photo by WAYNE ELLWOOD
In the face of desperate urban food shortages Cubans have been
encouraged to grow their own - organically.
‘There, those roots at the end, that’s the part we eat.’ Jorge Antunis has been yanking yucca plants out of the ground to show me the results of his labours. We’re standing in the middle of his ‘farm’, a patch of formerly idle land only minutes away from the Plaza of the Revolution in central Havana. Jorge scrapes some of the dirt off the root and then hacks the bulbous tubers from the main stem of the spindly plant with a whack of his machete.
‘Six years ago,’ he tells me proudly, ‘there was nothing planted here.’ We’re standing under a canopy of banana leaves trying to escape the noon-day sun. Across the street are three large apartment buildings where Jorge and the six other families that work this inner-city garden live. The plot, maybe a thousand square metres, is intensely cultivated. In addition to the yucca and banana, there are tomatoes, sugar cane, plantain, beans, malanga (a potato-like root crop), citrus trees, lettuce and even a small beehive at the far corner of the plantain patch.
‘The land was rocky and worn-out at first,’ Jorge explains. ‘One of the first things we had to do was rebuild the soil with new organic material and manure.’
To do that Jorge and his neighbours got help from Havana’s Urban Agriculture Department, part of a program which began in January 1991 to encourage city-dwellers to grow their own food. In addition to these huertos populares (popular gardens), the Government has cleared the way for an impressive system of larger organic gardens called organoponicos. Sometimes these are run by the State (the Cuban military has dozens of them), sometimes they’re connected to a particular workplace and used to funnel vegetables directly to the employees. And at times they operate as self-financing small businesses. Organoponicos tend to be larger than the private gardens and are run with meticulous care.
My guide this morning, Manuel Gonsalvez, is an extension worker from the Urban Agriculture Department. He is an energetic 38-year-old with a tooth-brush moustache and a backward baseball cap. One of his main tasks is to show people how to garden without chemicals.
Jorge complains to him that his peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers are being devoured by pests. Manuel listens, then explains what can be done. ‘By planting a mixture of plants (some Spanish oregano here, some marigolds there) around the food crops you use nature to your advantage. You end up with a biological struggle, a system of good bugs and bad bugs which create an equilibrium.’
Jorge nods, not totally convinced. For most people working in the city gardens, organic produce is a completely new concept. But since chemical pesticides and fertilizers are expensive and in short supply, they’re willing to learn.