Cuba Schools Us on Self-Sustainable Agriculture

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In 2006, the World Wildlife Fund declared that Cuba is the only country in the world that qualifies as developing sustainably. I imagine that this may come as a shock to some people, who, when they think of Cuba, imagine old cars from the 1950s on the roads, crowded city blocks in Havana, or retrograde political leaders and systems that surely couldn’t be so modern as to incorporate eco-friendly policies around climate change. However, once you know a little bit more about the history of Cuba, it makes perfect sense that this small country would be the only one around the globe whose ecological footprint isn’t far outreaching its development index.

One of the most immediate and dramatic impacts was on the import of petroleum, which dropped to around 10 percent of the pre-1991 levels.  There was no gas to put in cars, or in tractors. Before this, Cuba had been heavily dependent on modern, industrialized forms of agriculture, relying on tractor trailers, mechanized combines, and other forms of gas-guzzling infrastructure; after the collapse of the USSR, they were forced to re-imagine their way of farming, reverting back to oxen-plowed fields and drastically reducing pollution levels. Way back in the early 1990s, before “local,” “sustainable,” and “green” became hip buzzwords used to sell re-usable grocery bags and organic frozen dinners, they became a part of life for Cubans who had no other option. Before 1991, Cuba used more pesticides in their farming than the United States. These pesticides suddenly became unavailable, and widespread organic agriculture was born. Permaculture instructors from Australia came to the country to teach their farming techniques, but it was several years before the incredibly damaged, de-mineralized, almost sand-like soil could bear fruit (or vegetable, as the case may be). Techniques like raised beds, urban gardens, crop rotation, composting, and inter-planting became commonplace.

Today, 80 percent of produce that Cubans eat comes from local agriculture. Many ecologists have looked to Cuba as an example of what might happen to the United States and the rest of the Western world once we reach “peak oil,” the point where there is less oil left in the world than the rate of production. To be sure, the “Special Period” (a severe economic depression that coincided with the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 that lasted until early 2000’s) was incredibly trying and difficult for the Cuban people–the average Cuban lost about 20 pounds during this time. It took many years for them to completely reconfigure their economy and ways of life to what they have today. And there’s no guarantee that a country as heavily industrialized and dependent on oil as the United States would be able to bounce back in the way that this small, resilient country did. The solution lies in learning from the Cuban people now and implementing the policies and practices that they’ve discovered the hard way, before we’re forced to do the same.

If you’re interested in learning more about sustainable agriculture in Cuba, Witness for Peace Northwest will be leading a professional delegation from April 17th-27th on the topic. Applications are due March 15th, so apply now to reserve your spot! Contact Amy Truax: or call 206.787.0657.