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Organic Farming Flourishes in Cuba, But Can It Survive Entry of U.S. Agribusiness?

June 02, 2015



Catherine Murphy

filmmaker who lived and studied in Cuba in the 1990s. Her film titled Maestra explores the stories of the youngest women teachers in the 1961 national literacy campaign in Cuba.

Over the past 25 years, Cuba has built a largely organic farming system out of necessity. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba lost its main supplier of fertilizers and pesticides. What will the changing U.S.-Cuban relationship mean for Cuban farmers? We air a video report from a farm outside Havana produced by Democracy Now!'s Karen Ranucci and Monica Melamid. We also speak to filmmaker Catherine Murphy, who has studied Cuba's agricultural system.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We continue our coverage of Cuba with Catherine Murphy, a filmmaker who lived and studied in Cuba in the ’90s. Her film titled Maestra explores the stories of the youngest women teachers in the 1961 national literacy campaign in Cuba. Catherine Murphy joins us from Miami.

We want to welcome you to Democracy Now! We’re going to be playing another piece of Karen Ranucci’s looking at organic agriculture, very interesting in Cuba, Catherine. But it also goes to the issue of private enterprise, not just small mom-and-pop shops, you know, restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts, but what about the multinationals? How are they preparing to enter Cuba, Catherine?

CATHERINE MURPHY: Well, yes, I think there is a lot of desire on behalf of the multinationals to enter Cuba for the untapped markets, with a large buyer, even though there are only—well, there are 11 million people on the island, but there are central buyers for key food and agriculture products. So it’s a large market for the corporations. They are hungry to get into those markets. But the Cubans, I think, have both a need for increasing key imports and also a lot of healthy skepticism of not having—not giving the corporations too much space, not losing key industries on the island and not losing control over key sectors of the economy.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s go to this second piece of Karen Ranucci’s from her recent trip to Cuba, this one looking at organic farming on the island. It begins with Fernando Funes Jr., who runs a farm outside of Havana.

FERNANDO FUNES JR.: This land belongs to the previous farmer living here. He is now 96 years old. The land still belongs to him, and I farm the land. So it’s part of the appropriation of the land, but in another way. So you care the land, you farm the land, and until you can.

Well, we started here with one bed two years ago, and now we have more than 100 beds, in which we produce vegetables to sell directly to the consumers in the city. All what we do here is based on organic agriculture practices. And there is a criticism about organic agriculture, which is not able to feed the world. And we think it’s the opposite. We can take advantage of the knowledge already accumulated for hundreds of years of farmers and the knowledge from science. We manage the system in a way that doesn’t need the use of pesticides.

We have beehives in the farm. When you have enough beehives to start as a beekeeper, then the government starts providing you this advice, technical advice, and also inputs the boxes and other materials necessary to grow faster. And we don’t see that problem that is already identified in different countries, like in the United States, about beehive or honey collapse. We see that they are growing very, very well.

In the last year, there is more and more possibilities for farmers and for the whole population to participate in the economic relationships that follow food production or services. There is the possibility to start new businesses based on food distribution and also on food processing, in order to increase the capacity to make use of production. With organic agriculture, with agroecology, we are able to produce healthy food in order to grow healthy people in the cities and in the whole country. And when we have this kind of system, then we can also assure that we have enough labor for the people in the countryside and better expectation for them to live better from their work.

WOMAN FARMER 1: [translated] I was a librarian.

WOMAN FARMER 2: [translated] I worked in public health and then in a day care center.

WOMAN FARMER 3: [translated] I worked in a dairy factory making yogurt for children.

WOMAN FARMERS: [translated] We earn more here.

WOMAN FARMER 1: [translated] I worked in education for 10 years, and my salary equaled $15 per month. It was never enough, because I had to commute back and forth, and it was expensive. Since I came here, I am doing better economically.

WOMAN FARMER 3: [translated] I’m doing better, too. Now I can raise pigs for food, which is very expensive.

WOMAN FARMER 2: [translated] The food situation is critical, because it’s very expensive. Cuba is an underdeveloped county, but it is a good country. Here, if someone needs blood or an operation, the state takes care of it.

WOMAN FARMER 3: [translated] It’s all free.

WOMAN FARMER 2: [translated] Yeah, it’s all free. In other countries, if you don’t have the money, you die. Not here.

FERNANDO FUNES JR.: Now, we have, for two months, not rains in the farm. It’s been very hard for us. We were watering last night until 8:00 in the night by hand, in order to make better use of the water we have available at this moment. In the future, in the near future, we plan to have irrigation systems for all the beds. This well was made by hand, and we dug until the 40 meters deep by hand. And there was one man that had enough will to dig the well as much as I had, and was Juan Machado.

JUAN MACHADO: [translated] I was 14 years old when I learned to find water. Here it is. Right here, there is running water. Look! Look! I’m not doing anything, and the stick is going up. Look! Here’s the water.

FERNANDO FUNES JR.: We went already to different places around, to different farms, where Machadito identified water. And I went with him, and I am trying to learn. So we are trying to connect all the energy possibilities in the farm in order not to use oil. We pump the water with the solar panels and the solar pump. Then we collect—we capture the manure and the urine to this mixing tank. The slurry, the manure with water, goes to the biodigester. We have there a tank of 10 cubic meters. The first layer is fresh manure. The biogas press the already fermented manure, and that goes out. We’re getting out the energy in biogas that has the manure, and then we use that biogas for cooking, and we have enough biogas to cook every day as much food as we need. Michael is writing his Ph.D. thesis. Now he’s living at the farm, and we are sharing the—let’s say, the administration or the design of the farming system.

MICHAEL: For those of us involved in sustainable farming, to open relations with the U.S. or to lift the blockade means that many agrochemical companies want to invest in Cuba. These companies investing in Cuba doesn’t mean there would be enough food for everyone—1.2 billion people worldwide are hungry. Despite more agrochemical investment, despite having warehouses full of food, these are companies that make profit from the food they produce. Just because they produce doesn’t solve the hunger problem.

AMY GOODMAN: Special thanks to Democracy Now!’s Karen Ranucci as well as Monica Melamid for that report in Cuba. Our guest right now, Catherine Murphy, who was on that trip, also a filmmaker, who has lived and studied in Cuba. Can you fit the organic agriculture movement in Cuba into the bigger picture? Catherine, is Cuba the only country in the world that gave millions of hectares, of acres to people who grow and farm?

CATHERINE MURPHY: Well, part of what happened in Cuba was that in the mid-’80s Cuba had a highly mechanized and industrialized agriculture system. They had more tractors per capita than any country in Latin America, and they were investing a lot of money into national food production. But nonetheless, they were still importing 57 percent of the calories eaten on the island from the Soviet Union and Soviet bloc countries. So, when the Soviet Union fell apart, Cuba lost those imports immediately, within a two-, three-year period, along with a 34, 35 percent contraction of their GDP. It launched Cuba into a major economic crisis, and that was a food and agriculture crisis, as well, in a central way, because of the loss of the direct food imports and also the loss of the many other imports into the agriculture sector upon which national food production had become dependent—again, pesticides, fertilizers, petroleum, tractor spare parts, spare parts for other kind of agriculture machinery. So, they were faced with the daunting task of needing to greatly increase food production with a fraction of the resources available.

Immediately, city residents—in particular, Havana has two million of the 11 million people on the island, live in Havana, largest city in the Caribbean—Havana residents started going out and growing food on empty lots that were close to their homes, using any seeds they could find, with any tools that were available, and literally on any space that was near their homes, including some in their homes—patios, balconies, rooftops. And, you know, urban farming was increasing all around the world at that time in the ’90s with global urbanization, but what was different about Havana was that the city government and other structures started to look at how could they strategically support this booming victory garden movement, as opposed to other cities around the world where urban food production became illegal and sometimes people were run off. The Havana city government started to look at, well, how can we support food producers in the city, not only support them, but really recognize that food production is a major national priority.

So, they started finding ways to give urban food producers use rights to land through usufruct, give them sales permits to do direct sales from onsite, help them find ways to get water, and help them with training and—training and resources. But really, the kind of agriculture that’s necessary in small spaces, this highly diversified, intensive planting, was not the kind of agriculture that had happened in Cuba traditionally, so there was a whole new body of knowledge that needed to come to these already farming urban farmers. And so, a permaculture movement was born. The Council of Churches got involved—many community organizations, the Women’s Federation—in helping to strategically support the urban farmers.

And within several years, they really helped to turn around the most critical part of the food crisis, which was dramatic. I think it’s hard to imagine. The caloric intake fell by about half. The average Cuban lost 10 to 20 pounds of body weight. There were a number of health epidemics, including a neuropathy—an eye neuropathy epidemic that resulted in nervous system damage and some eye and vision damage. So, this rapid decrease in caloric intake was a serious—was really seen as the most serious problem on the island at the time and became a priority issue to solve. So, with this public-private partnership, they were able to turn it around, and within just a few years, there were tens of thousands of urban gardens around the city, and peri-urban gardens, and they were growing 30 to 50 percent of the fresh vegetables eaten on the island, introducing vegetables that had never been eaten in Cuba before, like broccoli, cauliflower, some things like eggplant that weren’t so common, and really improved the quality of the diet—I mean, a lot of those especially green, leafy vegetables, providing key micronutrients in the lack of other proteins.

And it changed the cityscape. It changed—it vastly improved the food security situation, but it also changed the cityscape. It provided tens of thousands of jobs, significantly for retired people and for women and for youth, and provided—

AMY GOODMAN: Catherine, today—


AMY GOODMAN: —since we only have 30 seconds, how much food is imported into Cuba? How much do they rely on outside food? And this organic food movement, how—or farming movement, how much hope do you think it has in a new Cuba?

CATHERINE MURPHY: The figures around how much food is imported to Cuba today is hotly contested. It’s still the majority. Some figures show 50 percent, up to 80 percent, of the food is still imported. Wheat, for example, you can’t grow in the tropics; they have to import it. They import a lot of frozen chicken from the United States through Tyson Foods and others. They import rice. But they are still increasing food production on the island of roots, tubers, rice, beans, fruits and vegetables. And the third agrarian reform that’s happening now, giving land—150,000 people have asked for parcels of land in this new land redistribution. About half—

AMY GOODMAN: Catherine, we have to leave it there. I want to thank you so much for being with us, filmmaker Catherine Murphy.


AMY GOODMAN: And also this happening today, landmark act of sports diplomacy: Soccer’s New York Cosmos on Tuesday will become the first U.S. professional team to play in Cuba since Presidents Castro and Obama announced their countries would re-establish diplomatic relations.

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