The paradox of Cuban agriculture

Cuban agricultural production expanded 4.2% per year from 1996 to 2005, at a time when the average growth in the region was 0%


by Miguel A. Altieri and Fernando R. Funes-Monzote
Monthly Review, January 2012

When Cuba faced the shock of lost trade relations with the Soviet Bloc in the early 1990s, food production initially collapsed due to the loss of imported fertilizers, pesticides, tractors, parts, and petroleum. The situation was so bad that Cuba posted the worst growth in per capita food production in all of Latin America and the Caribbean.

But the island rapidly re-oriented its agriculture to depend less on imported synthetic chemical inputs, and became a world-class case of ecological agriculture.

This was such a successful turnaround that Cuba rebounded to show the best food production performance in Latin America and the Caribbean over the following period, a remarkable annual growth rate of 4.2 percent per capita from 1996 through 2005, a period in which the regional average was 0 percent.

Much of the production rebound was due to the adoption since the early 1990s of a range of agrarian decentralization policies that encouraged forms of production, both individual as well as cooperative—Basic Units of Cooperative Production (UBPC) and Credit and Service Cooperatives (CCS).

Moreover, recently the Ministry of Agriculture announced the dismantling of all “inefficient State companies” as well as support for creating 2,600 new small urban and suburban farms, and the distribution of the use rights (in usufruct) to the majority of estimated 3 million hectares of unused State lands.

Under these regulations, decisions on resource use and strategies for food production and commercialization will be made at the municipal level, while the central government and state companies will support farmers by distributing necessary inputs and services.

Through the mid-1990s some 78,000 farms were given in usufruct to individuals and legal entities. More than 100,000 farms have now been distributed, covering more than 1 million hectares in total. These new farmers are associated with the CCS following the campesino production model. The government is busy figuring out how to accelerate the processing of an unprecedented number of land requests.

The land redistribution program has been supported by solid research- extension systems that have played key roles in the expansion of organic and urban agriculture and the massive artisanal production and deployment of biological inputs for soil and pest management.

The opening of local agricultural markets and the existence of strong grassroots organisations supporting farmers—for example, the National Association of Small Scale Farmers (ANAP, Asociación Nacional de Agricultores Pequeños), the Cuban Association of Animal Production (ACPA, Asociación Cubana de Producción Animal), and the Cuban Association of Agricultural and Forestry Technicians (ACTAF, Asociación Cubana de Técnicos Agrícolas y Forestales)—also contributed to this achievement.

But perhaps the most important changes that led to the recovery of food sovereignty in Cuba occurred in the peasant sector which in 2006, controlling only 25 percent of the agricultural land, produced over 65 percent of the country’s food.

Most peasants belong to the ANAP and almost all of them belong to cooperatives. The production of vegetables typically produced by peasants fell drastically between 1988 to 1994, but by 2007 had rebounded to well over 1988 level. This production increase came despite using 72 percent fewer agricultural chemicals in 2007 than in 1988. Similar patterns can be seen for other peasant crops like beans, roots, and tubers.

Cuba’s achievements in urban agriculture are truly remarkable—there are 383,000 urban farms, covering 50,000 hectares of otherwise unused land and producing more than 1.5 million tons of vegetables with top urban farms reaching a yield of 20 kg/m2 per year of edible plant material using no synthetic chemicals—equivalent to a hundred tons per hectare. Urban farms supply 70 percent or more of all the fresh vegetables consumed in cities such as Havana and Villa Clara.

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One Response to The paradox of Cuban agriculture

  1. Nathan February 6, 2012 at 5:08 pm #

    There is a great documentary that covers this in more detail – “How Cuba Survived Peak Oil”

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