Monday, December 27, 2010

Documenting Farmers in Cuba

Letchuaga and Laughter

Remijio Gonzalez is a 75 year-old lettuce gardener who fought in Fidel’s revolution more than a half-century ago.  Born in Cuba on June 6, 1936 Remijio lives and gardeners in Trinidad, a colonial town nestled between the Sierra del Escambry and Caribbean Sea. He is a specialist in good humored marketing of his organically grown greens. Immaculately neat plots of tender, juicy Caribbean lettuce are hand sown, watered in the evening and harvested by morning into ‘manojos’ (bundles) with twine. With a chewed-up cigar hanging from his toothless grin, Remijio takes to the streets, where everyone knows him by the name ‘Oriente’. He points to his eyes and says his family came to Cuba long ago from the East. When asked about his time with the Revolutionary army he responded, “Malas memorias de este periodo, la guerra es mala, la guerra es mala.”
Remijio’s letchuga (lettuce) is sold on the street corner right from his wheelbarrow for 5 pesos a manojo. A customer approaches, inspects a bundle of his lettuce, puts it back and walks away. Remijio inspects the bundle himself, brushes off the dirt and lays it back on the pile, dirty side down. His eyes are shining in happiness as he says, “Los Cubanos no estan facile… no estan facile.” He seems equally content selling his crop as he did hours ago patiently harvesting one plant at a time. Remijio is greeted by countless friends as he makes his neighborhood rounds – the barber, the butcher and the women who know him by name and kiss him on the cheek. Soon his wheelbarrow is empty, 42 manojos de letchuga are sold, his work for the day complete. He asks to sing us a Cuban song: La Calabasa embarazada, y en la barriga depena, despues que la comistes, que Calabasa mas Buena.” He laughs gently, he waves goodbye and walks, with a lightness to his step, up the cobblestone calle to meet friends in the park.
Cuba’s Allium Heartland
Under the stars of night we hear the Palmas Reals, Cuba’s national tree, shake in the soft winds; the agricultural landscape surrounding us is a secret for now. When day breaks, and the tour begins, we see fertile valleys plowed into terraced rows, lush pinnacled mountain summits and flowing rivers the color of honey.
Banao is known throughout the island as the garlic (ajo) and onion (cebolla) capital of Cuba.   Walking through the sloped fields of La Finca Chachi farmers explain to us the 8 different varieties of cebolla they have experimented with in past years. “Cebolla Caribe is the most popular variety on the island,” says Chachi. “It’s smaller in size, but deep red and delicious to cook with. The plot to the east is our seed plot, and by January 10 the white onion flowers should be open and the whole field will be buzzing with bees.” Later in the day at La Finca Higuanojo, farm manager ArleyEnrique teaches us about Banao’s unique conditions for growing ajo y cebolla.  First, the climate is very dry in the winter growing season. Because of Banao’s mountain elevation, temperatures are cool in the night. The rolling open hills, positioned at the foothills of the mountains, provide ideal air circulation for the crops. Plots are cultivated and planted along the contours of these rolling hills allowing for gravity-fed irrigation systems. River water is temporarily diverted to flood the fields during irrigation days. As we drive north from the green fields into the town, Farmer Aristides “Chachi” Leon points to a high pyramid summit and says, “Those mountains, and the water they hold within, are what make Banao’s crops the sweetest in Cuba.”
Tobacco Roots

Tobacalero Jose Jaime Blanco Marquez demonstrates how to roll a Cuban “puro de Vinales, the best quality cigar in the world.” Jose’s farm-hut overlooks the oxen-plowed fields, his majestic plants and the sweeping valley vistas, where the art of tobacco cultivation has roots which run deep.  For at least five hundred years, tobacco growers have turned the earth of western Cuba’s Valle de Vinales, their fields often in the morning shadows of huge limestone monoliths called ‘mogotes.’  Tending daily to a plant that seems to glow and land that seems to whisper, Valle de Vinales tobacco farmers are linked to the ancestry of the land. Says Jose, “This is what we do.”
Tobacco (nicotiana tabacum) is native to the Americas and was cultivated by some of Cuba’s earliest inhabitants. Taino Indian medicine men puffed reed pipes called 'tobagos' to burn the dried leaves of the cohiba (tobacco) plant. Spanish conquistadors were the first Europeans turned on to the stimulating weed, but it wasn’t until 1580 when immigrants from the Canary Islands began producing tobacco for commercial export overseas. The native Tainos called the immigrant farmers ‘guajiro’ meaning literally ‘one of us’ because they appeared to honor and tend the plant with such admiration and care. By 1850 a railway extended into Cuba’s fertile farming grounds and new sea routes were opened up to shuttle away huge harvests of tobacco, bound for the fingertips of Europe’s elite.

Today, Cuba’s humble herb tobacco, a plant with giant, delicately soft leaves, strong stalk and fragrant white flowers filled with thousands of tiny golden seeds, is Cuba’s most important and globally-recognized agricultural crop.  In a world of plants and people, it would be difficult to find a finer example of how the culture of cultivation has shaped a landscape and the people who tend to the fragrant leaves and invaluable golden seeds.

Inspiring Land Care
Ismar Garce Palmero stands in a mulched pathway of a garden she knows well. Beyond the garden’s small fence, diesel trucks rumble down the street and children walk home with their friends. Ismar and her husband Roger Sonhesteson Anazeo manage a half-acre urban permaculture garden in Sancti Spiritus – they are ambassadors for healthy community living. The ecological design features of this garden, named El Ranchon Permacultural Criolla, are seemingly endless: a plant-based grey-water recycling system, vermiculture (composting with worms), a composting toilet for naturally fertilizing flowers, mico-irrigation, rainwater catchment, groundwater filtration system with underground irrigation for perennial plants, a riparian bio-reserve community of tadpoles, frogs, songbirds and butterflies, thousands of row feet of nutritious greens, root crops, medicinal and culinary herbs, ornamental flowers and a “vertical-gardening” experiment - and 85% of their seeds are from on-farm seed production. We ask Ismar for a garden tour and the first fifteen minutes we don’t take a single step. First she describes the importance of maximizing maturation and structural diversity in an AgroEcosystem – the soon-to-be harvested beets provide shade and water-conservation for the row of lettuce sown in the understory. When the beets are harvested, it is time to transplant the lettuce seedlings. Next Ismar harvests a large mustard leaf and describes the medicinal potency of this plant, used to combat asthma; mustard is also a pest-deterrent for other garden plants. She tells us to grown our own Collard greens because commercial producers use large amounts of pesticides on this nutrient rich crop. Next she describes the garden’s system of Integrated Pest Management, a form of organic pest control that uses diversity, flower intercropping and other ecological methods to confuse and minimize problematic pest populations. The amount of knowledge Ismar understands in one square foot of gardening space is astounding.
“Twenty-five years ago,” says Roger, “people didn’t like the garden project at first. They said our compost smelled bad. We had to educate.” The garden space, once a disco dance club and then vacant for many years, took 25 days to build. Roger continues, “For the past 16 years we have used no chemicals, for 8 years no animal manures. How do we keep our garden so healthy? Biodiversity and worm compost humus. We recycle over 100 tons of organic matter per year and we make the garden a busy place, where nature’s interactions take over. The garden becomes a symbol of the human ability to co-create something with nature – beauty, community and sustenance.”
Organoponicos and Urban Farming
Organoponico is a Cuban term for organically grown, bio-intensive, hand-cultivated urban and suburban gardens, often built with raised beds above cement, on top of previous building sites or on soil previously inhospitable to food production. Through bio-remediation techniques such as worm composting, soil bacterium inoculations and composting, soil material is created organically, enabling the growth of healthy and greatly productive gardens. One of the most important aspects of Organoponicos is that food production is located within urban populations, meaning that less energy is required to transport the harvests to the people, which greatly increases food security and healthy diets for the city dwelling population – where 75% of Cuba’s 11 million residents live.
The Alamar Vivero Organoponico is a seemingly endless urban farm of 11 hectares farmed collectively by over 175 people. The gardens, which beam with a green vibrancy only healthy soil can produce, are situated east of La Habana and were founded in 1995 during the height of the Special Period by current (democratically elected) Farm President Miguel Salcides. On our first visit to Alamar, Salcides outlined the unique characteristics of this Organoponico.  “Here at Alamar, our main goal is to support and encourage the culture of agriculture. In the 21st century, and (he laughs) even in Cuba, we have all the knowledge and infrastructure design to create ecologically sustainable food systems. All over the world, we know the scientific methods of organic growing. The most challenging component of the Agroecosystem is the Human Factor.” Indeed, it is society who decides who eats, what we eat, if we use chemicals or genetically modify seeds, and who will be the future farmers. He continues, “Our first goal is to provide a healthy social environment for our farmworkers. This component is key to long-term farm sustainability.” Miguel goes on to list their Farmworker Rights Statement: Dignity, Possibilities for Advancement, Healthy Work conditions (6 hours max work days in summer, 7 in winter), Economical Base Salary, On-Farm lunch and Breakfast for Free, Free Barbershop, Toothpaste and Basic Toiletries.
The second goal of Vivero Alamar is to raise the farmworker’s livelihoods by exploring diverse AgroEcological markets and ideas for economic advances. “We have many challenges – and some of our ideas for diversifying farmer activities include: agro-tourism, on-farm restaurants and dining, educational training delegations, production of biological fertilizer and bio-pest control products and intellectual services. This is how we are advancing in the AgroEcology realm: Intellectual Discipline.”
A third and integral part of the solution for increasing local food security and strengthening community is Education. As we walk away from the vibrant, lively fields of Vivero Alamar Organoponico, I have a new perspective on what the Cuban Agricultural Movement has to teach the world. Here’s the message from the Cuban AgroEcologists we have met so far: It is the Human component of agriculture that seeks and needs advancement. Through education, populations will understand the integral role of nutrition to long-term personal health care and well-being. Through education, people will understand how to play active roles in responsible community activism. The AgroEcological Movement of the 21st Century is a Social Movement. The key factor in creating a just and sustaining future is education, inspiration and passionate encouragement for the next generation of caretakers. Hope is in the seeds of intellect, creativity and friendship, planted in the Heart’s of the Youth.
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