As the hurricane season in Cuba rears its head this year, farmers brace themselves for more storms that could affect their harvests, exacerbated in no small part by the continued onset of climate change.
Prior to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba’s agriculture mainly consisted of monocropping sugarcane and tobacco for export, in exchange for foodstuffs from the Soviet Bloc. Once this system disintegrated along with the USSR, Cuba had to learn to feed itself, and shifted to a mainly organic agricultural model in the 1990s, turning back to traditional farming methods and renewing traditional knowledge of local crops and foodstuffs that had all but disappeared in the 20th century. Cuba now has one of the world’s leading systems of agroecological farming, urban farming and agricultural cooperatives, and a blossoming Slow Food network as well.
Despite the work that Cuba has done to protect its environment and its agri-food traditions, climate change still casts a dark shadow over the future of Cuban agriculture. While many of the emissions that have led to climate change come from the global North, places like Cuba, in the global South, are those already facing the consequences, in the form of lengthy droughts and hurricane seasons that will only increase in intensity as the years go by.
On May 25, Subtropical Storm Alberto formed in the Caribbean and hit the eastern Cuban provinces of Cienfuegos, Sancti Spiritus, and Villa Clara, nearly a week before the official start of the 2018 hurricane season. The storm left at least 7 Cubans dead, with two more still unaccounted for. Beyond the human toll, Antonio left Cuba with significant damage, from flooding, to oil spills, to a collapsed bridge in the Sancti Spiritus town of Taguasco. The effect was felt at many farms in the area, including at Slow Food member José Antonio Casimiro González’s Finca del Medio.
Alberto comes after an abnormally active hurricane season in 2017, during which the hurricanes Irma and María brought significant damage to the Caribbean, which led to displacement and death throughout the region, as well as significant crop damage and diminished harvests.
Casimiro explained, “[conventional farmers] lost some of their harvest to drought, and then more because of Hurricane [Irma]. Further, the planting period was very spread out, so now the first harvests are occurring at the beginning of the rainy season, [leading to more loss].”
As a result of last year’s hurricane season, the Union of Concerned Scientists in the United States published a report in December that stated that while “there may not necessarily be more hurricanes, there will likely be more intense hurricanes that carry higher wind speeds and more precipitation” as a result of climate change. In particular, rising ocean temperatures increase the risk for stronger storms, a trend that is well documented.
It is yet to be seen what nature has in store for this year’s Atlantic storm season, but Cuba and its Caribbean neighbors are understandably weary after early reports this spring from the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Hurricane Research Division predicted a 75 percent chance of the 2018 season showing either slightly above-normal or above normal activity.
However, despite these setbacks, Casimiro is confident that the agroecological model that he and Slow Food promote, a model of small-scale family agriculture, provide a future for himself and other farmers in the Caribbean.
“The damage has been great, really throughout the whole country. But we have faith in our system, in our methods, we have a model that is promoted around the world as a way to resist climate change, and we are measuring ourselves this way,” Casimiro maintains. “We have created conditions that favor us in dry spells. In periods of intense rain, the same systems we have to collect water in the dry season help us not to lose too much land in the rainy season. So, we make observations about what is happening and that’s how we decide how to proceed.”
When asked about the future of farming in Cuba, Casimiro is unequivocal in saying that Slow Food and agroecology provide him with hope in the face of climate change, going so far as to call it “the only thing that I have hope in.”
“I don’t see any hope in other models because they’ve never worked… So I propose this as a possible model for resilience, experience, and efficiency—a life on the side of nature, on the side of family, a life on the farm for a [positive] culture and a good understanding of the environment. We can, with our personal experience and the experience of our family, show that there is great potential in the possibility of becoming food independent in Cuba for the first time in 500 years, since we have always imported a majority of our food,” he elaborates.
As underscored in the 7th Slow Food Congress’ Motion on Climate Change, changing weather patterns and conditions stemming from climate change greatly affect the world’s food system, placing pressure on small farmers, whose livelihoods are inextricably linked to the productivity of their land. In Cuba, climate change is not an abstract concept with no impact on farmers’ daily lives. Agroecological models promoted by Slow Food provide a potential way forward in an uncertain future, providing possibilities for resilience not only in Cuba, but throughout the world.