents. Also of importance, they have provided socially useful and productive employment opportunities.

(The above discussion on production systems in urban agriculture relies heavily on the chapter “The Growth of Urban Agriculture” in the Food First book “Sustainable Agriculture and Resistance. Each type of production activity was observed while traveling on the Food First/Global Exchange research delegation.)

In sum, urban agriculture enhances the quality and sufficiency of food for the urban farmer and his family, providing supplemental income as well. It reduces food insecurity by increasing access to fresh, nutrient rich foods among populations suffering from food insecurity. This is accomplished both through self-provisioning and by using what is grown to increase income. In addition, urban agriculture provides employment and income opportunities for the urban population – including migrants from the countryside– and an improved urban environment overall.

Site Visit: As we observed on our site visit to the home of Basillo Bernal Mayea (Bebo) in Sancti Spiritus, small backyard and patio gardens now make significant contributions to household and regional food supplies. In addition to supplying his family’s food requirements, Bebo has an organic “juice bar” on his front porch which generates additional income for the family. He also hosts a weekly radio program on permaculture.

Self-Provisioning at Factories, Offices, and Businesses: Urban areas in Cuba host hundreds of workers’ cafeterias associated with the workplace. The facilities require large quantities of agricultural products. Many of them have organized agricultural production in areas bordering, or close to, their facilities. In Havana alone, there are more than 300 such farms in production. Large quantities of vegetables, root crops, grains, and fruits, as well as meat, milk, fish, eggs, and herbs are produced.

Suburban Farms: This form of agricultural production is characterized by intensive cultivation, efficiency of water use, and the maximum reduction of agrotoxins. Suburban farms have reached an important level in the past few years, especially in the cities of Havana, Santa Clara, Sancti Spiritus, Camaguey, and Santiago de Cuba. They were quite visible from the windows of our bus as we passed by.

Shaded Cultivation and Apartment-StyleProduction: Shaded cultivation is in the initial stages of development. It will allow the year-round cultivation of horticultural crops, especially during the hottest months of the year when the sun is at its most intense. Apartment style agriculture is very diverse. It includes a range of practices, including cultivation with diverse soil substrate and nutrient solutions, mini-planting beds, small containers, balconies, roofs, etc., with minimal use of soil.

State resolutions require that all urban agriculture must be organic so as to protect neighborhood residents and that livestock cannot be raised in urban areas. Through a series of urban agricultural stores, the state supplies organic inputs (primarily compost) and extension services. The urban agriculture movement has met with great success. According to Oxfam America (June 2001), half of the fresh produce consumed in Havana is grown by “nontraditional urban producers.” Production levels of vegetables have doubled or tripled every year since 1994, and urban gardens now produce about 60 percent of all vegetables consumed in Cuba, but only 50 percent of all vegetables consumed in Havana. Moreover, urban agriculture alone (not counting small gardens and individual farms) provides 215 grams of vegetables per day per person throughout Cuba – more than 70 percent of the grams recommended by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. At the end of 1999, prices at vegetable stands supplied by urban producers were generally at 30 to 50 percent of farmers market prices. (Various types of markets will be discussed in Finding #4 of this report.)

Conclusion: The urban agriculture movement in Cuba has made a significant contribution to food security in cities and has provided employment for many urban residents.

FINDING #3: Small farmers working on privately owned farms and in cooperatives have made major contributions to the successful implementation of agroecology in the countryside.

NOTE: While a variety of organizational models exist, including the truly independent farmer who is not a member of a cooperative, this report will only discuss the Basic Units of Cooperative Production (UBPC), Agricultural Production Cooperative or CPA, and the Credit and Service Cooperative or CCS.

In order to understand the importance of small farms in Cuba today, some background is necessary. In September 1993, the Cuban government unveiled a major reorganization of agriculture, restructuring state farms as private cooperatives. At the time, Fidel Castro said, “The state has not had success in the large farm business.” The new farms (which now make up the largest sector in Cuban agriculture) were called UBPCs or Basic Units of Cooperative Production. Policy change was based on a growing perception that smaller farms would be more easily managed and better able to take on the sustainable agriculture practices that now seemed necessary. Reorganization was meant to promote decentralized decision-making regarding production that would, at the same time, allow centralized planning in areas of biological diversity, pest control, and water and other resource management. Still in operation today, UBPCs (like Maniabo in Las Tunas) are smaller than the previous state farms. They are also member-owned and member-managed. The cooperative, not the state, owns production, and the cooperative member’s earnings are based on his or her share of the cooperative’s income. The UBPC also owns buildings and farm equipment, purchased from the government at discounted prices with long-term, low interest loans (4 percent). The greatest structural difference between UBPCs and the other farms that we will discuss is that the state retains ownership of the land, leasing it on a long-term basis, rent-free. Also, most UBPCs produce sugar. They are given quotas for sugar production, limiting any other crops that they might produce. Therefore, they have little to sell in the agricultural markets, a fact which restricts their options and their income. In addition to UBPCs, the breakup of large state farms has freed large plots of land for other types of use, and the government has turned over land to both private farmers and agricultural cooperatives.

Today, the private sector occupies a central place in agricultural production. Agricultural Production Cooperatives or CPAs are the traditional revolutionary form of cooperative production in Cuba. They were first created 20 to 30 years ago by farmers who voluntarily chose to unite their private individual lands and resources in order to attain increased production along with marketing and economic efficiency. Although for some time the CPAs were of minimal importance, they began to rebound in the early 1990s as new members joined, drawn to farming by the advantages of rural cooperative life with respect to income, access to affordable food, and housing. CPAs served as models for the creation of UBPCs since their yields have been greater than those of the state farms. Internal organization is similar to that of UBPCs, but their management techniques tend to be more advanced and, as noted above, they own their own land.

The Credit and Service Cooperative (CCS) is an association of small landowners who own and manage individual plots, joining with other small farmers to receive credit and services from state agencies. They may also share certain machinery and equipment and, thus, are able to take advantage of economies of scale for certain activities. CCS members purchase inputs and sell products at fixed prices through state agencies, based on production plans and contracts established with the state distribution system. Any production above and beyond the contracted quantity may be sold in farmers’ markets at free market prices. These small farmers have been the most productive sector in Cuban agriculture, outperforming both agricultural cooperatives (CPAs) and UBPCs. CCS farmers also have higher incomes than members of other cooperatives. Because these small farmers produce more with less, the National Association of Small Producers (ANAP) began a program in 1998 to strengthen the business side of the co-ops. They are now able to open bank accounts, hire administrators and market representatives, and negotiate credit. In addition to the Maniabo UBPC discussed earlier, our delegation was able to tour both CPAs and CCSs.

Site Visits: We visited two independent family farms in Sancti Spiritus. The first was on a steep hillside on land given to the owner during an agrarian reform after the revolution. The second had been the property of the owner’s grandfather. Thus, it had been in the family for a substantial period of time. Both farms used agroecological principles. However, the two farms were not equally prosperous. Although it was clear that there were vast differences in CCSs, both farmers were clearly proud of the work that they were doing, and proud of the contribution they were making to agroecology in Cuba.

Farm #1: The first impression upon arrival was of precautions taken against the spread of disease. Before entering the farm area, the soles of our feet and our hands were treated with a chloride solution. (See Cuba2004 070) The eighteen year old farm was worked by three family members. It had been organic for nine years. The owners had altered their farming methodology because they were achieving inadequate yields under the ‘old’ system. The landscape is inhospitable, marked by steep landscapes and erosion. Yet the owner is proud of the integrated planting of crops, including pumpkin, maize, and beans. The small organiponic produces vegetables and herbs for family use – plantains, yucca, rice, corn, and coffee. The farm also produces nine kinds of fruit as well as both fowl and cattle (for both milk and beef). Impressively, the farmers were working under hardship conditions having had only one third normal rainfall for the year. They had a well which reached down eight meters and was used for irrigation.

Farm #2: This farm, established in 1888 by the owner’s grandfather, was a family farm worked by seven individuals. The seven hectare farm raised four crops including tobacco, had pasture land, raised fruits, and contained forestry. It was not totally agroecological as this technology is not possible with tobacco. It did practice crop rotation, as well as raising herbs for green medicine, and providing bat fertilizer. The firm also practiced biodynamic farming, a type of farming based on the cycles of the moon.

Conclusion: The small farmer on privately owned land has become the backbone of Cuba’s agroecological movement. He is more efficient and more productive than either UBPCs or state farms. He is also more prosperous than most other Cuban workers.

FINDING #4: The introduction of a diversified market-based system for food distribution has spurredincreased productivity among agricultural workers.

Before 1995 the government was in charge of nearly 100 percent of food distribution, primarily through the libreta or the ration card system and through meals provided in the workplace. Since the onset of the Special Period, monthly rations have been reduced and now last no longer than ten days to two weeks. In response, agricultural markets and other venues for buying food have emerged. While all farmers continue to sell a percentage of their produce to the state marketing board, farmers who contract a plan with the government are now motivated to produce in excess of their agreed upon quota. They can sell any food produced over and above their plan amount to the agricultural markets at ‘differentiated prices’, often twice the contracted government price. This provides a powerful production incentive. In fact, under this incentive, almost all farmers have been able to produce in excess of agreed upon amounts. In many instances, they triple or quadruple their income.

Historically, distribution and marketing of agricultural commodities to the population at reasonable prices has been the responsibility of the state. Although state markets still play a primary role, farmers’ markets established in 1994, allow farmers to sell their production surpluses at prices set by supply and demand. The ability to get higher prices and raise incomes by surpassing contracted production quotas has led to a more active and efficient management of productive resources, resulting in greater availability of food to the population. The new markets motivate both private and cooperative farmers. Vegetable stands that market fresh produce from urban agriculture plots or oganiponics are also popular. Produce sold at these stands is usually organic, fresh daily, and prices are 40-50 percent of those charged in the larger agricultural markets. Variety is limited to what the garden is able to produce.

In Cuba, gains in food production stem largely from increasing productivity rather than from increasing land under cultivation. Increased production reflects a reorientation of Cuban agriculture to produce more food for domestic consumption in addition to its export crops. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization productivity increases include:

– a tripling of the production of tubers and plantains from 1994 to 1999

– a doubling of vegetable production from 1994 to 1998 and then again in 1999

– an increase in potato production from 188,000 metric tons in 1994 to 330,000 metric tons in 1998

– a rise in cereal production from 300,818 metric tons in 1994 to 551,000 metric tons in 1998

– an increase in bean yields of 60 percent and citrus by 110 percent from 1994 to 1999.

Productivity improvements mentioned above have only been possible because the government – in tandem with farmers/workers – has been willing to alter previous policy and provide substantial resources to farmers. And, notably, all sectors have not performed well. For example, animal-sourced protein production has lagged:

– beef has increased only 16 percent from its low point in 1994

– pork and chicken have increased only 2 percent from 1994

– egg production declined by 16 percent until 1998 and then increased 24 percent in 1999

– milk production has increased only 3 percent since bottoming out in 1994.

The required reorienting of animal production through native breeds and locally produced feeds is a long term process that requires considerable patience. However, it is also important to note that market reforms largely have not applied to animal production because milk, chicken, beef, and eggs cannot be sold in the agricultural markets.

(Statistics in this section have been drawn from Cuba Going Against the Grain: Agricultural Crisis and Transformation, Oxfam America, 2001.)

Conclusion: The increased variety of markets along with the ability to purchase goods in different currencies –first the US dollar, now the Cuban convertible peso as well as the Cuban peso– has increased the demand for farmers’ products.Increased efficiency and productivity in the countryside have enabled farmers to supply goods to diversified markets.

FINDING #5: While agroecological techniques may hold great promise for rural areas outside of Cuba, their successful implementation in other locales is not assured.

Inherent in this finding are two related questions. First, is the Cuban agroecological model sustainable? Second, is the model universally applicable? Regarding the first question, interviews and discussions with agricultural professionals and ordinary Cubans provoke a mixed response. While some firmly believe that the model is in Cuba to stay, more are hopeful, but also doubtful. Some assert that Cuba will never be able feed more than 50 percent of its population. They note that agroecological techniques have allowed Cuba to move past its agricultural crisis, but also suggest that there are structural limits to the growth of the newly implemented model. They say that Cuba has the land, but not the labor force, for a full-scale, long term transformation to agroecology and that labor shortages may be a limiting factor. Also, there is a feeling that the ability to import food freely and inexpensively from outside Cuba might also undermine commitment to sustainable methodologies. In essence, policy changes may well result from greater global economic integration. On the other hand, others argue that if Cuba’s organic products can be certified as 100 percent organic, a niche market can be created that is reliant on the export of organic produce. Therefore, the sustainability of the Cuban agroecological model may depend on factors external to Cuba as well as on internal forces and policies.

If we are unsure that the Cuba model is internally sustainable, how can we know if it is replicable? Cuba is not alone in the perception that biodiversity is more than just a conservation strategy. And Cuba has engaged in outreach efforts to farmers from a variety of countries, educating them on the concept of biodiversity as a production strategy. Adoption of the concept is not all that is required, however. Cuba’s revolutionary agrarian reforms allowed the breakup of large state farms into smaller parcels that were given to local citizens who had the will and determination to carve out an agricultural life. Few countries have the political will to implement such far reaching change. Nor is it certain that policies supporting the social aspects of the Cuban model are easily implemented: cooperatives, health and education infrastructure, culture, and pride of work. Other changes are also controversial: control of market forces, limits on imports to protect domestic production, and the gradual implementation of reforms. Overall, few countries invested in human capital or in rural infrastructure to the degree which Cuba has. And, for those countries who rely on international financial institutions for investment, the outlook is even more bleak. For these institutions do not support the Cuban development strategy.

Finally, the Cuban transformation has relied heavily on its educated workers as well as on a modernized countryside. As mentioned previously, the urbanization of rural areas was a top revolutionary priority. Along with electrification and modernized housing came access to the means of production, economic stability, services, cultural development and, especially, education and training. During the first decade of the revolution, the government attempted to modernize farming through mechanization and professionalization. It also tackled infrastructure, building paved roads, providing electricity and running water, improving transportation, and building warehouses and food distribution centers. Clinics and schools appeared as did stores selling consumer goods, and farmers began to improve and stabilize their incomes under the new conditions. Above all, a sense of pride in Cuba’s accomplishments emerged, and being Cuban became an individual’s primary identity. Education and identity have been critical factors in the transformation of Cuban agriculture in the 1990s. They have provided a framework within which new policies, new actors, and new agricultural systems gained acceptance and were implemented. Cuban agriculture is something very different and the extent to which its model is applicable elsewhere is unknown. Conclusion: Given specific factors embedded in the Cuban paradigm, more research – certainly comparative research evaluating agroecological efforts in other countries – is necessary before universality questions surrounding the Cuban model can be adequately addressed.


The stabilization of the agricultural crisis in the Cuban countryside has led to increased food security in Cuba’s cities. The challenge of supplying nutritionally adequate and safe food to city dwellers is a substantial one. While the problem has been addressed to some extent by the establishment and growth of urban agriculture, this, in itself, is insufficient. The frontiers between urban and rural activity blur and merge, and acknowledging the linkages between the two present opportunities for beneficial changes. Issues affecting urban agriculture are also central to agriculture in the countryside and vice versa. These include: land use and tenure; management of water resources; food safety and health; erosion control; and marketing issues. At the core are agronomic issues: the use of efficient small-scale irrigation systems and practices; safe and affordable pest control; sustainable soil nutrient management; recycling and use of waste materials; and the integration of integrated production systems including forestry.

During the Special Period Cuba has, of necessity, addressed each of the above issues. Consequently, many Cubans now view farming quite differently than before the food crisis of the early 1990s. Anecdotal information suggests that thousands of families have left cities and large towns to make their livelihood from the land. Other information suggests that thousands of unemployed –including rural migrants– have found employment in organiponics and other forms of urban agriculture. Has the transformation of agriculture proved a deterrent to migration to the cities? This question requires more concentrated research.

The recent delegation sponsored by Food First and Global Exchange provided assurance that many agricultural sectors have rebounded from their collapse in the early 1990s. While sustainability and replicability of the Cuban model are questions that history will decide, it is safe to conclude that both urban and rural farmers outside of Cuba would be wise to consider Cuban agricultural policy regarding the following: the promotion of organic agricultural and forestry use of vacant municipal, state, and private lands; recycling of all “green waste” material into compost; and the creation of a variety of markets for local produce.

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