Urban agriculture in Havana’s homegardens and small-scale plots

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“My garden is a supermarket.” This is how Magalys describes her garden, a shining, luscious 500 square meter plot located on the outskirts of Havana, Cuba.  She not only grows all sorts of herbs, vegetables and fruit trees; but also raises chickens as well as a couple of pigs.  Seemingly every day, neighbours visit to get food products, medicinal plants or just to chat under the enourmous hibiscus, seldomly relying on money in the exchange.

As you may know, supermarkets are a rarity in Cuba;  with only a few staggeringly expensive shops where better off people are able to buy imported products using national currency. The majority of Havaneros resort to the State rationing system, bargaining,  or the black market to get their meals. People like Magalys resort to small-scale urban farming – which often encompasses a voluntary return to a simpler and more environmentally aware lifestyle. She is one of 35 small-scale farmers I have met this past year in the Cuban capital while conducting a two-month long qualitative research project for my master’s thesis on urban and peri-urban agriculture (otherwise known as UPA). 

The case of Cuba is very interesting as regards the debate on UPA as a means to enhance food security. Urban agriculture emerged in Cuba in the context of the Special Period (1991-1994), an economic and food security crisis, resulting from the overnight disappearance of market relations with the Soviet Union. During this period, households seeking self-sufficiency began to produce food in their houses. The state was no longer the sole food provider. When the crisis ended, households continued to be involved in this activity.  Two decades later, the situation has improved but households keep investing up to 80 per cent of their salaries in buying food products. I have tried to answer why and how has this occurred.

As in many other cities, more and more Havaneros are looking for solutions so as to narrow the gap between steady or decreasing household economic income and the rising food  prices by implementing their own household or neighbourhood agricultural strategies for sustainable food production and distribution. Most of Havana’s UPA movements represent a strive for self-reliance, which relieves the burden on the state; a state which has so far failed in ensuring food security through the traditional rationing system. This system, which entitles each citizen to subsized foods, provides for subsistence but not for all the nutrients required for a safe and healthy diet.

Furthermore, since 1994 the island is constrained by a trade embargo which limits the availability of basic foodstuffs and agricultural technology. Cuba’s rural agriculture regime is still mainly based on sugar monocropping (an export-oriented cash crop) and historically characterised by output insufficiency: it is still far from warranting food sovereignty and fails to adequately supply citizens with the foods they need.

My research findings are initially disappointing. Small-scale urban farmers are partially able to decrease the share of the income they spend on food. The sustainability of self-sufficiency depends on farmers’ ability and capacity to cope with structural constraints posed by urban pollution and insufficient access to water and land. In other words, almost in every case, household food production does not confer high levels of food security.

But the crux of the matter is that UPA has a significant potential in securing other households needs, which can be traced to the attitudes of the farmers. On the one hand, high levels of  human capital resources available to farmers (agricultural skills, knowledge of the local environment and resourcefulness) results in to higher output levels (be it in fungible or real income) and lesser dependence on external inputs. This can be considered as an achievement considering that, since 1959, the socialist State has centralized the task of food distribution, discouraging self-sufficiency be On the other hand, in the Cuban context, where fifty years of socialism have forged a propensity for reciprocal trust and connectedness between individuals, farmers genuinely contribute to the enhancement of neighbourliness. They tend to put their social capital not only at the service of improving their productive plots but also at the service of improving their surrounding community. Just like Magalys does when she says she does not claim money to her “supermarket visitors”.

In Havana as in several other cities, by implementing measures aimed at enhancing access to water and land -and reducing urban pollution- such a form of production can be improved.  In Cuba UPA entails a passive resistance against imported versions of progress. It represents a  small-scale, participatory endeavour through which individuals return voluntarily to a simpler way of life, with less expectations from administrative bodies, and a mentality of a producer rather than that of a consumer. Which is exactly the type of “development” the planet needs. We need more people like Magalys’.

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