Ecological agriculture in Cuba: Key to sustainability

Many of these practices are ancestral, although they are frequently considered unfounded or ingenuous. During the 1970s, experts began to conceptualize the term agro-ecology, defined as a multi-disciplinary science dedicated to food sovereignty and preserving the environment.

Cuban researchers have shown great interest in generalizing use of techniques they have studied to reduce the use of chemical fertilizers, protect soils, certify seeds, and control weeds, using natural products to eliminate pests and plant diseases, such as repellent plants with different tastes and odors, and color traps which distract harmful insects.

One procedure which has been rapidly accepted consists of producing organic material or compost, to add nutrients to soil, obtained with food scraps, egg shells, fallen leaves, and animal manure. Also popular are bio-fertilizers and bio-pesticides developed by scientific institutions, in particular centers for the reproduction of entomopathogenics fungi and entomophagous parasites.

In the 1990s, this work took on greater importance, given the difficulty of importing agricultural supplies, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the tightening of the criminal U.S. blockade. Workers in Cuba's fields adopted these practices on their own, without any awareness of what became known as agro-ecology.

This is what several agricultural workers told Granma International during a producers' workshop entitled "For a sustainable and resilient agriculture," held February 22-23 as part of activities celebrating the 55th anniversary of the Indio Hatuey Grasses and Forage Experimental Station, affiliated with Camilo Cienfuegos University of Matanzas, where the event was held.

Agronomist Ricardo Serrano Masquida, who works at La Victoria farm, located in the town of Sabanilla in the municipality of Bayamo, Granma province, commented, "We Cuban campesinos have been obliged to ally ourselves with the country's scientific centers, and put our inventiveness to work to achieve greater yields from the soil. We constantly need to innovate to make our agricultural system sustainable."

On his 40-hectare farm, Serrano raises cattle, sheep, goats, horses, and pigs. Plus he keeps bees and chickens. To feed all these species, he cultivates 16 crops for animal feed, with extensive areas devoted to fruit trees, providing 35 different kinds of mangos and 26 of avocado, and more than 10 types of coconut trees of varying heights, among other species.

He comments, "Some years ago, the National Association of Small Farmers defined 50 agro-ecological principles for producers to implement. I comply with 32 of these. On my farm, 75% of the production is reached with agro-ecological practices, and 25% with conventional methods."

Serrano considers himself a promoter of agro-ecological techniques and believes that the responsibility to share such knowledge and experiences must be campesino to campesino, to maintain the continual process of exchange and communication. He likewise advocates adherence to agricultural norms to avoid irresponsible conduct that damages the environment and soils, saying, "The greatest challenge is to get the successes obtained by scientific researchers into the hands of producers."

Another agro-ecological practice which has been well-received is the construction of biodigestors on farms to treat livestock waste, and generate clean renewable energy for rural families and communities. A staunch defender of this technology is the young electrical engineer Alexander López Savrán, who has been investigating the topic since his days at Marta Abreú Central University in Las Villas.

After completing a Master's degree in electrical systems, he began working three hectares of land he was granted in usufruct by the Cuban state, to raise pigs. The farm is now a model of energy self-sufficiency, he explains, "All the energy used in the kitchen and to supply household appliances comes from the biodigestors."

His major task is teaching other producers, and demonstrating how clean energy can be produced with few resources, something taken to heart by his friend Yunier Paz Martínez, a trained computer technician also raising pigs, as a member of the Sergio Soto Credit and Services Cooperative in the municipality of Cabaiguán, Sancti Spíritus province.

"In the area where I live," Paz explained, "I built an energy distribution network to supply several families with the biodigestors. I can supply gas via pipes to eight houses and could add another 50. My plan is to expand my stock of pigs and develop biogas as a clean energy source to be used by Cuban campesinos."

Another farmer and academically trained agronomist, Noel González, also built a biodigestor on his farm and supplies his family home and that of a neighbor. The residue produced by the biodigestor is dumped into an oxidation lagoon, and this nutrient-rich water is recycled, and used to irrigate crops.

On his farm, Flor del Cayo, affiliated with the Patria o Muerte Cooperative in Cabaiguán, Sancti Spíritus, many agro-ecological practices are used, Paz said, "I apply the knowledge I acquired during my university studies, and pay attention to scientific-technical advances to obtain greater yields in my production. My greatest concern is taking on scientific novelties in an effort to care for the environment and protect soils."

There are many farmers around the world who are unaware of the benefits of agro-ecological techniques and resort to chemicals because they have a rapid effect, believing that such practices produce yields per hectare which are lower than those attained with conventional methods – a totally false assumption.

In diverse types of conditions, figures reveal, for example in Europe, that crop yields are some 30% greater when agro-ecological cultivation practices are used, while in Central America, results have been three times as great in some instances.

Cuba has a broad-based popular movement, supporting agro-ecological production as the key to food security, based on efforts to establish this approach as public policy, and obtain positive results with more human contributions, as opposed to more money or technology.

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