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Cuba Blazes Trail In Alternative Agriculture

Cuba Blazes Trail In Alternative Agriculture image
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Nowadays, what one hears about Cuba inthecorporatenewsmediaaretalesof economie collapse and hunger, mixed with speculation about the Castro govemment's downfall. Yet, economie pressures against the island nation, coupled with scientific advances in altemative agriculture, have pushed Cuba into a position of a world leader in developing the sort of sustainable agricultural system that the U.S. and the world will need to feed itself in the 21 st century . As Cuba undertakes this bold experiment, the U.S. economie blockade against the island nation remains in place. The blockade, which prohibits U.S. companies from trading with Cuba, costs Cuba about 30 billion dollars a year. This policy runs counter to the historical evidence that the blockade has failed. The rest of the world regards it as not only immoral and Ilegal, but also counterproductive to the U.S. goal of ending socialism in Cuba. Due to the tremendous perserverance of the Cuban people, Cuba has been committed to its new agricultural path for over two years now. The altemative model is not merely a stopgap measure, but is thought to represent the future of Cuban agricultu re. As it becomes more ap parent to people everywhere that petrochemical-based agriculture is not sustainable for long into the future, Cuba's experience will be of great value for the entire world. The success of Cuba's altemative agriculture may also serve to remove prejudices in other areas of the world, including the United States. Cuba's pre-revolutionary agriculture was based on small self-sufficient peasant farms and large plantations on which landless farmworkers grew sugar for export. After the 1959 revolution, Cuba adopted the developed world's agricultural systems. Fidel Castro often cited the amount of pesticides used as evidence of Cuba's progress. In 1989, however, Cuba's easy access to inexpensive petroleum producís crumbled with the fall of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies. Since 73% of Cuba's international commerce was with this political bloc, Cuban society plunged into crisis. Everything had to be rethought, and agriculture was no exception. In the same year, the prestigious U.S. National Academy of Sciences published a study noting that it could find no evidence that the modem (high chemical input) agricultural model actually produces better than altemative forms. This report gave Ímpetus to the global altemative agriculture movement, which depends on organic fertilizers and non-chemical pest controls. However, due in part to the influence of powerful chemical companies, this report had little impact on agriculture in Western capitalist nations. Cuba, however, has been more or less forced to adopt the altemative agriculture model - a shift requiring the adjustment of crops and their husbandry to local ecological conditions. Cuban farms now use organic fertilizers (what Cubans now cali "biofertilizers"), biological pest controls, animal traction and other forms of altemative energy, erop diversification and local labor. This approach stresses environmental protection and technologies based on local knowledge. Two technologies adopted by the Cubans are most impressive: the widespread application of biological controls and the use of biofertilizers. Perhaps the most successful has been their biological control program, a program that was developed in the 80s. Almost all major pests are now controlled through biological agents. Various bacterial and fungal diseases, along with parasitic wasps, are produced on a large scale. At this point they appear to successfully control almost all insect pests. Special techniques have also been developed as methods of biological control. For example, the transfer of lion ant nests in sterns from banana plants to sweet potato fields has virtually eliminated the sweet potato weevil problem. (The weevil eats the sweet potato, the ant eats the weevil.) This has completely eliminated the pesticide costs in this system. Equally impressive results have been obtained in the field of biofertilizers. Throughout the country various forms of organic waste are converted into high quality fertilizer. For this, Cubans use the old organic gardening technique of vermiculture: worms eat the waste and process it through their gut, leaving worm feces, which are rich n nutrients. In 1991, Cuba produced over 73,000 tons of this fertilizer. Probably the best example of the application of cutting edge technology is the use of certain soil bacteria to provide nitrogen to the soil. These bacteria (e.g. Azotobacter, Azospirillum) can draw nitrogen from the air and incorpórate it into their bodies, which then becomes part of the soil when their bodies decompose. Cuban agricultural scientists produce such bacteria on a large scale by a process of fermentation. Airplanes that used to spray poisons on the fields now spray nitrogenfixing bacteria. It is an example of what the Cubans mean when they point to the use of "cutting edge" - but appropriate - technology. The alternative model requires a great deal more labor than the modern one. Much of this added work is associated with the switch to animal traction, but not all of it. In general, one might think of agricultural Chemicals as having the same effect as mechanization, reducing the laborused in weeding, fertilizing and other necessary farm chores. Thus, the alternative model implies a larger labor forcé. Cuban planners saw the problems that this would créate in a society that for the past 30 years had been mechanizing agriculture and creating rural to urban migration. The labor forcé simply did not exist in rural áreas. Programs in place since 1 980 to equalize uiban and rural wages did little to stem the tide of rural-urban migration. To deal with this problem Cuba has devised short-term and long-term strategies. In the short term, volunteer brigades spend anywhere from a few weeks to two years in the fields. Since work is guaranteed in Cuba, their normal city jobs will be waiting for them when they return, at the normal wage rate. For their stint in the countryside they are paid at least the same wages they received at their city job, sometimes with additional perks. The long term solution to the labor problem is more ambitious. The alternative model calis for use of local labor with a high degree of community participation. Thus rural communities must be redeveloped. Rural apartment complexes are being built with all necessities of life (e.g. health clinics, sports facilities, shops, etc), with the hope that short-term volunteers will decide to permanently relocate. State farms are also experimenting with new forms of labor organization, in which the farms are parcelled out as individual production units and workers are assigned to activities on a particular piece of land. The idea is to try to recapture old notions of the responsibility of land ownership, without engendering the profiteering that normally goes with them. Perhaps the most radical social experiment is one in which young people work on farms as an alternative to required military service. It is hoped that these younger people will opt for futures that include relocating to rural áreas. Cuba faces many technical and social challenges in its attempt to reorient its agriculture. For instance, types of biofertilizers and biocontrol have to be continually updated and improved. Another obstacle is the social transition back to rural life and the acceptance by the Cuban people that resources they had taken for granted are no longer readily available. And, of course, no one can ignore what may the biggest obstacle - the U.S. economie blockade.


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