An interdisciplinary journal about regions, places, and cultures of the US South and their global connections

Visions for Sustainable Agriculture in Cuba and the United States: Changing Minds and Models through Exchange

Charles D. Thompson, Jr., Duke University
with Alexander Stephens, Marian Cheek Jackson Center

Published: 
22 March 2012
Overview: 

In this photo essay and accompanying text, Charles D. Thompson, Jr. meets Cuban farmers, explores sustainable agricultural initiatives in the island nation, and suggests the possibilities for mutually beneficial exchanges with farmers' organizations in the US South.

"Visions for Sustainable Agriculture in Cuba and the United States: Changing Minds and Models through Exchange" was selected for the Southern Spaces series Landscapes and Ecologies of the US South, a collection of innovative, interdisciplinary publications about natural and built environments.

Neither Eden nor Wasteland

Ninety miles south of Florida lies the island that PBS's Nature calls the "Accidental Eden."1 According to the show's website: "While many islands in the Caribbean have poisoned or paved over their ecological riches on land and in the sea in pursuit of a growing tourist industry, Cuba's wild landscapes have remained virtually untouched." Ironically, the photograph the PBS program chose to use on its opening page shows a site that is far from a "natural" area devoid of human intervention. Rather it is a valley called Viñales that is filled with small farms.

Charles D. Thompson, Jr., Viñales valley horse cart heading back to town, Viñales, Cuba, 2011.
Charles D. Thompson, Jr., Viñales valley horse cart heading back to town, Viñales, Cuba, 2011.

Just a three hour drive from Havana, Viñales is a popular tourist destination for foreigners who want to experience the Cuban countryside. Although it is a protected "natural" area, it is the valley's human landscape—thousands of small, working farms—that make the region uniquely picturesque. In 1976, Cuba deemed the Viñales Valley a national park while allowing the farmers to remain and tend the land as their ancestors had for centuries. In 1998, UNESCO named Viñales a World Heritage site.2 Some residents in Viñales are benefiting from tourist dollars by offering casa particulares or by working in restaurants, hotels, as musicians, etc. Most of the area's small farmers are not benefiting from tourist dollars, but that does not mean they can't.

Viñales is known for its forested hills called mogotes, its caves, and its family-run farms, most of them growing tobacco, beans, rice, corn, and other crops, and many plowed by oxen. While this Cuban valley may be a paradise of sorts, humans here are much more than spectators. Viñales farms are no accidental Edens. They display the results of generations of sacrifice and invention, of work with machete and plow. Idyllic portrayals of the natural beauty of Cuba often ignore people and their agency, relegating farmers to insignificance and citizens to passivity. People help shape the scenery, and their innovations help them manage their environments.

Charles D. Thompson, Jr., Farmer cultivates young tobacco in a field, near Viñales, Pinar del Rio, Cuba, 2011.
Charles D. Thompson, Jr., Farmer cultivates young tobacco in a field, near Viñales, Pinar del Rio, Cuba, 2011.

Even as some groups have praised the Cuban environment—accidental and otherwise—the US government has shunned the island nation. Many Americans know only a simplistic narrative of Cuba as a communist wasteland, a nation of people lacking agency and hope for any change in the absence of outside intervention. The most strident opponents of a renewed relationship with Cuba, such as Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), have sought to further limit the possibilities for engagement. Menendez strongly supported the 1992 Cuban Democracy (Torricelli) Act and the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which codified divisions between the nations and tightened the grip of the US economic embargo in an effort to force political change. Menendez, like many Cuban-Americans of his generation, opposes lifting the US ban on travel to Cuba because he believes exchange would provide additional funding to the "Castro regime," doing nothing to promote political and economic change. In July 2010 Menendez took the Senate floor to oppose an easing of travel restrictions, remarking that more opportunities for US citizens to go to Cuba "will not make conditions for the Cuban people any better or change the history of brutality of the Castro regime—a brutality that continues to this day."3

Views like Menendez's reflect an inconsistency in US foreign policy when it comes to our closest Caribbean neighbor. The United States is willing to cultivate relationships with countries with human rights conditions that the State Department deems similarly flawed to Cuba's in the interest of exchanging ideas and advancing trade.4 Rather than cutting off contact, the United States maintains relationships while attempting to promote progress toward civil and human rights. If the goal is to advance the rights of Cuban citizens, an open line of communication is essential. If US policy is founded on a notion that Cuba has nothing to teach, it is profoundly near-sighted. The United States, and particularly agricultural areas of the US South, shares with Cuba the challenge of sustainably growing food and fiber without despoiling water and soils, and harming the people doing the work. These challenges transcend national borders.

Charles D. Thompson, Jr., Russian Belarus tractor from the Soviet period, Trinidad, Cuba, 2010.
Charles D. Thompson, Jr., Russian Belarus tractor from the Soviet period, Trinidad, Cuba, 2010.

Between the fanciful extremes of Eden and evil empire lies a third way: understanding Cuba as a potential interlocutor regarding sustainable agriculture. New voices call for dialogue between US and Cuban citizens engaged in a burgeoning organic farm and garden movement in both countries. Dialogue between Cuban agriculturalists and their counterparts in the United States can further collective knowledge and improve environmental conditions.

To understand sustainable agricultural initiatives in Cuba and to envision future exchanges, I organized a research team and obtained an academic visa for travel in December 2010 and January 2011. With help from US and Canadian organizations, we arranged visits to experimental sites and meetings with some of Cuba's foremost agricultural innovators. Most memorably, during our two week trip we got to know some farmers and gardeners. I came back to the United States convinced that those of us working on building a sustainable and just agricultural economy must be engaged with what is happening in Cuba.

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Learning from the Past, Enduring the Present

Following the Cuban Revolution (1953–1959), the Soviet Union's (USSR) agricultural imperatives drove the island toward state-run farms, marginalizing many family run operations. The breakup of the USSR in 1990 spelled the end of Soviet agricultural influence but intensified Cuban food shortages. Cuba began to look within for solutions, finding indigenous knowledge and encouraging local innovation. Exaggerated praise for developments in the country's sustainable agriculture belies the reality that Cuba is no utopia. Popular descriptions often oversimplify the narrative of Cuba's sustainable agriculture. For example, the website of the Durham, North Carolina, non-profit NEEM (Natural Environment Ecological Management) features a narrative sketch that labels the rise of organic garden collectives in Cuban cities "the urban agriculture miracle."5 Others have suggested that we can expect "an ecological agriculture" in Cuba's future.6

Charles D. Thompson, Jr., Fallow, newly plowed, and re-growing sugarcane fields, east of Trinidad, Cuba, 2010.
Charles D. Thompson, Jr., Fallow, newly plowed, and re-growing sugarcane fields, east of Trinidad, Cuba, 2010.

In much sustainable agriculture praise of Cuba, we do not hear that the country (like the United States) has confinement hog and chicken houses, that major US food conglomerates are already selling vast quantities of grain and other products there, or that the embargo on trade with Cuba does not apply to US agribusiness. We are not told that thousands work in small farming because they have no other option.

Charles D. Thompson, Jr., Early morning in Viñales, a sign depicting a common form of farm transport along with one of thousands of US vehicles from the 1950s still on the road thanks to Cuban ingenuity, Viñales, Cuba, January 2011.
Charles D. Thompson, Jr., Early morning in Viñales, a sign depicting a common form of farm transport along with one of thousands of US vehicles from the 1950s still on the road, thanks to Cuban ingenuity, Viñales, Cuba, January 2011.

Agricultural work is popular in Cuba, in part, because state-supported income is drying up for hundreds of thousands of wage earners and there is often nowhere else to turn but to small-scale farms and gardens. Yet much of Cuba's former sugarcane land, once a volatile but powerful economic life-force, is idle and in poor condition. Even with its admirable innovations in sustainable and organic farming, Cuba's domestic agricultural producers cannot meet the food needs of the island's population; there is a real sense of food insecurity. Looking for food (in dollar stores, on the black market, legally), is a major pre-occupation for much of the population. Cuba imports at least 80 percent of its food, with much of it coming from its largest trading partners—China and Venezuela. This is hardly a sustainable scenario, and while there does not appear to be starvation in Cuba, food shortages remain a problem, even as the government's meager food rationing is fading.7 However, household food insecurity is also on the rise in the United States today. According to the US Department of Agriculture at least 14.5% of US households were food insecure at some time during the year in 2010, up from 11% in 2005.8

Most Cubans lack housing options and do not have money for home repairs. They crowd onto public transportation that, on a good day, can take them twenty miles. To supplement their incomes, many people rent rooms in their homes, sell black market cigars in Havana or offer services to tourists on the street—ranging from help finding the "best" nearby restaurant to sexual favors. Nearly all Cubans are underemployed, even though most are better educated and receive better healthcare than many of their Caribbean neighbors. Many Cubans receive help from relatives living abroad, including in the United States.

Charles D. Thompson, Jr., A lettuce grower in Trinidad looks at a milk rationing line where families must show ration cards to obtain their daily quota. Trinidad, Cuba, December 2010.
Charles D. Thompson, Jr., A lettuce grower in Trinidad looks at a milk rationing line where families must show ration cards to obtain their daily quota, Trinidad, Cuba, December 2010.

With Cuba developing closer ties to the US agriculture industry, increasing its trade with China, and, with Venezuela's help, poised to explore oil fields off its northern coast, we cannot assume that the island nation will adopt a model of ecological sustainability.9 Resistance to the onslaught of ecologically destructive development that looms on Cuba's horizon will come through cooperation and exchange, not isolation.

What we do know about Cuba's agricultural innovations is that domestic shortages brought on by the end of Soviet subsidies and the US embargo forced the Cuban government to seek alternative solutions. This entailed ceding some degree of power to its innovative citizen farmers and gardeners who have, in turn, helped create an alternative to industrial agriculture through the formation of organic garden cooperatives known as "organopónicos," local distribution channels, information exchanges, and the like.10 Urban dwellers, many of them university trained, some of them scientists, have joined cooperative gardens in the cities. Working toward sustainability, Cuba's rural farmers have received new freedoms to produce for more open markets. Such policy changes, along with newly revamped farms and numerous urban gardens, have contributed to a much-needed increase in the country's food supply since the early 1990s.11 While overall food production in Cuba in 2010 was lower than in 2005, the organic movement coupled with local sales and farmers' pocketing some of the profit, is one area of progress.12

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Opportunities for a Sustainable Future

Charles D. Thompson, Jr., A small vegetable patch in Pinar del Rio, Cuba, January 2011.
Charles D. Thompson, Jr., A small vegetable patch in Pinar del Rio, Cuba, January 2011.

The first stop on our trip was Vívero Alamar, one of the best known organopónicos in Havana, founded by Miguel Salcines Lopez, who also serves as the elected president. He graciously spent a morning with us, beginning by talking about Cuba's history of agriculture. "Cuba's first farmers were slaves," Miguel said, and because of this past as well as Cuba's history of development, people did not want to enter agriculture. Cubans filled the cities, and the countryside soon depended on sugar exports alone. At its height, over 5 million acres were planted in sugarcane, and 160 different refineries dotted the landscape.13 This system created a dependency on one export crop and established a precedent for importing everything else. "The whole diet was based on imported food," Miguel said.

When the USSR collapsed and ceased buying sugar at inflated prices—over five times the going international rate—and the United States continued its embargo (called a blockade by Cubans) on agricultural and other inputs, Cuba urgently explored ways to produce its own food. "The blockade was beneficial in one way for Cuba," added Miguel, "otherwise the talent would have left."

Because of a lack of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and machinery, the island nation turned to organic fertilization and pest control, all run by trained scientists, such as Miguel. "If we hadn't gone organic, we'd have starved!" The goals were to avoid eating imports and to become self-sufficient in food. We met scores of people, young and old, engaged in harvest. We met a scientist named Marisol, who was conducting a lab experiment involving beneficial insects. We found her bent over a microscope in a small shed in the middle of the fields, her child playing nearby. We saw acres and acres of picture-perfect organic vegetables.

 Charles D. Thompson, Jr., Farmers near Trinidad planting watercress for later sale in town. Trinidad, Cuba, December 2010.
Charles D. Thompson, Jr., Farmers near Trinidad planting watercress for later sale in town, Trinidad, Cuba, December 2010.

Miguel characterized the impressive system they have built as a "biological machine" with everything self-contained. One hundred and eighty-one workers are employed by the garden. We were impressed by the organipónico's sense of organization, its members' dedication to having a biologically cyclical operation with no outside inputs, and most of all by the cooperative's amazing production of healthy vegetables. Miguel claimed they are producing two hundred tons per acre off the plots, and we could see that production was at full-bore in December 2010. The diversity and the extent of crop production result from the number of hands that have carefully infused life into the plots. These gardens stand in sharp contrast to fields worked by machines on commercial farms, and unlike the land on monocultural, industrial farms, which declines in quality, the soil at the organopónico becomes richer with time and layers of vermiculture compost. Miguel and his colleagues are feeding over five thousand weekly, and lines of people form outside the gates daily to purchase the results of their work. "There is much to do," he said. "The market is waiting."

There is a long list of people waiting to join the garden project at Vívero Alamar, both for the nutritional benefits and the income. We learned that while the minimum monthly salary in Cuba is around 250 Cuban pesos (approximately 25 Cuban pesos to the American dollar), the minimum brought in by members of the organopónico is 350, with as much as 700 for a number of leaders. While markets function differently in the United States, similar models should be profitable here. Agriculture researchers are looking for ways to reverse the losses of family farms in the US South by locating organic, sustainable markets. The Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) in Raleigh, North Carolina, is one of the best examples of a US organization using sustainable agriculture to create jobs and further social justice in economically depressed areas.14 There is a growing market emphasizing "locavorism," with restaurants, cookbooks, and blogs supporting and promoting local foodways. Considering the parallels in their work, it would seem mutually beneficial for groups such as CEFS and Vívero Alamar to cultivate a relationship of exchange.

Charles D. Thompson, Jr., Community plot with 10 members named
Charles D. Thompson, Jr., Community plot with 10 members named "Organoponico Manaca Iznaga," Trinidad, Cuba, 2010.

The day after leaving the organopónico we met with Dr. Fernando Funes, internationally recognized leader of the sustainable agriculture movement in Cuba. His son, also Fernando, who increasingly has stepped into his father's leadership role, told us, "My father was a farmer, and I thought he was backward." Young Fernando changed his mind as he witnessed commercial agriculture using tremendous amounts of fertilizers and other imports and began to realize that local farming knowledge was of critical importance. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, during what came to be called the "Special Period," Cuba was unable to feed its people. This stark situation prompted frantic searches for innovative approaches and an eventual change to biological-intensive—as opposed to chemical-intensive—means of production. The government opened over three hundred agricultural research stations.15

Where urban agriculture had been prohibited previously because of the danger of chemical exposure, Fernando explained, after the policy change the number of gardens immediately shot up to over two hundred. Some 375,000 people joined the ranks of rooftop and vacant lot gardeners. "They were producing something to eat," Fernando said. The government supplied the land and opened channels of distribution. In the first year any new group of gardeners could secure the right to cultivate approximately thirty-three acres and, with success, this could double the next year, and triple in three years to a hundred acres.

Dr. Funes published Sustainable Agriculture and Resistance: Transforming Food Production in Cuba with food activist Dr. Peter Rosset (formerly with the US organization Food First), and is widely known as an international ambassador for Cuba's sustainable agriculture. Funes' organization, the Asociación Cubana de Agricultura Orgánica (ACAO), received the Right Livelihood Award in 1999. His affability and intelligence drew us in, and we left believing that new leaders and groups would continue to learn from his example.16

Charles D. Thompson, Jr., Humberto Ríos Labrada looks over a farm research plot. Pinar del Rio, Cuba, December 2010.
Charles D. Thompson, Jr., Humberto Ríos Labrada looks over a farm research plot, Pinar del Rio, Cuba, December 2010.

The following day we spent with Dr. Humberto Ríos Labrada, of the Cuban National Institute of Agricultural Sciences, and the recipient of the Goldman Prize in 2010 for his community-based research with Cuban farmers. We accompanied Humberto to talk with the "guajiros" (the nickname for people from the Cuban countryside) with whom he works daily. As we drove the four-lane road to Pinar del Rio, Humberto told us his organization works with a network of 55,000 farmers in seed sharing and farm-based research. Charged initially with increasing squash production in Cuba, Humberto began holding meetings with farmers who showed up to participate in an effort to find new seed varieties and improve their yields. Humberto recognized the need to turn the traditional extension model upside down. Instead of the scientists being the "experts", Humberto realized that the farmers themselves cultivated the necessary knowledge and crop diversity. The participation of farmers expanded exponentially, starting with a few hundred and increasing by the thousands. The opportunity to learn from the success of such grassroots organizing campaigns among farmers is another compelling reason for exchange across the Florida Straights.

Maria and Augostín (in hat) with their only son Royber and Maria's brother, a neighboring farmer, pictured on the patio at their farm. Pinar del Rio, Cuba, January 2011.
Charles D. Thompson, Jr., Maria and Augostín (in hat) with their only son Royber and Maria's brother, a neighboring farmer, pictured on the patio at their farm, Pinar del Rio, Cuba, January 2011.

At midday we arrived at the farm of Maria Valido, Agustín Pimental, and their son Royber in Pinar del Rio, near Viñales. Royber, completing his degree in agronomy at the local university, was conducting experiments on the family farm, including one plot with seventy three different varieties of beans. This family and thousands of others like them began alternative agriculture in 2002 with Humberto Ríos's encouragement. Suddenly farmers were sharing their knowledge and seed varieties together in meetings of campesinos. The family was eager to tell us about their operation, how they came to some of their innovations (Royber's father had built a methane digester), and how their seeds performed.

Charles D. Thompson, Jr., Farmhouse fitted with solar collector provided by a grant from the French government. Viñales Valley, Cuba, January 2011.
Charles D. Thompson, Jr., Farmhouse fitted with solar collector provided by a grant from the French government, Viñales Valley, Cuba, January 2011.

"Farmers listen with their eyes," said Agustín. By seeing results on other farms, they could duplicate and improve their own work. On this little piece of land, our research team found hope and innovation, and some of the friendliest smiles and open, informed attitudes we had experienced in Latin America. We left glowing, having consumed farm-raised food and taken in a large helping of farm entrepreneurship that included not only experiments with plant breeding and food preservation, but also solar and methane energy production. We took away a feeling that true exchange had taken place, and that we were the primary beneficiaries.

Charles D. Thompson, Jr., Osiris Cueto weighs produce for her customer at the Mercado Agropecuario Beleu. Old Havana, Cuba, December 2010.
Charles D. Thompson, Jr., Osiris Cueto weighs produce for her customer at the Mercado Agropecuario Beleu, Old Havana, Cuba, December 2010.

If farmers could reach tourists and sell food directly as in the urban casas particulares where we stayed, people would pay handsomely to eat farm-raised food on a farm in place of the typical tourist fare. Humberto had explained that marketing ideas are as important as technical innovations. Miguel Salcines's ideas for distribution are why many are flocking to join. The Vívero Alamar group has reached thousands of consumers because of the cooperative's marketing, which includes an attractive farm stand with a cane press where people can buy fresh sugarcane juice as they buy their produce. Necessity is the driving force, but marketing keeps income rolling in for the members. Agritourism has already developed in parts of the US South. Autumn drivers along the Blue Ridge Parkway can see apple orchards filled with tourists picking fruit. Likewise, a chance to try one's hand at a plow powered by a pair of oxen, for example, might intrigue adventurous tourists in Cuba. Agritourism, of course, is no simple or straightforward solution, as historic experience with tourism and agritourism shows. If farmers and local communities are not in control, tourism could create greater inequalities and exacerbate food insecurity. Therefore any emphasis on tourism has to take into account who owns and controls the local food system.

Charles D. Thompson, Jr., Tomás Pérez Ricardo, a recent graduate in agronomy, sells produce he raises on his own plot in downtown Trinidad, Cuba, January, 2010.
Charles D. Thompson, Jr., Tomás Pérez Ricardo, a recent graduate in agronomy, sells produce he raises on his own plot in downtown Trinidad, Cuba, January, 2010.

The next morning was Christmas day and we visited a small alley market named Agropecuario Beleu in Havana. We met Osiris Cueto, a buyer/seller who manages a small stall. She taught us how the Cuban agricultural authorities broker the sales of vegetables and fruits. Each seller registers with a market officer, charges a fixed price, and takes a percentage of the profit for the day, paying some of the return to the government. From Osiris we learned why growers would surely welcome the chance to sell directly to consumers. A policy change in December 2011 was supposed to permit just that.17

Charles D. Thompson, Jr., Pedro Rodriguez Pérez, Vice-President of the Organoponico Manaca Iznaga, looking over the vegetables he and nine other farmers grow for a living. In the background is the infamous tower in the Valle de los Ingeneros where slave owners overlooked their workers in fields. Trinidad, Cuba, December 2010.
Charles D. Thompson, Jr., Pedro Rodriguez Pérez, Vice-President of the Organoponico Manaca Iznaga, looking over the vegetables he and nine other farmers grow for a living. In the background is the infamous tower in the Valle de los Ingeneros where slave owners overlooked their workers in fields, Trinidad, Cuba, December 2010.

That afternoon we left on a bus for Trinidad, another UNESCO world heritage site on the south coast. Lacking prior introductions did not seem to matter. The first day, I met Tomás Pérez Ricardo and his uncle on the street corner, selling produce from their small semi-rural organopónico named "Framboyan." Tomás, like the farmers we had met in Pinar del Rio, was gracious, proud of his work, and eager to share both produce and ideas. After visiting his house and farm the next day, I was impressed by how promising this young man believed his garden work to be and how open he was to sharing its message. Riding a horse-drawn cart to town and living in a modest cinderblock house, Tomás had no designs on getting rich, but he saw the possibilities for raising a family on vegetable sales. This sense of hope from agriculture has been a rarity in the developing world. For years, hope for economic prosperity has also eluded many small farmers in the US South. With the growing market for local and sustainably-produced food, the rural United States is beginning to benefit from employment associated with sustainable agriculture. And in Cuba, with only 20% of the market supplied by local production, there is plenty of room for more newcomers like Tomás.

Charles D. Thompson, Jr., Pedro Rodriguez Pérez harvests cabbage as his grandson looks on. Trinidad, Cuba, 2010.
Charles D. Thompson, Jr., Pedro Rodriguez Pérez harvests cabbage as his grandson looks on, Trinidad, Cuba, 2010.

The next day we drove past thousands of acres of fallow sugarcane fields on our way to yet another UNESCO world heritage site, the Valley of the Ingenios (sugarcane mills) and specifically to the Manaca Iznaga estate. A tower, constructed for overseeing slaves in the fields nearly two centuries earlier, still looms over the old plantation. In the nearby garden of Organopónico Primero de Mayo, I could see the tower, as the ancestors of former slaves worked at a site of cooperation and member ownership. I imagined how non-profits working with former sharecropping families in the Mississippi Delta and Appalachia could find this model relevant.

The garden at Primero de Mayo grows eight kinds of vegetables with seeds supplied by the state. Ten members share the proceeds of the produce sold in the streets. The vice-president of the cooperative garden, Pedro Rodriguez Pérez, explained that while the government supplied the land and seeds, the more the members sell, the more they make. The cooperative pays a percentage back to the government, but there is incentive in reaching more customers. The model is not yet generating enough income to allow farm families to have economic autonomy from state subsidies (the same is true of US farmers). Even so, I appreciated watching a grandfather and grandson working side-by-side on land over which they had some say. The tradition of acquiring agricultural knowledge via parent or grandparent remains alive in Cuba in a way that it does not in most parts of the United States. This is largely because of efforts by organizations of small farmers between the Revolution and the Special Period.18

Charles D. Thompson, Jr., Tobacco farmer with his chickens and turkeys. Viñales, Cuba, January 2011.
Charles D. Thompson, Jr., Tobacco farmer with his chickens and turkeys, Viñales, Cuba, January 2011.

After spending the next night in Havana, we set out for Viñales. We had seen the edge of the region before, but had not quite reached the valley and round hills that appear in so many photographs, the actual location designated as the world heritage site. Our most important goal there was to meet farmers and, based on our previous experiences, we trusted we would find people willing to talk.

We met an energetic young farmer named Noél Parrapito our first day there. For two days he took us through the Viñales Valley where we met ten other farmers, sampled their tobacco, ate their produce and home-raised chicken, and learned about their animal husbandry—from their close work with oxen to their horseback riding skills and horse carts. Those skills, juxtaposed with solar technology, water purification, and a generally high literacy rate, spoke of something more than harkening back to yesteryear. Time-after-time when we explained that we were from the United States, our acquaintances replied with both warmth and surprise: warmth because of an association with so many family members and former neighbors who now live there; and surprise because no one from the United States had ever visited them before.

I found myself thinking at those times how lucky we were to be there—to be the first Americans to go there—knowing how much damage tourism as mentioned on the PBS Nature program had done in other places. I felt sadness as well, knowing how much the indigenous knowledge that these farmers possess was all but inaccessible to thousands of young people in the United States. This feeling was particularly acute because the farmers we met struck me as keenly interested in exchanging knowledge and ideas.

Charles D. Thompson, Jr., Vívero Alamar, a cooperative farmer, feeds the oxen after a morning's work. Trinidad?, Cuba, December 2010.
Charles D. Thompson, Jr., Vívero Alamar, a cooperative farmer, feeds the oxen after a morning's work, Havana, Cuba, December 2010.

With Noél, with whom we shared several meals and lots of conversation while on horseback, we talked about "agritourism." How many people would pay to live on his farm, learn to work with oxen, and cultivate rice, corn, and the huge variety of animals and vegetables he produces? He perked up at the idea and wanted me to repeat the word the next day. He was a patient teacher, showing us every insect, plant, cave, and soil type we passed in the Valley.

Charles D. Thompson, Jr., Casava grown and shown by farmer Noél Parrapito. Viñales, Cuba, January 2011.
Charles D. Thompson, Jr., Casava grown and shown by farmer Noél Parrapito, Viñales, Cuba, January 2011.

Could farmers begin to rent their homes to visitors, a program already allowed by the government in urban areas? Could visitors work on the cooperative garden projects with innovators like Miguel Salcines and learn biological farming techniques? Could agritourism fit with the Viñales Valley model? And if it works in Cuba, what are the opportunities for us in the US South to learn through exchange? Too often in the United States, the people who are trying to combine sustainable agriculture and tourism were not raised in these traditions. There are obvious differences between the aesthetics of their fields and those of experienced farmers with years of inherited wisdom. The Cuban farmers we met take great pride in the appearance of their plots, and for tourists appearance is a significant selling point. In both countries, the larger the profits generated by sustainable farms, the stronger the case for more alternatives to industrial agriculture.

Charles D. Thompson, Jr., The view Tomás Pérez Ricardo, age 25, and his wife wake to each morning. Trinidad, Cuba, December 2010.
Charles D. Thompson, Jr., The view Tomás Pérez Ricardo, age 25, and his wife wake to each morning, Trinidad, Cuba, December 2010.

On the last day of our research trip, shortly after New Year's Day, we took the public bus to Humberto's farm and heard his band play songs about seed sharing and agriculture. He and his band use their music, as shown on the Goldman Prize website, for outreach and education.19

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Conclusion: A Call for Exchange

Charles D. Thompson, Jr., Royber Pimental Valido shows here some home bottled mango concentrate grown and processed on the farm. Pinar del Rio, Cuba, January 2011.
Charles D. Thompson, Jr., Royber Pimental Valido shows here some home bottled mango concentrate grown and processed on the farm, Pinar del Rio, Cuba, January 2011.

Individuals and small groups can begin to heal historic wounds between two countries—through common experiences, work, and dialogue. I came back to the United States enriched beyond measure, not by internalizing the policies of agriculture over the last century or even what might make an organopónico movement run better, but by human exchanges and in-person meetings.

We should invent ways to enable visitors who are prepared to listen and learn to go to Cuba, as well as ways to bring farmers and technicians from Cuba to work in the US South. The dialogue of resistance to imperialism in Cuba can help inform the politics of the US sustainable agriculture movement. And with political and economic changes imminent in Cuba, there are lessons to be learned from US organizations confronting corporate agriculture. It would be tragic if loosened commercial restrictions in Cuba resulted in planting an agribusiness model there that we are desperately trying to get away from in our own country. As Fernando Funes put it, the inclusion of small farmers through redistribution of resources "makes them critical actors in the new reconfigured economy."20 Cuban people, particularly rural people, are the true wealth of the island. Most are literate, savvy about change, and have developed opinions about workable solutions. The potential for exchange between Cuba and the US South offers a collective possibility for agricultural sustainability, an exchange that must overcome boundaries between nations.

Acknowledgments

The authors gratefully acknowledge the contribution of researcher Hope Shand to this essay.

About the Authors

A native son of Franklin County, Virginia, author and filmmaker Charles D. Thompson, Jr. is the curriculum and education director at the Center for Documentary Studies and a lecturer in cultural anthropology at Duke University. His latest book, Spirits of Just Men: Mountaineers, Liquor Bosses, and Lawmen in the Moonshine Capital of the World, was published on the University of Illinois Press in 2011.

Originally from Athens, Georgia, Alexander Stephens is an associate director at the Marian Cheek Jackson Center for Saving and Making History. He completed a semester of study in Havana, Cuba, before graduating with a degree in Latin American Studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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Recommended Resources

Print

Funes, Fernando, Luis García, Martin Bourque, Nilda Pérez, Peter Rosset, eds. Sustainable Agriculture and Resistance. Oakland, CA: Food First Books, 2002.

Jackson, Wes. Consulting the Genius of the Place: An Economic Approach to New Agriculture. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2010.

Marino, Soraya M. Castro and Ronald W. Pruesson, eds. Fifty Years of Revolution: Perspectives on Cuba, the United States, and the World. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2012.

Rosset, Peter and Medea Benjamin, eds. The Greening of the Revolution: Cuba's Experiment with Organic Agriculture. Melbourne, Australia: Ocean Press, 1994.

Sergio Diaz-Briquets, Jorge Perez-Lopez. Conquering Nature: The Environmental Legacy of Socialism in Cuba. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000.

Stricker, Pamela. Toward a Culture of Nature: Environmental Policy and Sustainable Development in Cuba. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007.

Web

Center for Environmental Farming Systems
http://www.cefs.ncsu.edu/

Mark, Jason. "Growing It Alone: Urban Organic Agriculture on the Island of Cuba," Earth Island Journal vol. 22 no. 1 (Spring 2007).
http://www.earthisland.org/journal/index.php/eij/article/growing_it_alone/

Related Southern Spaces Publications

Campbell, Brian C. "'Closest to Everlastin'': Ozark Agricultural Biodiversity and Subsistence Traditions." Southern Spaces, September 20, 2010. http://southernspaces.org/2010/closest-everlastin-ozark-agricultural-biodiversity-and-subsistence-traditions.

Thompson, Charles D. "Documenting Migrants: An Interview with Charles D. Thompson." Southern Spaces, August 29, 2011. http://southernspaces.org/2011/documenting-migrants-interview-charles-d-thompson-jr.

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