When Fidel Castro died on November 25, the amount of negative press in Canadian media about his contribution and the revolution he led was incredible. Perhaps because of Trump’s election in the United States a few weeks before, the spillover of U.S. journalistic drivel regarding all things Cuba, and the herd mentality of Canadian reporters, it became de rigueur to make unsubstantiated statements, repeatedly.

It was more than a little embarrassing and aggravating if you are a Cuba watcher, as I am. I had not quite anticipated such disrespect, at least not here in Canada.

There were few commentaries that actually gave due credit to the man and to the innovative efforts of his government to restore sovereignty to the island. Worth the read are this one by Canadian Stephen Kimber, another by renowned author and political activist Noam Chomsky published by France’s L’Humanité, and this one published online by Common Dreams under the headline “Fidel Castro in Context.” There are others, but you do have to dig.

Many of Cuba’s efforts show the creativity and nimbleness of a country that has often been forced to react to sudden and abrupt circumstances created by powerful foes and friends alike. Countries like Canada, and others, might want to take note.

One of these huge efforts, and one which many countries in the world are still learning about and from, are Cuba’s tremendous strides in biodynamic and organic farming.

Early pattern of industrial farming

During the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, Cuban agriculture was primarily structured in a traditional “bigger is better” model of state farms. Based in monoculture and on the sugar economy, the model made use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Other crops were dependent on hybrid seed varieties and chemical inputs — all practices that caused soil depletion and erosion. 

At the time of the revolution in 1959, more than 75 per cent of Cuba’s agricultural land was in the hands of foreign corporations like the United Fruit Company. As land was redistributed following the revolution, Cuba followed a largely Soviet model, reorganizing agricultural production onto large state farmers. Small landholder plots remained ignored and undeveloped. Sugar, the basis of the agro-export economy, continued to be a mainstay, though obviously, the trading partners changed because of the U.S. embargo. That pattern continued for more than 30 years, and much like the current pattern in many countries, a generation of would-be farmers moved from rural to urban areas, lured by the lifestyle and jobs of the city, particularly in the face of little opportunity in the countryside.

In Cuba, life is often chronicled through rhythmic beats. And in the Cuba of the mid-’80s, life was good and getting better, but even the tunes of Los Van Van let it be known that Havana just couldn’t take in more cousins and distant relatives migrating from all over the countryside. The tune was all in fun — sort of — but a few short years later, the rural migration, loss of small farmers, and a petroleum-based agricultural system hit home. It was tough.

By the late 1980s, 80 per cent of Cuban land was farmed by the state, and close to 60 per cent of the Cuban diet was supplied by food imports. Ninety per cent of chemical inputs were imported as well.

In 1989 and the early 1990s, given the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba undertook drastic measures required to feed its population by ensuring the sustainability of its agricultural system. It wasn’t easy, but the country had no choice. Its export market for sugar had collapsed, and it did not have the currency to import petroleum or petroleum-based fertilizers to continue cultivation of monocultures on large state farms. And it had no currency to import food. The Cuban people were getting hungry! I remember visiting Cuba at that time, and citizens would sometimes note that breakfast had been water with a bit of sugar, as they tried to lightheartedly explain their lived reality.

The rise of sustainable agriculture

In the early ’90s, true to the Cuban people’s ability to generate creative solutions in dire times, researchers worked with farmers to move the agricultural system towards increased biodiversity and participatory plant-breeding projects. They cultivated hardy varieties not dependent on chemicals and petroleum inputs, reduced mechanization due to lack of fuel, encouraged small farmers and smaller tracts of land, and supported citizens, adults and children alike to learn how to grow food in urban gardens to help sustain their diets. In Havana, gardens sprung up where none were ever imagined. The results were nothing short of miraculous and provide a model for both developed and developing countries to follow — particularly when one considers the need for strategies that might help mitigate climate change.

Within a few short years, Cuba essentially became a huge incubator farm for organic and sustainable models of agriculture. As the new millennium dawned, Cuba received The Right Livelihood Award (often called the Alternative Nobel Prize) from the Swedish Parliament for its Herculean efforts in sustainable agriculture.

For more than 25 years, Cuba has been modelling its food production on agroecology and applying organic agriculture to a multitude of small-scale projects. To this day, it’s held up as a model in the development of sustainable agriculture with farmer-to-farmer tours, tours for international agriculture students, and the hosting of researchers from around the world doing field work to assess and write about the island’s advances in feeding its own people. 

These days, many nations are also recognizing that health, environment and the need to address climate change means we will all likely soon need to emulate at least some of the Cuban farm and urban food production practices.

But on the day Fidel died, and throughout the nine days it took for his remains to head to his final resting place in Santiago, all one heard from the media were words of hostility. The Canadian mainstream media should have planted a seed… and shown that we have much to learn from Cuba, and its creativity and commitment.

Lois Ross is a communications specialist, writer, and editor, living in Ottawa. Her column “At the farm gate” discusses issues that are key to food production here in Canada as well as internationally.

Photo: Organopónicos farm in Alamar by Melanie K Reed Photography/flickr

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Lois Ross

Lois L. Ross has spent the past 30 years working in Communications for a variety of non-profit organizations in Canada, including the North-South Institute. Born into a farm family in southern Saskatchewan,...