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Food, Poverty and Ecology: Cuba & Venezuela Lead the Way

by Jon Lamb

A nation that has been forced to endure major economic upheavals and constraints, Cuba is a shining example of what can be done to diversify agricultural production and meet energy needs in a sustainable way.

Prior to the 1959 Cuban Revolution, like most impoverished countries in the Caribbean and Latin America, Cuba was under the thumb of US business interests, which was bad news for the environment.

Huge tracts of forest had been lost and replaced by sugar and tobacco plantations. When Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492, forest cover was at around 90%. This had plummeted to 13.4% by 1959. A painstaking reforestation process has lifted it to just over 21% today.

The imposition of a US economic blockade against it, which punished other countries for trading with Cuba, forced Cuba to develop stronger trade relations with the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, which while beneficial, resulted in an overdependence on imports of food and fuel.

As well as this it adopted agricultural practices that carried over some of the problems that existed prior to the revolution —extensive application of monoculture, high pesticide and fertiliser use and inefficient use of machinery and other resources.

In the late 1980s, Cuba launched a “rectification campaign" in a conscious attempt to redress some of the distortions — economic and social — that working so closely with the Soviet Union had introduced. This helped prepare it better when the crunch came in 1989, with the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. The Cuban government was forced to undertake dramatic steps to safeguard the gains of the revolution.

The most significant problems for Cuba centered on how to make up for the loss of food imports (57%) and the cheap fuel that it consumed (and re-sold as a major foreign exchange earner).

In 1993, the policy of "linking the land to the people" was initiated. As a means to rapidly lift food production, the Cuban government recognised that it needed to reorganise state-owned land, transforming nearly all of it over to co-operatives. A new economic incentive was introduced for the co-operatives to help establish redistribution based upon pay according to the final results (the more you produce, the more you get paid).

In conjunction with this process was the development of "new land" in urban areas with the creation of organoponicos (raised bed organic gardens), cultivation of vacant lots and parks and support for intensive patio gardens. The reorganisation and planning of food production was enhanced by the level of scientific research that the Cuban state had put into biotechnology and agricultural science.

The success of Cuba's food production and resource management has been astounding and is continuing.

 By 1999, there were gains in yields for 16 of 18 major crops. Potato, cabbage, malanga, bean and pepper yields are higher compared to Central America and above the average yields in the world.

By the end of 2000, food availability in Cuba reached daily levels of 2600 calories and more than 68 grams of protein (The united Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation considers 2400 calories and 72 grams of protein per day to be sufficient).

By 2002, 35,000 acres of urban gardens produced 3.4 million tons of food. In Havana, 90% of the city's fresh produce comes from local urban farms and gardens, all organic. In 2003, more than 200,000 Cubans worked in the expanding urban agriculture sector.

In 2003, the Cuban Ministry of Agriculture was using less than 50% of the diesel fuel it used in 1989, less than 10% of the chemical fertilisers and less than 7% of the synthetic insecticides. A chain of 220 bio-pesticide centres provides safe alternatives for pest control.

The ongoing National Program for Soil Improvement and Preservation benefited 475,000 hectares of land in 2004, up 23,000 hectares on 2003. The annual production of 5 million tonnes of composted soil by a network of worm farms is part of this process.

While still highly dependent on sugar, large unproductive plantations and mills have been closed down and resources reallocated. There are plans to increase the quantity of sugar cane grown using organic methods. The benefits of the improved agricultural production have been far reaching. Take diet for example. Traditionally, Cuban people have not been eaters of a wide range of vegetables or fruits. One consequence of vegetable production rising from 36 kilograms per person in 1995 to around 99kg by 2000 is that it has led to a healthier diet for many Cubans, which has helped contribute to a 25% decline in heart disease.

A network of state-run organic farms grow medicinal herbs used by the Ministry of Health for distribution throughout pharmacies, hospitals and clinics and all Cuban doctors receive some training in alternative medicine. Each neighbourhood in Cuba has a "green pharmacy," where alternative medicines are made and sold.

Cuba's emphasis on research and development has given it a justifiable reputation as a world leader in biotechnology. This scientific investment has helped considerably in the areas of sustainable agriculture (bio-pesticides, beneficial insect breeding and soil treatments), and medicine (specialised pharmaceuticals, vaccines and health treatments).

The recent advances in cancer treatments designed to help stimulate the body's immunological defences at the Center for Molecular Immunology in Havana have been impressive and described as a "unique and unprecedented discovery" by the head of the John Wayne Cancer Institute in Los Angeles. The latest treatment for lung cancer is being tested in the US this year.

More efficient use of energy and the use of a greater amount of renewable energy sources is another major achievement. During the harvest season for sugar cane, 30% of Cuba's energy comes from renewable sources through the use of the sugar cane by-product bagasse.

Solar panels provide power to 2364 schools, 350 doctors offices and hundreds of hospitals. A plan was started in 2003 to electrify an additional 100,000 rural households at a rate of 20,000 per year.

Even in the event that the blockade is lifted there is an extremely strong sentiment —from farmers and urban gardeners through to leading technicians, economists and scientists— that there will not be a shift away from the successful agricultural and energy policies currently in place.

The situation in Cuba today shows what is possible when a rational and integrated approach is taken when dealing with social and economic problems under, at times, extremely adverse conditions. No wonder US imperialism works so arduously at undermining the Cuban Revolution and countries and movements that seek to chart a similar path, such as Venezuela.

Enter Venezuela

The unfolding Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela led by the government of President Hugo Chavez is pursuing a range of social and economic policies that are profoundly pro-people and pro-environment.

Within a relatively short period of time —and amidst considerable opposition— Chavez's rural and urban land reform measures have given millions of peasants, urban poor and indigenous people increased economic security and a leg-up out of poverty and squalor. The agricultural development law introduced at the end of 2001 is shaking up an unjust land tenure system where less than 2% of the population owns 60% of the land.

David Raby, from the University of Liverpool's Institute of Latin American studies notes that:

"The Venezuelan agrarian reform goes beyond satisfying peasant land hunger and alleviating poverty. It is based as far as possible on organic practices and is intended as the foundation stone of an entirely new social and economic model, oriented towards self- sufficiency, sustainability and "endogenous" development.

The land reform laws are thoroughly despised by the Venezuelan landowning elite and capitalist class, who have denounced it as an act of "Castrocommunism" and an attempt to introduce "Cuban slavery." One of the very first things the leaders of the failed 2002 coup did was attempt to overturn these laws.

Due to the high dependence on the oil industry, Venezuela's arable lands are chronically underutilised and mismanaged, resulting in the import of some 70% of Venezuela's food. While there is plenty of rich agricultural land available, agricultural production is low — only 6% of the GDP. Venezuela's agricultural sector is the least productive in all of Latin America.

Previous land reform programs intended to benefit peasants and landless people resulted in land eventually being taken over by cattle barons and other large landowners. According to Ricaute Leonete, chairperson of the National Land Institute, these landowners "aren't even capitalists. Capitalists make use of their land … In Europe capitalism got rid of this kind of parasitic behaviour a long time ago".

In a 2003 interview with the North American Congress on Latin America, Chavez described the land reform policy in Venezuela as an agrarian revolution:

"For 40 years they've been talking about agrarian reform, and it's done nothing but reinforce the old colonial system. First, we're putting into effect the constitutional principles to obtain a real and lasting change in the rural areas —principles like prioritising and taking seriously food security.'`

The Cyber Circles <>, a web-based information source on the Bolivarian Circles, explains that the land laws: "establish that landowners need to declare how much land they have (and pay taxes on it, as in any country) and how much they produce (and pay taxes on the production, as in any other country).

"If they hold a large extension of land (more than 5000 hectares) that is not producing they will be asked to show that they own that land. Should they fail to, they will be given a term in which they have to make it produce. If the land owner/holder fails to make it produce the law establishes that it can be bought by the government at current market prices to assign to farmers to produce. It will not be taken away, but they will be forced to sell it."

Along with handing over the land to poor farmers and the landless, the government has fostered the creation of cooperatives and provides technical assistance, special credits, warehouses for sale of produce, as well as health and education centres. In response to reactionary state governors and local ranchers using vigilantes and police to harass cooperative members, the National Guard has provided security in some areas. Over 120 campesinos had been killed by landowner thugs between 1999 and 2003.

In Venezuela's big cities and towns, where 85% of the population live, the process of urban land reform is also taking hold and has benefited hundreds of thousands of people. Across the poor barrios of Caracas and other cities, urban poor are gaining formal title to the land where they have built their homes.

Decree 1666 of the land laws regulates the ownership of urban land and recognises that the land belongs to those who live on it. At a public hand over of 3000 titles in the barrio of Petare in Caracas last October, Chavez told those present that: "We need to leave behind us the horrendous capitalist system that has been installed here, by those who attempted to dominate the people and to throw them into poverty. This why we are here, to put an end to this."

As part of lifting food production, urban agricultural plots —modeled on the success of those established in Cuba— have been springing up across Caracas since 2003. Cuban technical assistance is helping with this production of fresh and organic food. The Chavez government has set a target of supplying 20% of Venezuela's vegetable production from these urban gardens.

The process of implementing land redistribution and the associated reforms has not been without problems. Some cooperatives are struggling to function properly. Initially the pace was very slow, in part due to inefficiencies in the government body responsible for overseeing the reforms, the National Land Institute (INTI). Spontaneous land occupations by land-hungry peasants have also created complications.

According to an article in the October 13, 2003 Le Monde Diplomatique, Chavez apparently "flipped" when he learned only 1000 hectares had been redistributed in the first nine months following the introduction of the land laws. At a meeting of INTI officials Chavez declared "I want 1.5m hectares redistributed by August 2003, or you're all fired, from the chairman [then his brother Adan] to the lowest-ranking official".

By the middle of 2004, some 2.2 million hectares had been distributed to 116,000 families organised in cooperatives, an impressive achievement. As one participant of the Second International Meeting in Solidarity with the Bolivarian Revolution held April 2004 noted: "Those who dismissed the Bolivarian revolution as demagogy or mere reformism should take another look: this is the most profound transformation in Latin America since the Sandinistas took power in Nicaragua."

Following the defeat of the opposition in the recall referendum and the consolidation of pro-Chavez candidates and incumbents in mayoral and provincial elections, land reform is gathering pace. The governor of the state of Monagas announced in late December the expropriation of idle lands in its territory and issued a press release against large estates, affecting nearly 50,000 hectares, 45,000 in private hands.

In early January, Chavez announced that the government was launching a "war against the large estates", signifying that the land reform process was to increasingly focus on privately held land. Some 100,000 new land grants will be issued to the poor and landless within the next six months.

In addition to this, a team of 2000 government officials will be evaluating over 40,000 private land titles (some dating back to 1847), to check ownership and productivity levels. One of the first big estates to be investigated is the 13,000 hectare Agroflora cattle ranch, a subsidary of the international meat industry giant, Vesteys.

The presence of armed national guards escorting government officials as they investigate the Agroflora ranch has resulted in a hysterical tirade from the cattle barons and editorial warnings by the British Financial Times.

The Chavez government is faced with some complicated economic and social issues. With respect to the environment, there is considerable debate over issues of mining and energy generation. If the current approach taken towards land reform is applied in these sectors, then we should see some creative solutions and transformations take place. Some of the environmental steps the government has initiated include:

A plan by the Environment and Natural Resource Ministry to reduce the air pollution levels in Caracas by 50 percent in 2005 and by 80 percent in 2007, with the goal of being pollution free by 2010.

Improved protection of waterways and fishing areas, especially those affected by oil exploration and drilling.

Protection of unique ecological areas and indigenous lands, such as the 3.6 million-hectare Imataca Forest Reserve. In 2005, thousands of coffee-growing families in the Andes region will be provided assistance to establish environmentally sustainable organic coffee and vegetable co-operatives.

Banned the cultivation of genetically engineered crops on Venezuelan soil and established the creation of a large seed bank to maintain indigenous seeds for peasant movements around the world. Solidarity with the people of Cuba and Venezuela and other pro- peoples struggles must be a central plank of the fight for global justice against the madness of capitalism. As Chavez recently stated during his visit to Havana: "the Cuban Revolution and the Bolivarian revolution have demonstrated that a better world is not only possible but also is perfectly attainable … [and] a different world is essential to save life and the planet.”



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