Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Cuba, Sí

It's amazing how good I feel today. Seriously. Because one of the big clouds has been lifted.
What happens if it all goes wrong? What if estimates of Middle East oil reserves turn out to have been fabricated out of whole cloth for the last thirty years? (A real possibility, much like the way the same Soviet ICBMs became more and more accurate with each budget appropriation cycle in the US during the late 70s and early 80s.) What happens if global climate change doesn't follow the nice timetable laid out by the IPCC, but instead beats us like Buddy Rich doing a solo? If food miles turns out to actually be a real problem? If industrial food collapses like a house of cards? What if the nightmare scenarios actually come to pass?
Well, after reading an article in The Journal of Peasant Studies, I feel a bit more relaxed when I think about the nightmare scenarios. Because Cuba has already been there, done that, and can see light on the other side.
Cuba, post-revolution, invested in extensive agrarian reform, but a combination of circumstances (the US blockade, and joining the international socialist division of labour for two), led Cuba to strengthen their sugar-producing sector; a sector that dominated 30% of the available farmland and generated 75% of export revenues by 1989. At the same time, Cuba was importing some 57% of its food.
Cuba embraced the Green Revolution wholeheartedly, with the most tractors per person and per unit of area, importing 48% of its fertilizers (which doesn't tell the whole story: of the fertilizer produced domestically, there was a 94% import coefficient), and importing 82% of its pesticides. Cuba was a poster child for Green revolution industrial agriculture. With the second-highest average grain yields of Latin America, Cuba achieved a high level of food security for its population. But what they discovered they did not have was food sovereignty. The 1980s brought increasing pest problems and the yields of some key crops began to decline due to soil degradation and pests (this is actually typical of Green Revolution lead areas around the world; long-term yield levelling or decline seem to be part of the model). 
When the socialist bloc in Europe collapsed in 1989, the US took the opportunity to tighten the blockade, and Cubans found themselves particularly vulnerable to the changed conditions. With no fossil fuel of their own, Cuba was in deep trouble (on average, Cubans each lost 9 kilos during this “Special Period”). But the peasant sector—in this case, those who either owned their farms and work them individually, and those who own land and machinery collectively—proved to be quite resilient.
Other than state-owned land, there were two other types of ownership structures in Cuba; the first was collectively-owned land and machinery, where the peasants sought to develop economies of scale in-house, as it were. The other was where the peasants owned their own land and formed co-operatives to achieve economies of scale in harvesting, marketing, and credit. Between them, the two types of co-operatives (known as Agriculture Production Cooperatives and Credit and Service Cooperatives respectively) owned about 22% of the available land (the remaining 78% staying in the state sector).
Of the two cooperative groups, the peasants who owned their land and formed cooperatives for marketing etc. proved to be the most nimble in re-adapting to scarce off-farm inputs. The peasants of the CSCs (Credit and Service Cooperatives, although in Spanish it translates to CCSs), had a close connection to their land (called a sense of pertenencia in Spanish) and a good sense of increased reward for increased work. What they did not have was strong administration skills and were not particularly adept at marketing, financial management, or navigating government programs.
The APCs, on the other hand, the Agriculture Production Cooperatives, did have good administrative skills and good infrastructure, but their practise of rotating work teams, while good for reducing boredom and other workplace negatives, lead to lower labour productivity, and were slower to respond to changing conditions.
But make no mistake; Cuba was in crisis. The blockade tightened, imports were impossible, and food production was actually falling. And the government realized that security was not the same thing as sovereignty. Initially, the Cubans did what the larger organic growers have done—they substituted organic components for the missing industrial ones. During the 1990s, food production improved as farmers substituted biopesticides, biofertilizers, and animal traction for the industrial versions of the same things. And while this is all to the good, it turns out that its not enough. The maintenance of monoculture cropping while substituting biological or botanical inputs for fossil fuel-derived inputs is not a solution to the problems of environmentally sensitive food production. Again, many of these imports become (or have already become) commodified, leaving farmers externally dependant, just as under the current regime. If the goal is food sovereignty, external dependence is unacceptable. In Cuba, it was impossible. Cuba had no choice but to become food sovereign.
Back in 1993, a Dutch NGO allied with the International Federation of Agricultural Producers to host a meeting of many farm leaders from around the world. The meeting was hosted in Mons, Belgium, and was intended to be a conference on policy research. What emerged was unexpected. By the end of the conference, large-scale Northern farmers found themselves pushed aside as the proceedings were essentially hijacked by farmers from the developing world. Out of the Mons conference came La Via Campesina, a group dedicated to small farms, small farmers, and the halt of neoliberalism and the construction of alternative food systems. La Via Campesina didn't exactly spring out of nowhere, but built on El Movimento Campesino a Campesino, the farmer to farmer movement.
The two organizations are closely related. Campesino a Campesino started in the early 1970s with a small project among the Mayan farmers of the Guatemalan Highlands. Farmers were encouraged to experiment with ways of overcoming the most common limiting factors of production: soil and water. The experiments were kept small scale and were designed with workshops intended to be led by local farmers.
Initial results turned out pretty well. Farmers initially devised soil management and water conservation practises that increased their yields between 100 and 400 percent. The excitement of improving their own agriculture without developing a dependence on external inputs led to further experimentation and the development of a basket of sustainable practises—including green manures, biological weed control, crop diversification, reforestation, and biodiversity management at the farm and watershed level—that now go under the name of agroecology.
The important aspect of the Campesino a Campesino agroecology movement is that it is spread, as the name says, from farmer to farmer. Individuals who develop some expertise in the best practises for the local area become promotores, or farmer-technicians, who then lead workshops on the techniques. Each farmer, as they learn the agroecological techniques and apply them to their lands, also embodies the possibility of becoming a workshop leader and passing the techniques on to more farmers.
And the techniques have spread. “A survey of 45 sustainable agriculture projects in 17 African countries covering some 730,000 households revealed that agroecological approaches substantially improved food production and household food security. In 95 percent of these projects, cereal yields improved by 50 to 100 percent.” (Holt-Giménez, p. 206) But the agroecological project is about more than raising yields. The essential nature of Campesino a Campesino is to democratize knowledge and research. Like most forms of knowledge, it works better the more people know about it and can participate in the project. The strength of the farmer to farmer network is that it spreads both research and practise in a horizontal, decentralized, and widespread fashion.
For the last half of the 20th century, peasants have been told repeatedly that they don't know what they're doing. That “modern” techniques, developed in different countries and under very different circumstances, would do better than their traditional agricultural practises. That they had to rely on external inputs over which they had no control: fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides leading the list. They were told that small was useless at growing enough food to feed a nation, that large was necessary in order that governments could export food and gain needed foreign cash. That everything that had sustained them for thousands of years was wrong, stupid, and backwards. El Movimento Campesino a Campesino is fellow farmers, with similar needs and worries, telling them that they are not stupid. That traditional practise is actually pretty good, but if they would like, there are some techniques that can improve the way they farm. And, what's more, they can do on-farm research that can improve the way they farm, and that they are the ones best suited to tell other farmers about that knowledge.

These new techniques go by the collective name agroecology. One would have thought that the phrase “organic” would have sufficed, but as a descriptor, organic has been completely co-opted by industrial farming. Organic, as it is now constituted and FDA certified, does not challenge the monoculture or plantation models of industrial growing, but rather rely on “input substitution” and the same paradigm of industrial food production. In the developing world, this means a continued reliance on the agro-export model, foreign and expensive certification, and dependence on volatile foreign markets.

“The core principles of agroecology include recycling nutrients and energy on the farm, rather than introducing external inputs; enhancing soil organic matter and soil biological activity; diversifying plant species and genetic resources in agrosystems over time and space; integrating crops and livestock and optimizing interactions and productivity of the total farming system, rather than the yields of individual species. Sustainability and resilience are achieved by enhancing diversity and complexity of farming systems via polycultures, rotations, agroforestry, use of native plant seeds and local breeds of livestock, encouraging natural enemies of pests, and using composts and green manure to enhance soil organic matter thus improving soil biological activity and water retention capacity.”1 As a statement of principles, that sounds a great deal like the early organic movement.

But one of the things that sets both the agroecology and the food sovereignty movements apart from the current food system is how much it privileges the local. Concentration on an export model of production serves primarily as a technique to extract wealth from the developing world and transfer it to the developed world, to privilege the feeding of the global north over the feeding of indigenous populations.

Coming out of the Campesino a Campesino movement, agroecology explicitly rejects the export model of food production. The agroecological model promotes self-reliance and community-oriented activity, applying to the farming community the same concepts of enhancing diversity and complexity. Many agroecological communities, as one example, have community grain banks to help care for the subsistence needs of their members. Once the growing community is secure, it can then extend outwards to the local community, creating short circuits of production and consumption, replacing the high energy / long distance circuits of the export food systems. 

1M.A. Altieri and V.M. Toledo The agroecological revolution in Latin America: rescuing nature, ensuring food sovereignty and empowering peasants The Journal of Peasant Studies 38:3 p. 588

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