Salsa, rum, cigars, classic cars, and of course Fidel Castro – the things that usually come to mind when we think of Cuba.

This is the image travel agencies and other medias transmit to us. Providing a catchy visual, this is the image that brings in tourists and guarantees profit. Even the beauty of the natural environment seems secondary, and the richness of the art scene, the writers and authors, painters and sculptors, dancers, musicians and singers, who all found their voice on Cuban soil, whether they live in or outside the country, unequivocally fade into the shadow in comparison. Many of them are well-known internationally, but for some reason, when we think of Cuba, our thoughts focus on easy pleasure and we seem to avoid its complexity as if it was a disease. Who wants to hear about the so-called Special Period after all, or the rugged history that shaped the island, the ever-present food shortage and the challenging living conditions, when planning a glorious Caribbean holiday?

The importance of being able to switch off and enjoy life cannot be overestimated but if you also love a peek into the deep, Cuba offers a lot of food for thought. There is so much more behind the colourful facade.

Organopónicos or organoponics is a system of urban agriculture, originated in Cuba and admired by many for its effectiveness and sustainability. Think of it as urban gardens created in public parks, on vacant lots, on rooftops, balconies, and in the place of collapsed buildings. They were born out of necessity but they provide an example for all of us on how we could benefit from the land readily available around us, even in bigger cities. Looking at the speed we destroy our natural resources at, we may need the experience and knowledge of Cuba in many parts of the world, in the very near future.

The already mentioned Special Period started in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, that affected the country severely. The continuous supply of goods and food ceased, the Cuban economy and society had to be transformed in order to survive. Finding a way to feed the country became key. In lack of fertilizers and chemicals that are considered basics in the modern world to grow anything anywhere, organic agriculture and organic food became the norm.

Hydroponic equipments from the Soviet period were converted and filled with composted sugar waste, thus hidropónicos turned into organopónicos. These gardens didn’t and couldn’t eradicate the food scarcities but they provided some level of food security, when state farms dwindled to nothing. It is an extremely labour-intensive form of agriculture, the growth is limited and they alone would not solve the food crisis of any country that is forced to turn to similar measures, but it could be at least one way to support a community when the need arises.

Organopónicos were a community response to a dire situation but they were heavily supported by the government and they operate until today. Even a quick internet research shows that the government and the Ministry of Agriculture strongly subsidizes the efforts of communities and individuals both in Havana and beyond. However, there is less publicly available information about the current situation or productivity of the state-owned and state-led lands.

In 1994, the Ministry of Agriculture institutionalized urban agriculture initiatives under one umbrella. Projects from informal family gardens (huertos), to large cooperatives (organoponicos), to state-owned gardens would all receive assistance from the ministry which sought to provide free land to residents for gardens, assist in the start-up phase, provide seed banks, and oversee hundreds of horticultural clubs for information exchange.

Image: NACLA

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