For many Cubans, the global food crisis arrived two-decades ago. Facing an economic emergency, programs were initiated to increase production of fresh food throughout cities, and today their great success is being seen as possible model for populations facing hardship around the world.
During the 1990s, the Cuban government began transforming the agricultural system by giving empty city lots to workers willing to farm them and by encouraging organic methods – then a response to the shortage of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. City farming took off and today 300,000 people – of which 40,000 are retirees – are employed in urban and peri-urban agriculture.
Cuba’s National Urban Agriculture Program has the backing of six government ministries and around 20 other institutions, social organizations and scientific research centers, which coordinate the work of thousands of intensive gardens, suburban farms, micro household gardens and other innovative forms of production.
According to an Oxfam report: ‘Today half of the fresh produce consumed by two million Havana residents is grown by ‘nontraditional urban producers’ in abandoned lots and green spaces wedged into the crowded typography of the city.’
‘It’s a really interesting model looking at what’s possible in a nation that’s 80 percent urban,’ said Catherine Murphy, a California sociologist who spent a decade studying farms in Havana. ‘It shows that cities can produce huge amounts of their own food, and you get all kinds of social and ecological benefits.’
Among these benefits, 5,000 garbage dumps have been turned into productive vegetable gardens across Havana, and day-care centers, senior citizen homes and semi-boarding schools for primary school students, and other social centers are linked to these production areas and receive 25 percent price discounts.
With fuel prices and food shortages causing unrest and hunger across the world, many say the Cuban model should proliferate. ‘There are certain issues where we think Cuba has a lot to teach the world. Urban agriculture is one of them,’ said Beat Schmid, coordinator of Cuba programs for the charity Oxfam International.
While many countries have experimented with urban farming – Cuba’s initial steps were modeled after a green belt surrounding Shanghai – nowhere has it been used so widely to transform the way a country feeds itself.