With the rising awareness of the speed and scale of action needed to prevent climate breakdown, is a nervousness about our ability to meet the challenge. But one country’s experience at the end of the Cold War shows just how quickly people can adapt when they have to, and also that there can be unexpected benefits to making a rapid transition.
When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War finally came to an end, its staunch ally Cuba, lost access to its vital source of cheap fossil fuels. Almost overnight, oil imports halved, affecting everything from transport to energy production. High input farming became impossible without its key petroleum derivatives – mineral fertilizer and pesticide. The US economic embargo made it particularly hard for Cuba to find alternative sources of fuel and life quickly became hard. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (UNFAO) estimated that the average Cuban’s daily calorie intake plunged from 2,600 in the late 1980s to between 1000 and 1500 by 1993.
People had to find a way to live without high fossil fuel inputs. The response to the need for food production was particularly imaginative and has become known as urban organic farming or “organoponics”. People grew whatever they could on any spare pieces of land throughout the city. Co-operatives developed for group buying and selling and turning vacant land into plots. Although yields were low at first, they grew as people learned better ways of growing food in an urban environment. By 1995, Havana had 25,000 allotments, farmed by families or small groups – which produced most of the city’s fruits and vegetables – and people’s daily calorific intakes were improving. The Cuban government quickly began to promote this new movement as a way of feeding the nation, but it began as a genuine grassroots reaction to the lack of available food, emerging from a mix of excitement and desperation.By 2008, gardens for food took up 3.4% of urban land countrywide, and 8% of land in Havana. Cuba produced 3.2m tonnes of organic food in urban farms in 2002 and by 2008, food intake was back at 2,600 calories a day. Havana had accidentally become a pioneer in a worldwide transition to sustainable agriculture.
Havana’s response to the food and fuel crisis was unconventional and creative, using what they had at hand to their best advantage. Mainstream economic thinking would suggest Cuba should specialise in producing food where it enjoys a comparative advantage, exporting it to earn foreign currency and using it to import food. Instead, people spontaneously began to address the need for food themselves. In doing so, they changed urban land use, brought about unexpected health benefits and became global experts in organic farming – a specialism that gives them an edge in a world looking for rapid transition away from fossil fuels.
The Cubans called their solution organoponics because it uses an organic substrate, obtained from crop residues, household wastes and animal manure. A typical organoponic garden is started by making furrows in the soil, then lining the rows with protective barriers of wood, stone, bricks or concrete. The soil quality is gradually improved through the incorporation of organic matter; as organic content increases, so do the levels of soil nutrients and moisture. Because a reliable supply of soil nutrients is essential for improving garden substrate and maintaining high yields, a government programme produces compost, green manure, vermicompost (which is made by using worms to digest and enrich waste), bio-fertilizer and liquid fertilizers. It also links gardeners to sources of manure, such as livestock production units, crop and household wastes, and even agro-industrial residues, such as coffee husks and sawdust.
With drip irrigation, regular addition of compost and good horticultural practices – such as the use of well-adapted varieties, mixed cropping, crop rotation and integrated pest management – the raised beds can produce vegetables all year round, and achieve yields of up to 20 kg per sq m. In 2013, Havana counted 97 high-yielding “organoponic” sites, producing vegetables such as lettuce, chard, radish, beets, beans, cucumber, tomatoes, spinach and peppers. Among the best known is Vivero Alamar, which was created on abandoned wasteland 8 km east of the city centre in 1997. Run by a cooperative with 180 members, Alamar’s gardens produce some 300 tonnes of organic vegetables a year.
Today, most of the agriculture in the city of Havana is fully organic and the use of agrochemicals in urban gardens is prohibited by law. Although organopónicos have become emblematic of agriculture in Havana, the city has also developed other high-yielding production systems. It has 318 intensive gardens planted directly in the soil, and 38 ha of semi-protected gardens under awnings in soil enriched with vermicompost.
The fuel cost per tonne of organic vegetables offers enormous savings: US$0.55 per tonne, compared to a fertilizer cost of US$40 per tonne under conventional agriculture, representing a total saving of US$39.5 million. The cost of pest control is also reduced – from US$2.8 million to US$300 000 – by using biological control agents and biopesticides.
There were other unexpected benefits to the fuel and food crisis: walking and cycling increased, the share of physically active adults more than doubled, and obesity halved. This illustrates how transition can bring about wellbeing and improved health – outcomes badly needed across the higher consuming richer world. Likewise a ‘Revolución Energética’ moved the country to a more efficient, decentralised energy system, with smaller generator stations and shorter distances to transmit energy. Old, inefficient incandescent light bulbs were removed almost entirely in just six months. Castro’s comment at the time was: ‘We are not waiting for fuel to fall from the sky, because we have discovered, fortunately, something much more important: energy conservation, which is like finding a great oil deposit.’
Before the revolution, nearly half the agricultural land in Cuba was owned by one percent of the people. Afterwards, agriculture was nationalised and mechanised along Soviet lines. Trade with the once great superpower meant swapping sugarcane, which Cuba produced in industrial abundance, for cheap food and materials like machinery and petrochemical fertilisers. Within a year after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba had lost 80% of its trade,” explains the Cuba Organic Support Group (COSG). Over 1.3m tonnes of chemical fertilisers a year were lost. Fuel for transporting produce from the fields to the towns dried up. People started to go hungry.
Radical action was needed, and quickly. “Cuba had to produce twice as much food, with less than half the chemical inputs,” according to the COSG. Land was switched from export crops to food production, and tractors were switched for oxen. People were encouraged to move from the city to the land and organic farming methods were introduced.
The so-called ‘special period’ in Cuba was not a pleasant experience to live through; it was a crisis that created enormous hardship. The oil shock came at a time when the country had for decades already endured one of the most comprehensive economic embargoes by a major power, the United States. There were anti-government demonstrations in 1994 and many people left the country in difficult and dangerous circumstances. The energy and small-scale agriculture revolutions grew out of a chaotic period of change.
Necessity, opportunity, social capital and a highly educated population (Cuba’s literacy rate is one of the highest in the world at 99.75%) used to creative innovation all helped the change happen. This was a fundamental transition that averted hunger and possible starvation and happened in a few short years. However, it grew from foundations of long-term community organisation, high educational achievement at a national level and other communal and social habits of organisation. Urban agriculture in particular today employs around 200,000 people. The opening up of the country post-cold war, which enabled them to bring in the expertise of Australian permaculture teachers in 1993, also made a difference.
Relatively high community resilience and adaptive capacity in Cuba, embedded in planning approaches and neighbourhood mobilisation, also become apparent in its response to climate related shocks. When Hurricane Katrina hit the US, an estimated 1,833 deaths occurred, whereas when Cuba was hit by an extreme weather event of similar force, Hurricane Wilma, 800,000 people were evacuated, with just one fatality recorded. The sea encroached as far as 1km inland and Havana was flooded, but the people there suffered no deaths or injuries because they were ready and organised.