Feb. 15, 2010 -- The government of Cuba, chronically poor and forced to import most of its food, is fighting back by going green. It is surrounding its urban areas with thousands of organic farms, as part of a five-year plan under President Raul Castro to make the country's food supply low-cost and environmentally-friendly.
The plan calls for farmers to grow fruits and vegetables, and raise some livestock, in four-mile rings around 150 cities and towns.
Bulk foods such as rice, beans, pork and plantains will still be produced mainly by state farms and cooperatives farther from urban areas, as will food for the capital, Havana.
The other day, as the sun same up over the beltway surrounding Camaguey, Cuba's third largest city, men and women were plowing fields with oxen, building protective coverings for crops, hoeing the earth and putting up fencing. The Camaguey area is being used as the pilot project for the new plan.
The quaint little city, where horse-drawn wagons and bicycles outnumber cars and the 320,000 inhabitants take their time going about their daily lives, will eventually have 1,400 plots and small farms covering 130,000 acres, according to the agriculture ministry, producing 75 percent of Camaguey's food.
The project is modeled after the hundreds of smaller urban gardens developed under Raul Castro during the economic depression that followed the collapse of communism in Europe. Cuba's defense minister said at the time that beans were more important than cannons.
Only organic materials are used on the farms. The government is trying to revive soils threatened by large-scale state farming and salt from rising sea-levels.
"This land they gave to us, the private farmers. I have four hectares (10 acres) and now they have leased me eight more," said Camilo Mendoza, a Camaguey-area farmer with a Florida cap on his head.
Mendoza said he grew fruit tree saplings on his farm, but his new plot would be sown with Yuka, a root vegetable that is a Cuban favorite.
A few years ago a dense brush, known as Marabu, covered the area for as far as the eye could see, making it useless even for the area's traditional cattle ranching.
State Monopoly Eased
Just a few minutes from the city, Mendoza said urban residents had joined the farmers to clear the brush.
Authorities hope small-scale farming close to urban areas will entice city residents, laid-off from jobs in Cuba's bloated bureaucracy, back to the land. Farming in Cuba has had a labor shortage for years.
The plan also seeks to save on the cost of transporting goods to market, rely less on expensive and fuel-consuming machinery and ensure a greater variety of fresh produce.
Mendoza pointed around the fields: "Look, on this side and the other side are other plots, and over there another. Here they have given quite a bit of land and support to private farmers," he said.
For the first time farmers can sell part of what they produce directly to licensed street vendors and consumers at stands set up every mile or so along the beltway.
The communist government monopolizes the sale of farm goods and controls most of the land in Cuba.
Castro has made a priority of cutting imports and putting more food on Cubans' sometimes-sparse dinner tables since taking over for his ailing brother Fidel two years ago.
Under the sustainable agriculture project, the government is leasing fallow state lands to some 100,000 mainly-private farmers. It has decentralized decision-making. It has allowed farmers to raise prices.
"The suburban agriculture plan aims at the rational exploitation of land around cities and other populated areas," Rodriguez Nodal, head of the program and the man who led the widely acclaimed urban gardens' development, said at a meeting last week.
Nodal called for the elimination of bureaucracy so that produce reaches consumers fresh and in good condition.
Experts Want Markets
On the other side of Camaguey and a few miles up the central highway, Armando, the head of a cattle cooperative, said they were persuaded to join the plan when the state offered them more land to raise garden and root vegetables and the chance to sell some of what they produced directly to the population.
"In December we produced around five tons. The root vegetables we had to sell to the state, but we were free to sell the garden vegetables directly," he said, adding growing and selling vegetables was a first for his cooperative.
"In the case of the suburban plan there are no chemicals or anything else that can damage the environment," Armando said.
Plans in Cuba are made not to be broken, a local saying goes.
While foreign and local experts applaud the project, they are skeptical it can meet its goals without the establishment of free markets where farmers can buy their supplies and sell their produce.
"It will take a lot of seed. Let's see if the state can provide it on a timely basis," one man said, asking that his name not be used.
Castro has opened shops where farmers for the first time can buy work clothes and basics such as fencing and machetes, but fuel, seed, irrigation systems and the like are still centrally allocated.
Mendoza and Armando said Cuba has not moved to free markets. The state still sets prices for their produce.
"They are prices that benefit us, but not exaggerated, in reach of the people with little money," Armando said.
Few of the farmers around Camaguey were ready to commit to the suburban development scheme's long-term success. But they said they were encouraged that it was based mainly on their efforts, not state farms.
"For sure, there will be more food around here if you come back in a few years," quipped Mendoza. "More than that I can't say."