Cuba’s Urban Gardens: Necessity is the Mother of Creative, Social Ingenuity
*Notes for the Reader: Special Period: 1990s. A time of severe economic and social distress in Cuba as a result of the collapse of the Socialist Bloc in Eastern Europe – previously Cuba’s most influential trading partner. Overnight, Cuba’s economy was crippled. Food, medicine and energy shortages quickly put the nation of Cuba into a state of emergency. The US blockade only furthered Cuba’s economic collapse during the Special Period. Emergency food rationing, importing over 1 million bicycles from China, intensified research into natural, traditional, plant-based medicines and the immediate conversion of empty urban spaces into food producing gardens were some of the ways the resilient, creative and intelligent people of Cuba attempted to cope with this serious situation. Although the people of Cuba may not be in as desperate of a situation today, the ingenuity which sprouted from the Special Period continues to spread in Cuba, making this island nation a shining example for the world in sustainable development. (*******add quote here from United Nations research from Global exchange website)
Alamar Vivero Organoponico
Organoponico is a Cuban term for organically grown, bio-intensive, hand-cultivated urban and suburban gardens, often built with raised beds above cement, on top of previous building sites or on soil previously inhospitable to food production. Through bio-remediation techniques such as worm composting, soil bacterium inoculations and composting, soil material is created organically, enabling the growth of healthy and greatly productive gardens. One of the most important aspects of Organoponicos is that food production is located within areas of high urban populations, meaning that less energy is required to transport the harvests to the people which greatly increases food security and healthy diets for the city dwelling population – where 75% of Cuba’s 11 million residents live.
The Alamar Vivero Organoponico is a seemingly endless urban farm of 11 hectares farmed collectively by over 175 people. The gardens, which beam with a green vibrancy only healthy soil can produce, are situated east of La Habana and were founded in 1995 during the height of the Special Period by current (democratically elected) Farm President Miguel Salcides. On our first visit to Alamar, Salcides outlined the unique characteristics of this Organoponico. “Here at Alamar, our main goal is to support and encourage the culture of agriculture. In the 21st century, and (he laughs) even in Cuba, we have all the knowledge and infrastructure design to create ecologically sustainable food systems. All over the world, we know the scientific methods of organic growing. The most challenging component of the Agroecosystem is the Human Factor.” Indeed, it is society that decides who eats, what we eat, if we use chemicals or genetically modify seeds, and who will be the farmers.He continues, “Our first goal is to provide a healthy social environment for our farmworkers. This component is key to long-term farm sustainability.” Miguel goes on to list their Farmworker Rights Statement: Dignity, Possibilities for Advancement, Healthy Work conditions (6 hours max work days in summer, 7 in winter), Economical Base Salary, On-Farm lunch and Breakfast Free, Free Barbershop, Toothpaste and Basic Toiletries.
The second goal of Vivero Alamar is to raise the farmworker’s livelihoods by exploring diverse agroecological markets and realms for economic advances. “We have many challenges – and some of our ideas for diversifying farmer activities include: agro-tourism, on-farm restaurants and dining, educational training delegations, production of biological fertilizer and bio-pest control products and intellectual services. This is how we are advancing in the agroecology realm, Intellectual Discipline.”
A third and integral part of the solution for increasing local food security and strengthening community well-being is Education. As we walk away from the vibrant, lively fields of Vivero Alamar Organoponico, I have a new perspective on what the Cuban Agricultural Movement has to teach the world. Here’s the message from the Cuban agroecologists: It is the Human component of agriculture that seeks and needs advancement. Through education, populations will understand the integral role of nutrition to long-term personal health care and well-being. Through education, people will understand how to play active roles in responsible community activism. The Agroecological Movement of the 21st Century is a Social Movement. The key factor in creating a just and sustaining future is education, inspiration and passionate encouragement for the next generation of caretakers. Hope is in the seeds of intellect, creativity and friendship, planted in the Heart’s of the Youth.
Our second visit to Alamar on November 23 was a monumental day: our first Garlic Planting on the Island of Cuba. First, we met Miguel MaceoAlverez from Organoponico Antero Regalado Falcon. Under warm sunny skies we pushed three Utah Porcelain cloves into Cuba’s red earth. “With love, anything will grow,” assured Miguel. He gifted Kati a handful of Jirasols, sunflowers, which they grow for use in Santeria ceremonies and offerings to the Orishas. We promise to return in the spring to check in on our Friendship Garlic.
Next, we return to Miguel Salcides, Marisol and the manicured garden beds of Vivero Alamar. We roll up on our turquoise tandem and immediately draw full-farm attention. We meet Fabian Ramirez, a 7 year-old who agrees to help us plant our Friendship Garlic. He is a quiet little guy with a sweet smile. We walk to the fields in search of the right bed to plant our five Porcelain cloves. Bed Number 1 it is! With the help of Miguel, Fabian and farmworker Raveme Vicente Cenu, we push five more huge cloves into red earth. Kati and I pulled out a baseball as a gift for Fabian, and his eyes grew in excitement. We all signed the baseball together beside the garlic planting. For the rest of the afternoon while we enjoyed a meal of farm fresh lettuce, tomatoes and squash soup, Fabian practiced his pitching stance with a new liveliness in his step. If someday he makes it to the MLB, we’ll have a great story to tell – and the garlic will be named Ajo Fabian. Again, we make the promise of returning in the spring for harvest time. From 5,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains to sea level on the Caribbean’s shores, only time will reveal how the blessed bulbs will grow. Like Miguel says, “ with love, anything will grow.”