HAVANA, Aug 8 (IPS) - "If you work it properly, the land here can produce anything, and with a guaranteed market. Cuba is an agricultural country. We should not have to import food," says Rubén Torres, who has made a success of farming outside of the city of Santa Clara in central Cuba.
But Cuba’s food imports grew 35 percent over the past two years, according to government reports from last December. These figures, along with the rise in prices on the international market, prompted acting President Raúl Castro to warn that it is essential to boost agricultural production. Torres works his 17-hectare farm mainly with natural methods, using organic fertilisers and pesticides, and oxen to plow. "This season I used around 26 tons of earthworm humus on my fields and I sold the rest to other farmers in the area," he told IPS in a telephone interview. His crops include vegetables, rice, coconuts and guava fruit. He belongs to the local Credit and Services Cooperatives (CCS), sells most of his products to the state, and defends ecological farming practices because "they improve and enrich the soil." Torres said it is important to fertilise land with organic matter, especially since most private farmers in Cuba today have small farms of less than two hectares, which are overworked. "Besides, the lack of inputs (like chemical fertilisers) has helped convince more people about the advantages of agroecology," he commented. The degradation of soil is one of the environmental challenges faced by Cuba in terms of making agriculture sustainable. Experts blame the situation on Cuba’s sugarcane monoculture model, which has marked the economy of this Caribbean island nation since the 18th century. "The wealth of our soils and a large part of our biodiversity have left Cuba along with each grain of sugar that we export to, among other things, buy food," complained agricultural engineer María Caridad Cruz in an article published in the Cuban magazine Temas. "It has gradually disappeared with all of the vegetation we have cut down and with the agricultural techniques we have used," she added. According to the agronomist, around 75 percent of Cuba’s farmland is degraded to some degree, and there are three million hectares with low fertility and 4.6 million with extremely low content of organic matter, while salinity affects one million hectares and medium to severe erosion affects 2.5 million hectares. At the same time, given its high level of dependence on imports of agricultural inputs, the farming industry is among the sectors hit hardest by the financial restrictions adopted by the socialist government during the economic crisis that broke out in the early 1990s, euphemistically referred to as the "special period" which, as Raúl Castro clarified on Jul. 26, has not yet come to an end. Between 1989 and 1993, Cuba’s gross domestic product shrank 35 percent, while value-added agriculture declined by 52 percent, basically due to the abrupt cut-off of supplies from what had been the country’s main sources, the Soviet Union and the East European socialist bloc, said Cruz. To deal with the crisis, which was caused mainly by the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and the East European socialist bloc, the agriculture industry underwent far-reaching changes. These involved new forms of land ownership and administration, including the 1993 creation of Basic Units of Cooperative Production (UBPC), whose members have free usufruct of the land they work, for an indefinite period. At the same time, a programme of land grants to families was launched, also involving free use of land, with the aim of bolstering production for the domestic market and increasing output of export products like tobacco and coffee. These new forms of land tenure and production were added to the Credit and Services Cooperatives (CCSs) and Agricultural Production Cooperatives (CPAs) which have existed in Cuba since the first agrarian reform, that distributed approximately 20 percent of the country’s farmland to 200,000 people in 1959, after the revolution led by Fidel Castro. The CCSs were created on the basis of associations of small farmers, who continued to own their land but grouped together with others to obtain better access to new technologies and to financing and markets. The CPAs also emerged from associations of small agricultural producers. Their initial contribution was based on the sale of their land and other means of production to the cooperatives, which then owned and worked the land collectively. The CPAs also brought their members technological, financial and market benefits. According to official data from 2006, more than 60 percent of land in Cuba is arable. But of the 6.6 million hectares of farmland, only 3.1 million are currently under cultivation, of which approximately 1.2 million are planted in sugar cane, 180,000 in rice and 806,300 in a variety of vegetables, fruits and grains. From the point of view of property ownership, 449,400 hectares on which food for domestic consumption is produced are owned by individual farmers or members of CCSs, 182,800 hectares are worked by the Basic Units of Cooperative Production (UBPCs), 77,000 belong to the CPAs and 276,700 are owned by state-run companies. Last year was a good year in terms of rainfall and lack of heavy storms in Cuba. Nevertheless, crop yields (excluding sugar cane) dropped 7.3 percent from 2005, when the island was suffering from severe drought. The livestock sector and dairy production fared no better. "Necessary structural and conceptual changes will have to be introduced" to increase production, said Raúl Castro, who also mentioned the need to provide incentives for successful farmers. To that end, the government began in July to pay higher prices to producers of beef and dairy products, and during the first half of the year paid off bulky debts to farmers and adopted measures to keep from falling into arrears again. A Cuban researcher who preferred to remain anonymous told IPS that it would be good for the agricultural industry, as well as other sectors of the Cuban economy, to open up to foreign capital, in order to gain capital, technology and markets. "There is potential for that," he commented. He also suggested the creation of a market of inputs, equipment and tools for farmers to directly purchase what they needed, something that does not currently exist. In addition, he recommended fomenting greater participation and a stronger sense of belonging for the members of cooperatives. He further called for "a process of decentralisation…because it is easier to seek solutions at the local level. Besides, what is good for one province might not be good for another," he said. Cuban officials have not concealed their concern over the rise in import costs caused by the high international prices of basic products like powdered milk (5,200 dollars a ton), milled rice (435 dollars a ton) or frozen chicken, the cost of which has soared to 1,186 dollars a ton from 500 dollars a ton just a few years ago. (END/2007