Havana's Popular Gardens:
Sustainable Urban Agriculture
By Scott G. Chaplowe
Reprinted with permission,
from the WSAA Newsletter, A Publication of the
World Sustainable Agriculture Association
Fall 1996, Vol. 5, No. 22
Scott Chaplowe, MA, conducted graduate field research in Cuba in November 1994 and August 1995 for his masters thesis in geography at UCLA. He has recently worked with WSAA Los Angeles as a writer and editor on the United Nations' report, The Emerging Role of NGOs in African Development, and on the upcoming WSAA book, For All Generations: Making World Agriculture More Sustainable.
With the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and its economic support in 1989 as well as the tightening up of the US economic embargo, Cuba suddenly plunged into its worst economic crisis since the 1959 Revolution. Officially dubbed the Special Period in Time of Peace, the ongoing economic crisis has had a devastating impact on Cuban food security. Cuban agriculture, which was highly dependent on chemical inputs from the Soviet Union, suddenly confronted a reduction of over 50% in oil, fertilizer, and pesticide imports. Meanwhile, food imports also dropped off as Cuba's total import bill shrank by up to 70% between 1989 and 1993. As Fidel Castro himself stated in 1991: "The food question has the number one priority."
The effects of the Special Period and consequent food shortages have had greatest repercussions in the city of Havana. With approximately 2.5 million people, Havana has about one fifth of Cuba's total population and is the largest city in the Caribbean. In addition to the decline in food production needed to serve the capital, there is also a shortage of petroleum necessary to transport, refrigerate, and store food available from the rural agricultural sector. Thus, it is no surprise that Havana has been designated as a priority in the National Food Program; urban gardening has figured critically among the many measures taken to enhance food security.
While Havana's urban agriculture has taken on many forms, ranging from private gardens (huertos privados) to state-owned research gardens (organicponicos), Havana's popular gardens (huertos populares) are the most widespread and accessible to the general public. Popular gardens are small parcels of state-owned land that are cultivated by individuals or community groups in response to ongoing food shortages. The program for popular gardens first began in Havana in January 1991, and has since been promoted in other Cuban cities. In 1995, there were an estimated 26,600 popular garden parcels (parcelas) throughout the 43 urban districts that make up Havana's 15 municipalities.
The popular gardens range in size from a few square meters to three hectares. Larger plots of land are often subdivided into smaller individual gardens. Garden sites are usually vacant or abandoned plots located in the same neighborhood if not next door to the gardeners' household. Land for the gardens is obtained through the local government body (the Poder Popular) at no cost, as long as it is used for cultivation.
Participation in the popular gardens range from one to seventy people per garden site. The majority of gardeners are men, although women and children also participate. Popular gardens are usually organized around a household, but it is not uncommon to find arrangements in which more than one household shares or subdivides a garden site.
A wide selection of produce is cultivated, depending (on family needs, market availability, and suitability with the soil and locality. In addition to vegetable and fruit cultivation, some popular gardens also cultivate spices and plants used for medicinal purposes.
Garden productivity has been achieved with minimal external inputs, applying principles of organic agriculture that are low cost, readily available, and environmentally sustainable. Gardeners seldom use chemical fertilizers, relying instead on organic fertilizers in the form of chicken or cow manure, compost from household food waste, and occasionally vermiculture (the use of worms). Also, there is no great demand or availability for chemical herbicides, as weeds are easily controlled by hand weeding. Inter-cropping is commonly practiced, and vegetation stories are sometimes used with taller trees and plants acting as a protective canopy for lower crops. Farmers often maximize the use of land by cultivating crops which produce in the ground, on the ground, and above the ground. A popular combination includes cassava, which provides abundant shade, sweet potatoes, which provides good ground cover, and occasionally beans, which fixates the soil with nitrogen.
The popular gardens have not been problem-free. Some major constraints include the scarcity of available land in densely populated areas; the scarcity of water, particularly during the dry season from November to April; the poor quality of the urban topsoil, which is often littered with garbage, glass, and shards of concrete and other building materials; plant disease and pests; and theft of garden produce, which is largely due to the ongoing food shortages.
Gardeners have several resources to help address their problems. Foremost are the gardeners themselves, who often organize into horticulture clubs (club horticulturas). These clubs pool resources and experience, and facilitate the dissemination of information and technical knowledge among gardeners. Clubs meet regularly to exchange seeds, produce, tools, and ideas, and some organize workshops on organic gardening and events to involve and educate the community, and maintain model gardens. When necessary, clubs organize regular watch duties to guard gardens from robbers. Today, there are over 400 horticulture clubs in Havana registered with Ministry of Agriculture.
Another key resource for the popular gardens is the Ministry of Agriculture (MINAGRI), which has created a special unit to promote and support urban agriculture. Agricultural extensionists from MINAGRI advise and disseminate knowledge based on the principles of organic agriculture, and usually play a pivotal role in the start-up and functioning of the popular gardens and horticulture clubs. MINAGRI also operates eight House of Seeds (Casa de Semillas) in greater Havana. These centers sell agricultural supplies to the public that would otherwise be difficult to obtain during the Special Period, such as vegetable and medicinal seeds and seedlings, biological pesticides, organic fertilizer, and tools.
In addition to MINAGRI, both national and international NGOs have also played a supportive role for the popular gardens. For example, the Australian Organization Permaculture International (the Green Team) works with the Cuban Counsel of Churches (Consejo de Iglesias de Cuba) to offer seminars and workshops in permaculture. One gardener who had participated in a ten day workshop proudly stated, "I no longer complain about the poor quality; I do something about it."
Havana's popular gardens have performed well in their five years of existence. While gardeners are by no means self sufficient in their food needs, they are able to provide essential vitamins, minerals, and starches crucial to their diets, as well as medicines and spices in short supply. The gardens have revitalized many traditional crops, particularly starchy root crops (viandas), and they have helped to reduce dependency on outside food sources.
In addition to increased food security, the gardens have also empowered many individuals and communities. They have renewed solidarity and purpose among the communities, sustaining morale during the ongoing economic crisis. The popular gardens have helped to build community pride; they clean up vacant urban spaces that had once been local dumps, replacing these eyesores with greenery. The gardens also serve as a source of leisure, exercise, and relaxation for many gardeners, a refuge where they can work with the land and reconnect with nature. One gardener referred to his garden as a family park where he liked to spend time with his grandchildren.
The future for Havana's popular gardens hinges to a large degree on the political and economic future of the country as a whole. Just as political and economic forces have produced the gardens, their sustainability will likewise be determined by these two forces as Cuba is inserted into a new global economy. As the title implies, the Special Period is not perceived as a normal state of affairs, but rather an interval between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the lifting of the US embargo. Some are convinced that when the embargo is lifted, Cuba will revert to chemical intensive agriculture and foreign imports for its food, particularly to serve urban centers like Havana. Whatever lies ahead, the current food shortages will most likely recede following the Special Period. Will the popular gardens continue in the absence of a severe food shortage?
This uncertain future is not lost on those committed to the popular gardens. Many involved with the gardens have tried to achieve more than food security by investing in the community, especially through horticulture clubs, and encouraging local participation and decision-making. This approach stresses grassroots principles through the collective organizing of gardens that involve, educate, and reinforce the community and its gardens. As an extensionist explained: "It is important to create a culture to sustain the movement; horticultural clubs and other community efforts do this." Such efforts at the community level are important in that development solutions are typically more sustainable when they involve and empower the local people.
Further information: The Greening of Cuba
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