Organoponico, Havana, Cuba. Via edweston.

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For the past two decades, urban agriculture has been increasing throughout the world, in both poor and wealthy nations. Millions of urban residents in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and increasingly in North America and the UK, are growing crops and raising livestock in yards, on rooftops and balconies, along roadsides and on vacant urban land. However, Cuba is the only country in the world that has developed an extensive state-supported infrastructure to support urban food production and urban growers.

With the demise of the Soviet Bloc in 1989 all food imports were lost, resulting in the Cuban population experiencing immediate food shortages. Cuba also lost critical agricultural imports upon which its national food production system had become dependent: fertilizers, pesticides, tractors and spare parts and petroleum to provide fuel energy. Reductions in access to petroleum brought the food distribution system to a halt and severe fuel shortages meant that food could not be refrigerated or transported by trucks from where food was produced to the urban areas where the majority of the population resided.

By the end of 1992, food shortages had reached crisis proportions throughout Cuba, including in the capital city of Havana, home to 2.2 million Cubans. Like many large cities, Havana was completely dependent upon food imports brought in from the countryside and abroad.

Worsening food shortages motivated Havaneros to spontaneously began to plant food crops in the yards, patios, balconies, rooftops and vacant land sites near their homes. In some cases, neighbors got together to plants crops — beans, tomatoes, bananas, lettuce, okra, eggplant and taro. If they had the space, many began to raise small animals –chickens, rabbits, even pigs. Within two years there were gardens and farms in almost every Havana neighborhood.

By 1994 hundreds of Havana residents were involved in food production. The majority of these urban growers had little or no access to much need agricultural inputs – seeds, tools, pest controls, soil amendments. Nor did they have knowledge about the small-scale, agro-ecological techniques that urban gardening requires.

The Cuban Ministry of Agriculture responded to people’s need for information and agricultural inputs by creating an Urban Agriculture Department in Havana. The Departments’ goal was to put all of the city’s open land into cultivation and provide a wide range of extension services and resources such as agricultural specialists, short courses, seed banks, biological controls, compost, and tools.

The Department also set up a network of extension agents organized to respond to the varied needs of urban growers and assist them in all aspects of farming. The majority of extension workers are women who live in the neighborhoods in which they work; they know the residents in the neighborhoods they work in, keep track of ongoing needs and concerns, and continually encourage people to consider using available land for food production. Extension agents teach urban growers about small-scale agriculture techniques suited to urban food production and promote sustainable methods and practices — biofertilizers, composting and green manure for increasing organic matter in soil, companion planting, biological controls and permaculture methods.

The Department also set up Seed Houses (Tiendas del Agricultor), 12 in Havana alone, which sell garden inputs, seeds, ornamental and medicinal plants, tree samplings (mostly fruit-bearing) tools, books, biological control products, biofertilizers, biological pest and disease controls, packaged compost, worm humus, and other needed inputs.

Currently, about 30% of Havana’s available land is under cultivation and there are more than 30,000 people growing food on more than 8,000 farms and gardens in Havana alone. The size and structure of these urban farms and gardens varies considerably. There are small backyard and individual plot gardens cultivated privately by urban residents (huertos populares). There are larger gardens based in raised container beds by individuals and state institutions (organoponicos). There are work place gardens that supply the cafeterias of their own workplace or institution (autoconsumos). There small family-run farms (campesinos) and there are farms owned and operated by the State with varying degrees of profit sharing with workers (empresas estatales).

I believe the situation faced by Cuba is one that the UK will face in the near future. Think of it as a Food Crunch. As oil runs out and global warming kicks in, gone will be the days of picking and choosing out of season food from around the planet in your local supermarket. Add the rapidly growing markets of India and China to the mix, all vying for their share of the global larder and you can imagine how sensible it is to be able to grow your own. Michelle Obama knows what I’m talking about.

Now just trying to imagine Glasgow with communal gardens…mostly potatoes I guess,  gotta meet that demand for chips…

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